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