Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
What a convergence of significant dates we have in these early weeks of November! In our congregation, as we’ve already mentioned, today is “Stewardship Commitment Sunday.” But I’m guessing other significant dates have captured more of your attention, anticipation, and anxiety. Cubs fans continue to celebrate Nov. 2nd’s historic win. Veterans Day is coming up on Nov. 11. And…what’s that you say? There’s an election in two days? How could we forget!
We’ll come back to that. But the date that was most significant for me this past week was Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints. I now count my Dad, Ron Elly, among the members of the church triumphant. In honor of All Saints, I’d like to read you the words which, to me, are the heart of Dad’s testimony as a Christ-follower. Dad had scrawled these words, in all caps for emphasis, with blue ballpoint pen on a swatch of wide-ruled paper; stuck with tape to his bathroom mirror. He saw them every time he saw his own reflection: “I am a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”
Those words reflect the good news of the gospel, as we consider the familiar story of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s chief tax collector, short on stature if not on wealth. Zacchaeus is so eager to see Jesus that he scurries ahead of the crowds to climb a tree to for a better view. Stopping below that tree, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, inviting himself to lodge at Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus is joyful to host Jesus, but onlookers grumble. Why would great rabbi like Jesus want to associate with a man like Zacchaeus—a tax collector who must be a “sinner?”
After all, tax collectors weren’t known for integrity. Business men who had bid on and won the privilege of collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, they regularly took an extra cut for themselves. A chief tax collector, like Zacchaeus, with other tax collectors working under him, had even more opportunity for “cooking the books, commodities speculation, side deals, graft, and extortion to defraud”[i] others. Fellow Jews viewed him as profiting from their distress, and collaboration with the Gentile occupiers made him a sinner, an outsider to the “official family of faith.”[ii]
But what does Jesus see in the man up in the tree? Does he see a sinner in need of repentance?
That’s the traditional interpretation of this story.
But there are a couple of ways the original Greek text can be understood. Most English versions translate Zacchaeus’ speech in future tense, so that he says, “I will give half my money to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” It sounds like Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus’ personal attention that he repents the spot. But these verbs can also be read in what’s called the “customary present tense:” “I give to the poor…I pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus is revealing that he is already, customarily, practicing righteous stewardship, despite what others assume about him.
I like this second reading. It turns the tables on my assumptions, as Jesus so often does. As one author notes, “maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions.”[iii]
Such a reading is consistent with Luke’s other stories. There are unlikely heroes all over the place: a faithful Roman soldier, a “good” Samaritan, a healed Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus, and a tax collector praised in contrast to a Pharisee. Each of these stories overturns the expectations of religious insiders.
There’s also the “rich young ruler,” righteous in all the expected ways, who walks away from Jesus, unable to bring himself to do as Jesus directs, to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow in Jesus’ way. At the end of that story, the disciples ask, “Who, then, can be saved?”
“This guy!” Zacchaeus’ story seems to respond. Here’s another rich man, about whom Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.” But what does Jesus mean with that word “salvation”?
In one sense, it points to the very person of Jesus Christ, literally coming to dwell at Zacchaeus’ house. Childlike in his eager-tree-climbing—and remember, Jesus says we receive the kingdom like a little child—Zacchaeus receives Jesus with great joy. Named and accepted as a true son of Abraham, Zacchaeus is brought from outsider status back into the true family of faith. Jesus has sought, found, and saved Zacchaeus.
But the word “salvation” applies in a second way. Affirming Zacchaeus’ generosity, Jesus is recognizing that salvation had already arrived at Zacchaeus’ house, because Zacchaeus had already committed himself to economic practices which tangibly bless other people.
“Salvation” is a big word. It is more than a penitent sinner’s return to morality, more than a warm feeling of acceptance, more, even, than an “inward and spiritual grace leading to heavenly rest,” as one scholar puts it. Salvation also includes the outward actions we take to make a “practical and observable” difference in others’ lives.[iv]
All of this points us toward the challenge of discernment. Are we able to see and recognize the true sons and daughters of Abraham, bearing fruits of generosity, compassion, and graciousness wherever and whenever they may be found—or do we assume some people, “those people,” cannot possibly have any blessing to offer? Which of our prejudices obscures our vision from seeing God’s powerful Spirit at work, blessing the earth, through neighbors all around us?
What an important question in election season! And what a brutal season it has been! I’ve read that therapists are reporting record numbers of patients with over-the-top anxiety in the recent weeks of Election 2016. I get it—this election has drawn out an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and dehumanizing rhetoric. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “If America were a marriage we’d need therapy…There has been so much bad communication over the past year: people talking in warring monologues past each other, ignoring the facts and using lazy stereotypes…to reduce complex individuals into simplistic categories…”
So I truly appreciated a meme on my Facebook feed this week. It was a picture of the two major presidential candidates, along with these words: “These people were both made in the image of God. Yes, both.” I appreciated that reminder, not because it helps me which one to vote for, but because it reconnects me with our basic Christian conviction, that every human being has value, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done or left undone, simply because God chose to create them. And God longs for God’s image, concealed beneath layers of damage and dust, to be revealed in each of us. God longs for God’s beloved children to recognize themselves—and each other.
All of us here have been sought, found, and saved by Christ. We are recipients of a salvation that way beyond a ticket to heaven after death. Christ transforms us from recipients to participants and agents of salvation, and sent into the world on God’s mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit of mercy and forgiveness, courageous compassion, and daring love. As my Dad reminded himself every day, we are children of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use us to change the world.
But if this is true of each of us, it is also true for every other child of God, it is also true for every other human person created in God’s image, for whom Jesus gave himself so generously so that image might be restored in fullness.
In the days ahead, our invitation, is to ask the Holy Spirit to give us clear vision, that we might see past our assumptions and prejudices. We trust in a God who immeasurably greater than our culture’s politics. Holding fast to that faith, it is our special task to create spacious sanctuaries of listening acceptance, where neighbors and strangers are welcomed without fear.
Therefore, prepare yourself, church. Use your eyes and ears first, to see and to hear, and only then, use your mouths to proclaim all the ways that God is active. Practice careful discernment.
Look at each person you encounter, in person or on the news, with the gaze of the Holy Spirit, and recognize saints, hidden and in plain sight, doing gracious acts in small and every day ways. There are always people bearing the fruits of salvation in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Practice curiosity, not prejudice.
And on Stewardship Sunday, this Sunday after All Saints, let us commit ourselves to practicing generosity. Not just generosity in our economic practices, not just generosity in sharing our resources with others. But with a generosity of spirit, the kind of generosity God shows us, let us open our hearts to God’s children everywhere.
Let us be courageous in our relationships willing to be changed as we listen to people who are different from us. Let us be available to experience God’s love from unexpected sources. Let us be willing to “pay forward” all the little acts of kindness that actually keep this world alive, the daily acts of sharing made by those who are now among the “great cloud of witnesses,” who made, in one way or another, our life together in this place possible. Thanks be to God for their generous lives, and, in death, for the completion of their joyous reunion in the family of God.
[i] Christopher R. Hutson, “Exegetical Perspective” on Luke 19:1-10, in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 165.
[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Theological Commentary” on Luke 19:1-10 in in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 166.
[iv] Murchison, as above, 168