Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Luke 19:1-10 Jesus and Zacchaeus
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘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.’
I’ve been trying to remember the last time I climbed a tree. I know that I climbed a tree when I was 19. Some friends had found a tree swing way out on someone’s property that we probably weren’t even supposed to be on. You had to climb the tree, which had a hornets’ nest in it, by the way, to reach the swing. When you leapt off, it swung you way out over a gully about 60 feet in the air. When you wanted to get off the swing, one of the taller guys would have to grab your legs as you swung by and another one would grab the swing to help you get down. Of course, we went out to the tree at dark thirty at night with only 2 pen lights and 4 teenage boys to lead us. This was one of the more ill-advised things I did in 1999. I don’t think I learned much about Jesus up on that tree. I did learn to ask a few more questions before following my friends into the woods.
I remembered another story that reminded me of today’s reading, though I didn’t climb any trees in that one. I've told it before, but I like it, so I’m going to tell it again. In 1996, the Summer Olympics were going to be in Atlanta, Georgia. While my family had no to plans to go, I was going to be able see the Olympic Flame when it came through Knoxville, Tennessee. Coach Pat Summitt, who was not Jesus, but was and is quite beloved back where I’m from, was to carry the flame into downtown Knoxville. She was the coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team and a former Olympian herself. I was in a summer program at UT that year and walked over with friends to see her carry the flame into downtown.
Well, once we got there, we realized that half of East Tennessee had had the same idea. Thousands of people were there. Even though I was able to squeeze my way pretty close to the road where she was running, my friend Nedja and I ended up stuck behind two very tall guys. There was no way that we could see the road from where we were. There wasn’t even a tree close by that I could climb like Zaccheaus. As time grew closer for her to arrive, I just figured I was going to miss it, because there were too many people, and too many of them were taller than me and in front of me.
I said something to Nedja like, “Awww, I can’t see anything. I’m too short.” Two very tall men in front of us heard us talking about not being able to see. Then, surprisingly, they turned around and offered to let us slide in front of them! And, we did! We were so grateful! When Coach Summitt ran by, we could see her, holding the torch proudly. We, and the tall guys behind us, and the thousands of other people, cheered until we were hoarse because we got to see someone who was a hero to us doing something very special. It was a pretty good night.
Now, what have you done to see someone who was important to you? Were you like me, and just complained out loud, hoping some stranger would have mercy on you? Or, were you like Zacchaeus, and took some initiative to make sure you could see the person you wanted to see? I have always enjoyed this story about somebody who was so interested in learning more about Jesus that he climbed up a whole tree so that he could see him better. That is some dedication. Sycamore trees are not easy to climb! Would you be willing to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus?
Today’s reading happens just before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on the occasion that we remember as Palm Sunday. When we read this story about Zacchaeus, we should understand it as setting the scene for Jerusalem... for the triumphal entry, for the conflicts in the temple, for the trial, the execution, and the resurrection. It helps set the scene by showing us a person who had been making a living by cheating people choose to live differently after encountering Jesus. And, it shows us Jesus confirming that his mission is to the ones who need him most.
Zacchaeus had a very visible job in their community. He was the chief tax collector. Every single commentary I read this week reminds us that tax collectors, who worked on behalf of the oppressive Roman government, were considered traitors. And, many, in addition to taking a job that their neighbors found morally suspect, added insult to injury by taking more than they were required. They padded their own pockets and the people whom they cheated had little recourse. Zacchaeus appears to have been not just a tax collector but a cheat who stole more than was required. No wonder the crowd dislikes him. I’d probably dislike him, too.
If you were Zacchaeus, would you have been surprised if Jesus called up to you and asked to come over to your house for dinner? My hunch is that you might be. The crowd sure seems surprised, and annoyed, that Jesus is spending time with him. What kind of example is Jesus setting by spending time with cheats and traitors? Some might have even begun to mistrust Jesus because he was spending time with someone who had done so much harm.
It is interesting how short this story is. Dr. Wil Gafney points that out in her commentary on this text that we don’t see the meal at all. All that is recorded for us is that Zacchaeus quickly came down the tree and was happy to welcome Jesus. And, then, the grumbling starts from the crowd. In the midst of the grumbling crowd, Zacchaeus says, “I will give have half of my possessions to the poor. And, I will pay back anyone who I cheated not just the amount I took from them, but four times that amount.” Dr. Gafney reads Zacchaeus’ statement as one coming from a person who has spent time with Jesus and has been convinced to change. That is how I’ve read it, too. But, we see none of that conversation at the house here in the story.
In his commentary on the text, David Lose argues that the original Greek is flexible enough that Zacchaeus might not be reporting on his plan to change his life in the future, as our translation read, but, instead, he is stating that he is already doing this... that he has already been changed and is already sharing half of all he got from his shady job and paying restitution to the ones he cheated. Lose seems to think that Zacchaeus’ statement could be an explanation to the grumbling crowd, before he and Jesus even get to the house, to justify Jesus’ invitation. Lose thinks it could be a kind of confession and a description of how he will make amends... showing both Jesus and the crowd that he has been changed by what he has already learned from Jesus, thereby justifying Jesus’ kindness to the crowd.
That being said, whether Zaccheaus’ words are evidence that he has been convinced, over the course of a long dinner, to change his future behavior, or whether they are a description of a plan that has already been put to action that he wants to share with the community he has harmed, Jesus acknowledges that it is a good and faithful plan. He says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus, too, is finally living into the promises of the covenant, that is loving God and loving neighbor, and reclaiming his place among the people who follow this covenant. Then, Jesus says that the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. Thank God Zacchaeus allowed himself to be saved. Thank God he was willing to be changed by Jesus, as we can see from his commitment to atone to his community after hurting them. May we learn to change and make amends, just like Zacchaeus did. And, may we ask ourselves, “what will you do to see Jesus?” Because there are so many more trees to climb. Just... keep an eye out for hornets while you’re up there.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-3/commentary-on-luke-191-10-2
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-3/commentary-on-luke-191-10-3
Wil Gafney, "Proper 17 (Closest to August 31), "Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Carolyn C. Brown: https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/4364/worship-for-kids-november-3-2019
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.