Good morning, saints! When I first said those words earlier, how many of wondered who I was talking to? Our Old Testament professor, Andy Dearman, always began his classes with that greeting. Friday was the feast of All Saints, so my greeting is a nod in that direction.
But I can understand why you might not think of yourself as a saint. Most of us are familiar with saints in the Roman Catholic canon; to be officially recognized as a “saint” thererequires a long process of proving a deceased person lived and died in an exemplary and holy way. [i] Few of us perceive ourselves worthy of that honor!
However, in the New Testament, the word we translate ‘saint’ literally means ‘holy one.’ It is the title most commonly used to refer to Jesus-followers, who were “considered consecrated to God by the atonement of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[ii] And as another commentator writes, “Saints are both young and old, both living and departed; they are all who have responded affirmatively to God’s call.”[iii]
So all of us here are saints! For what we need to hear in these definitions is that we ourselves cannot make saints, not of others nor of ourselves. We cannot strive to become a saint by trying to do everything “right”; nor can we really judge one person from another, who is consecrated to God and who is not.
In last week’s parable, the Pharisee who did everything “right” was not able to make himself a saint; and the tax collector’s heart-stricken plea mercy reveals that he is the more available of the two to receiving God’s transforming and consecrating grace.
I think Jesus also tells that parable to shake up our preconceived notions of holiness. We often look at someone and size him or her up quickly, but the truth is, we are all walking this world like children in Halloween masks. Unless we work at it, our perceptions of one another rarely go beyond roles or status, the categories we use to define one another in an uncertain world.
People have certainly sized up Zacchaeus quickly. “Short. Tax collector. Filthy rich. Sinner.” We know that in Jesus’ time, tax collectors were notorious collaborators with the Roman Empire. They purchased the right to collect the empire’s taxes and profited by charging over and above required amounts. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in a big city like Jericho, would have been especially wealthy, with numerous underlings collecting for him.[iv] A Jew collecting Gentile taxes on his own people was seen as a traitor who could not possibly have gained his wealth by righteous means.
But the fact that Zacchaeus is a tax collector shouldn’t immediately determine his character for Luke’s readers. We know of at least one tax collector, Levi, who left his booth immediately to follow when Jesus called. That Zacchaeus is described as “rich” is not much in his favor, though, from previous teachings about wealth; Jesus is clear throughout the gospel how easily our attachments to money can take the place of God in our lives.
Yet, Zacchaeus’ determination to “see” Jesus might remind Luke’s readers of the faithful blind man in the story just preceding this one, who shouts over a crowd to get Jesus’ attention, and is healed. And Zacchaeus’ famous shortness might call to mind those Jesus calls “little ones,” as well as the children Jesus welcomes, though the disciples try to keep them away.“Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,”and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among you all is the greatest,” Jesus has said.[v]
So it happens that this wealthy, “least”-sized tax collector, wants to see Jesus.But the tall crowds lining the road hinder his pursuit. In childlike eagerness, Zacchaeus completely sheds any appearance of dignity he might have hadto race ahead and climb a tree to see. But there are no hindrances for Jesus,who comes right over to the tree, looks up into Zacchaeus’ eyes, and sees right through to Zacchaeus’ heart. Calling him by name, Jesus says, “Hurry down, for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus responds immediately, hurrying down to welcome Jesus with joy.
We aren’t too surprised when onlookers start grumbling. We know Jesus’ habit of “eating with tax collectors and sinners.” We know he has a weakness for lost sheep and prodigal sons, for the lame and the lepers. Those tendencies of Jesus went against the grain of life; then and now, people grumble. But “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost,” Jesus says.
So is Zacchaeus “lost?” Most interpretations of this story see Zacchaeus as I did at first glance this week.Taking the categories which describe him as givens, we assume Zacchaeus is as disreputable as they say. But the little man is so touched by contact with Jesus that he repents his greedy ways, vowing before God and everyone that he will give half his income to the poor and repay anyone he’s cheated four times over. Read this way, it’s a classic story of a repentant sinner receiving God’s graceand making a remarkable commitment to live graciously.
That’s a good story. But there’s another way of reading it.Some scholars have noted the Greek verbs in Zacchaeus’ speech are actually in the present tense. That means Zacchaeus isn’t saying “I will give,” and “I will pay back,”but rather “I give” and “I pay back.” The present tense suggests that Zacchaeus’ generous giving is not a new commitment of repentance but stewardship practices he’s already engaged in doing.
Notice, too, that Zacchaeus names Jesus “Lord.” Contrast him with “rich young ruler” who sadly walks awaywhen Jesus tells him to sell everything and come follow. Zacchaeus gladly welcomes Jesus. Could it be that Zacchaeus recognizes Jesus as the Christ, and wants Jesus to know he’s sharing his wealth generouslybecause he’s investing in Christ’s kingdom? Could we finally have here an example of a righteous rich man in the book of Luke?
That changes the emphasis of the story, doesn’t it? Those who have judged Zacchaeus too quickly are invited to look again. Jesus, for his part, simply affirms Zacchaeus, saying, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus’ kinship with Abraham—his identity as one of God’s holy people—shows forth in his generous care for the poor and willingness to right past wrongs.
So we also are invited to look again at our ideas about salvation. Because if Zacchaeus is already a righteous man, how does salvation come to his house? What if salvation is not only the gift of heavenly life after death, and it is not only belief in Jesus Christ which brings us to change our moral and ethical ways. What if salvation is also the restoration of personhood, as broken relationships are healed in the revealing light of Christ’s presence? After this encounter, people around Zacchaeus can no longer define him—and dismiss him—based on his short stature or station in life.
In the encounter with Christ, he is seen as a person and restored to a community from which he has been shunned. A “lost” son of Abraham has been found.[vi] Salvation comes in the very person of Jesus Christ, who invites himself home with this man he has known and called by his true name: Zacchaeus, which in Hebrew means “clean” or “innocent.”[vii]
It is a holy moment when salvation calls you by your true name and invites itself into your house. We become persons when we are seen and known in relationships with the others around us. Salvation comes as relationships broken by sin and death, by our finite limitations and our rebellion, are made new. The good news, my friends, is that even as we strain to see him, Jesus Christ finds us and calls our names. Salvation reaches out for us! We, who were lost, are found, vulnerable yet fully human persons; we are revealed, saints who had been hidden beneath masks of status or shame. We become known as holy ones, beloved and precious to God.
How do we respond? Zacchaeus gladly welcomed home Christ the Lord, and I believe we here in this place desire to do the same. We are seeking to welcome him as we cultivate a community in which we no longer find ourselves confined to external labels; we are seeking to make a place where anyone whose true identity is hidden beneath masks of shame and brokenness, or even masks of wealth and power, can throw off all appearances to eagerly seek and be found by the salvation in Jesus Christ.
Today is an important moment in the life of our congregation, Stewardship Commitment Sunday. Over the past weeks, we have told the story of this congregation to help us recognize anew what a gift God has given us in one another. We have invited you to prayerfully discern what financial gift God has made it possible for you to share in the coming year in the goal of sustaining the ministry of this church.
Whether or not it was a new commitment for Zacchaeus, he understood the spiritual practice of stewardship. He understood that God had been generous with him, and the wealth he’d received was meant to be shared in grateful response. Giving a regular portion of what he’d received not only changed the lives of others, but transformed him. His generous giving was forming him, day by day, as a generous person, growing him into the stature of Christ.
There are many opportunities to support excellent causes in our world, and that’s a good thing. But the church is distinctive. It is the place where Jesus calls out our true names, and sinners are revealed as saints.
Here and now, in this historic building, we are the latest generation of a congregation which first came together some 150 years ago. Imagine all the generations of saints who have worshipped in this sanctuary; the children who gathered pennies to build the Sunday school wing, their children and children’s children. Imagine them here with us, worshipping with us in the heavenly places. Each of us in this place at this time, are part of something so much greater than ourselves, the community of saints like a river stretching before and after us, a long procession of people consecrated with the love of God in Jesus Christ, and marked with the Holy Spirit. With new and renewed commitment to God’s ministry in this place, let us give thanks! Amen.
[ii] Guy D. Nave, Jr. “Exegetical Perspective” on Ephesians 1:11-23 in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 231.
[iii] Robert E. Dunham, “Homiletical Perspective” on Ephesians 1:11-23 in Feasting on the Word, as above, 231.
[iv] Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Exegetical Perspective” on Luke 19:1-10, in Feasting on the Word, as above, 261.
[v] Luke 9:48
[vii] Elizabeth A. Johnson, 264.