St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

He too is a Son of Abraham

He too is a son of Abra­ham

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 24th Sunday after Pente­cost, 30th Octo­ber 2016

Read­ing: Luke 19.1–10.

We are near­ing the end of our jour­ney with Luke and in today’s Gos­pel read­ing Jesus has almost reached Jer­u­s­alem, a jour­ney which has taken up nine chapters of Luke’s nar­rat­ive. The road up from the Jordan River to Jer­u­s­alem passed by the ruins of old Jericho and went through the new city. Along the jour­ney it seems a num­ber of people had joined Jesus and his dis­ciples and when they enter Jericho there is now quite a crowd. Among them is Zac­chaeus, described by Luke as a chief tax col­lect­or who was rich.

Those of us who were sent to Sunday School doubt­less heard this tale many times, it was a great favour­ite and there was a catchy little chor­us that went with it. Chil­dren iden­ti­fied with a man who had trouble see­ing any­one in a crowd and who could climb trees, a pop­u­lar activ­ity for chil­dren both then and now. Luke is the only evan­gel­ist to record this event and he uses it to high­light three of his favour­ite themes: the prob­lem of riches and what to do about them; Jesus’ iden­ti­fic­a­tion with sin­ners and out­casts and finally the faith which recog­nises Jesus as the Mes­si­ah, the Christ and the new life that flows from that dis­cov­ery.

As a chief tax col­lect­or Zac­chaeus would have been known to every­one and would have been uni­ver­sally dis­liked. Jericho was a wealthy and import­ant town fam­ous for its palm forest and bal­sam groves. The dates and bal­sam were expor­ted to many parts of the Empire, so Jericho was an import­ant centre for tax­a­tion. Tax col­lect­ors worked for the Romans and as well as extract­ing taxes for their mas­ters they had plenty of oppor­tun­ity to line their own pock­ets, indeed it was the only way they derived an income. The Romans farmed out the right to col­lect taxes to the highest bid­der. Once the tax col­lect­or raised the tax­a­tion fig­ure set by the Romans he was free to col­lect as much as he could for his own pur­poses. As a chief tax col­lect­or with oth­ers work­ing for him it is not sur­pris­ing that Zac­chaeus was rich. Tax col­lect­ors were regarded as col­lab­or­at­ors, exploiters of the power­less and ritu­ally unclean. As a res­ult they were barred from the syn­agogue and the temple.

But Zac­chaeus has one thing going for him; he wants to see who Jesus is. Was it idle curi­os­ity? Had he heard that Jesus was will­ing to eat with tax col­lect­ors and sin­ners and had chosen Mat­thew, a tax col­lect­or to be part of his group of dis­ciples? Des­pite his wealth and prosper­ity, was there a void in his life that he was hop­ing to fill? Luke’s sparse prose gives no hint of Zac­chaeus’ motiv­a­tion but his actions speak of a man will­ing to go to extraordin­ary lengths to see Jesus for him­self. After all, how many of us adults have been seen climb­ing trees lately?

Hid­den in the thick foliage of the syca­more tree, Zac­chaeus thinks he can get a good view of Jesus without any risk of being seen by the crowd. We can ima­gine his shock and hor­ror when Jesus stops the pro­ces­sion at the foot of the tree and addresses him dir­ectly. Expect­ing rebuke or scorn, Zac­chaeus hears words of reas­sur­ance: “Zac­chaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” The Greek word (‘dei’) trans­lated here as ‘must’ always implies neces­sity. Jesus’ words are in the nature of a com­mand rather than an invit­a­tion for he knows that Zac­chaeus will nev­er get anoth­er oppor­tun­ity like this to have his life turned around. I sus­pect many of us can recall sig­ni­fic­ant moments in our lives when we made a decision that was to have life chan­ging con­sequences. I remem­ber sit­ting in my office in Cast­lere­agh St. where I was work­ing as an audi­olo­gist and pon­der­ing the implic­a­tions of my upcom­ing inter­view with a clergy friend about the pos­sib­il­ity of train­ing for the min­istry. I knew this was a turn­ing point.

The startled Zac­chaeus responds quickly to Jesus’ sum­mons and wel­comes him to his home joy­fully. There were doubt­less plenty of ser­vants on hand to pre­pare a suit­able meal. The townspeople have a very dif­fer­ent reac­tion. They begin to grumble, upset that Jesus has chosen to eat with a man whom they regard as a thief and a sin­ner. We can under­stand their reac­tion. Most of us have little time for people who make their for­tune from the exploit­a­tion of oth­ers be it through poker machines, drug deal­ing, or por­no­graphy, to name a few examples. One hes­it­ates to make com­par­is­ons but I sus­pect we would be sur­prised if Jesus came to Sydney and chose to have lunch with James Pack­er. It is always good to be reminded that God’s love extends to the most unlovely and we should nev­er write any­one off. Luke provides no details about the meal so we have to guess when it was that Zac­chaeus made his declar­a­tion, “Look, half of my pos­ses­sions, Lord, I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded any­one of any­thing, I will pay back four times as much.” His repent­ance was not just a change of heart but involved resti­tu­tion, mak­ing amends. In Juda­ism, leg­al resti­tu­tion for hav­ing been guilty of extor­tion was twenty per­cent but Zac­chaeus chose to be more gen­er­ous than the law deman­ded.

Zac­chaeus stands in sharp con­trast to the rich young ruler in the pre­ced­ing chapter who came to Jesus ask­ing, “What shall I do to inher­it etern­al life?” When asked if he kept the com­mand­ments he affirmed that he had obeyed them all his life. Jesus then said ‘there is just one thing you are lack­ing, go and give away your pos­ses­sions to the poor and then come and fol­low me.’ Luke records that he went away sor­row­fully for he was very wealthy. Zac­chaeus’ response to Jesus’ kind­ness towards him was a spon­tan­eous desire to change dir­ec­tion; to become a man noted for his integ­rity and gen­er­os­ity, even though that involved shed­ding much of his wealth.

Jesus’ response to Zac­chaeus’ words is to declare that, “Today sal­va­tion has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abra­ham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” This is the story of the sal­va­tion of a man who was rich and a tax col­lect­or but neither his occu­pa­tion nor the res­ult­ant treat­ment by his com­munity placed him bey­ond the reach of God’s seek­ing love. He too was a child of Abra­ham but like all Abraham’s chil­dren he needed the grace of God. John the Baptist had cried out to the people who came to see him: “Bear fruits that befit repent­ance and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abra­ham as our fath­er’, for God is able from these stones to raise up chil­dren to Abra­ham.”

Zac­chaeus’ con­ver­sion was not just an exper­i­ence of per­son­al sal­va­tion but like all true con­ver­sions it had an impact on every­one around him. Not only his own house­hold was involved but the poor in his com­munity and the many people he had defrauded. In Luke’s Gos­pel the word saved is vari­ously trans­lated as ‘made well’, ‘healed’, or ‘made whole’. The whole of life is affected when we meet the ris­en Lord and allow him to trans­form us into his like­ness. Jesus’ vis­it to the home of Zac­chaeus was no acci­dent or detour on his jour­ney to Jer­u­s­alem but part of his very pur­pose for the jour­ney: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Sav­ing the lost has become part of Chris­ti­an jar­gon, par­tic­u­larly in our own dio­cese. It is often expressed rather crudely as being about sav­ing people from the fires of hell. But that is not the focus we find in this story, nor is it the focus of the Gos­pels gen­er­ally. The focus is on an inner trans­form­a­tion which res­ults in a new way of liv­ing. We are not saved by our good works – by grace we are saved through faith- but we are saved for good works. When God finds us we learn to live for God and no longer simply for ourselves. Zac­chaeus’ story reminds us of God’s grace but it also makes clear that grace demands a response. Amen

Philip Brad­ford