When I was a kid, I was afraid of heights. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t afraid of heights. It wasn’t as though some traumatic experience made me that way, at least nothing I can remember. Back in my teens, living in California, someone once told me, very sincerely, that something might have happened in a past life, like I fell from a castle. And as crazy as that might sound, it’s honestly one of the only explanations that made much sense to me, although as a Lord of the Rings fan I liked to think I’d fallen off a dragon.
Some of my fear of heights was reasonable, I think. I didn’t like going to the tops of tall buildings, or riding really high rollercoasters, or even riding ski lifts. But some of it was embarrassing, at least for a kid trying to fit in. Especially for a tall kid—I was always much taller than my classmates, sometimes by several inches, so it seemed like I shouldn’t be afraid of heights. I mean, I lived up there, right? However, I was afraid to climb to the top of a jungle gym, or even walk across a balance beam in gym class. And I never, ever climbed a tree.
So, when I was in Sunday School and heard the story of Zacchaeus, which I seemed to hear a lot, all I could think of was him climbing that tree to see Jesus. I didn’t really register that he was climbing it because of the crowds. Somehow, I had it in my head that Zacchaeus was doing something incredibly brave, especially as a man who’s short of stature, someone who, to my little-kid way of thinking, really should be afraid of heights. Because I grew up in the '70s, the picture I had in my head for Zacchaeus was of Jack LaLanne, although somewhere along the line I think I started turning him into Danny DeVito.
Anyway, many of us have a lot of deep associations with the story of Zacchaeus. Who remembers the Sunday School song?
Zacchaeus was a wee little man And a wee little man was he He climbed up in a sycamore tree For the Lord he wanted to see And when the Savior passed that way He looked up in the tree And said, 'Zacchaeus, you come down! For I'm going to your house today! For I'm going to your house today!'
Along with whatever childhood associations we have with the story, we have a lot of associations with what it means. First of all, we we’re told that Zaccheus was a tax collector. In the Gospel of Luke, tax collectors get mentioned a lot; just last week, we talked about the Pharisee and the tax collector, and there’s at least five other mentions of them elsewhere in the Gospel.
It would be hard to overstate just how much tax collectors were hated during Jesus’ time. They often collected more than they should, took bribes, and skimmed off the top. And if there was anything worse than being a tax collector, it was being the chief tax collector. The chief tax collector employed field collectors to make the collections out in his region. It’s like the everyday tax collectors were bookies and Zacchaeus the local mob boss. Luke is making the point here that Zacchaeus—at least at first glance, to the crowd that has kept him from seeing Jesus—is among the worst of the sinners.
So, when Zacchaeus encounters Jesus, and tells Jesus that from now on he will give to the poor and repay anyone who has been cheated four times what they’re owed, it feels like a conversion story. The worst of the sinners, the most hated kind of person in that community of that time, has not only been saved by Jesus, but invited into Jesus’ inner circle. And for folks like me, who grew up Evangelical, the story was told as a kind of inspiration. No one who is lost can’t be found. And it was up to us, then, to go out and identify those sinners—you know, who we weren’t anything like—and try to save their souls.
And this isn’t a completely wrong way to read the story. As we know, from our experience, and even from our tax collector story last week, there are many fellow children of God who have chosen to turn away from the love of God, a choice which sometimes results in sin. And sometimes it is through an encounter with Jesus that such a person is reminded that they are so loved that Jesus wants to actually come to their house and be with them. Back in Jesus’ time, this might have happened in person, or, in our time, through hearing the Gospel at church on Sunday. There are, in fact, times and places when a person is newly brought into Jesus’ inner circle to receive His love and forgiveness.
But Grace, what if we’ve been reading the Zacchaeus story incorrectly? What if the lost that Jesus came to save wasn’t Zacchaeus, but those in the crowd who stood around and called him a sinner? The ones who kept Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus in the first place. One reason we may have been reading the Zacchaeus story incorrectly comes down to a very short word with very tall implications. And that is "will." As in, “I will give to the poor,” and “I will pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus’s way of speaking about his generosity in the future tense is what everything in our traditional interpretation of the Zacchaeus story hinges on.
However, in recent years, some Biblical scholars and interpreters have argued that these two verbs, “give” and “pay,” should actually be translated in the present tense, so that they read, “Look, Lord, I give half my possessions to the poor.” And, “ . . . if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.” This is what we find in the Common English Bible, a relatively new translation created about 10 years ago by 120 scholars from 24 faith traditions in American, African, Asian, European, and Latino communities.
When Zacchaeus’ generosity is proclaimed in the present tense, everything changes. Zacchaeus isn’t converted to living righteously by his encounter with Jesus. Instead, Zacchaeus is recognized by Jesus as already being righteous. Unlike our Pharisee from last week who proclaimed his fasting and tithing as a way of feeling superior to others, Zacchaeus proclaims his generosity as a way of identifying his solidarity with Jesus. Similarly, Jesus responds by asking Zacchaeus to come to his house not because Jesus is celebrating his conversion, but because he recognizes Zacchaeus as someone who is living under the rules of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of love says we give generously, even absurdly. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of justice says that we don’t just make things equal for someone who has been taken advantage of. We pay them back at least four times what they’re owed. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s love is not transactional, human rules of basic “fairness” do not apply, those who have been treated unjustly are wildly and extravagantly blessed. Jesus recognizes that Zacchaeus understands this. Zacchaeus isn’t the one who needs saving.
And you know who doesn’t understand it? The crowd who has been listening to Jesus, the crowds who prevented Zacchaeus, whom they had already decided was the greatest sinner of all, from seeing Jesus. Think about it for a second. There’s no good reason that Zacchaeus had to climb that tree. The crowd could have easily parted and made way for Zacchaeus to come to the front. They could have even put him on their shoulders. Instead, the crowd, who has been listening to Jesus teach them how to love extravagantly, actually prevents Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus.
Grace, how often do we let our preconceptions of people different from us block those people from seeing Jesus, including the Jesus in us? As we gather to hear the words of Jesus in this beautiful building this Sunday morning, there are all kinds of people unlike us just outside that door, in this town, this county, this country, this world. And when we see those people as different from us, or more in need of salvation than us, we create a separation. Sometimes it’s consciously, maybe no more so than in moments like this, less than two weeks before midterm elections. We have ideas about whether someone’s political affiliations mean they are or are not loved by Jesus. Many people of color and our queer siblings have been prevented from seeing Jesus by people who think they are the ones meant to see Jesus.
Sometimes our separation is totally unconscious. Many years ago, I was involved with a ministry for teenagers with severe physical disabilities, from spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy to spina bifida. Many were disfigured, many were in complicated power wheelchairs, and part of our ministry was to take them out to do normal teenager stuff, like going to the movies or summer camp or even senior prom. Wherever we went, even churches full of the followers of Jesus, people cleared a wide path from the kids in their wheelchairs, turned their backs, scared and even repulsed by someone so unlike them.
But perhaps one of the greatest separations we create is between us and those in a different financial situation from us. Specifically, those, like Zacchaeus, who may be wealthier than us. We live in a time where economic disparity has never been greater, and where there has never been so much wealth concentrated in the hands of people who can influence the way the rest of us live our daily lives. And we are right to question and even resist the systems of power that have created these inequities. But when we unthinkingly categorize all the rich as sinners, we not only prevent them from seeing Jesus in us, we also prevent ourselves from seeing how some of them might be giving abundantly and generously, according to the just rules of the Kingdom of God.
Grace Church, we have no idea what a person’s inner life is like, what their relationship to God consists of. They may have drastically different political opinions than us. They may have committed crimes for which they are now serving time or may have in the past served time. They may be hiding an addiction that has plagued them for most of their life. They may find themselves in a body that doesn’t look like ours or work like ours works. They may be far wealthier or far poorer than us.
And yet, these people, our Zacchaeuses, may also be examples of God’s justice and generosity in ways that, if we could only see them as Jesus sees them, would save us. Save us from our self-righteousness. Save us from our inability to see people past our biases and prejudices. Save us from our reluctance to give freely out of our resources, not just four times as much, but as freely and extravagantly as the Holy Spirit might lead us.
In the next few weeks, we’ll be turning in our pledge cards for the upcoming year. You’ll be getting letters from me via email and postal mail asking you to consider giving as freely and extravagantly as Zacchaeus did. In those letters, I’ll be describing some new ways of being church together that your Vestry and I have started talking about. New ways of using our buildings, and working with our community, and investing our resources to create a place of welcome for those who may not have felt welcome before. As we think about who else will join us to be a part of our church in the future, let’s remember:
No one is disqualified from the love of Jesus because they have different political opinions from us.
No one is disqualified from the love of Jesus because anything they’ve done, not even the worst thing they’ve ever done.
No one is disqualified from the love of Jesus because they are poor or rich.
No one is disqualified from the love of Jesus for any reason.
Let us pray.
Living God, we repent of separating ourselves from people who are not like us. We repent of preventing them from seeing Jesus, including Jesus in ourselves. Teach us to see the Kingdom of Heaven in those at whom it’s difficult to look, and those we have chosen not to welcome. Thank you for loving us without exception. We pray these things in the name of your extravagantly loving son Jesus. Amen.