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.
In the movie Ladybird, the character Ladybird is a high school senior who does not like where she lives (Sacramento, California) and wants desperately to go to college on the East Coast, even though her mom says the family can’t afford it. She is smart and funny and argues with her mom a lot. They both are very mean to each other sometimes. She gets distracted at school, in a way that is familiar to many people who have been to high school. She nearly ruins her longest running friendship, though manages to repair that relationship before it’s too late. Ladybird just seems deeply unsatisfied and thinks the way to be satisfied is to leave. College is the way she thinks she can leave.
One of the nuns, Sister Sarah Joan, at the Catholic school Ladybird attends, a school that her parents have scrimped and saved to afford, is fond of her. And, she’s impressed by her college admission essay. She calls Ladybird into her office to talk about it. Having read the essay, the Sister Sarah Joan says, “It’s clear that you love Sacramento.” Ladybird looks aghast, as though the sister has just accused her of something. She hates where she is from and derides it as a bunch of suburbs and strip malls “without culture” whenever she talks about it. She tries to explain how she wrote such a beautiful essay about a place she doesn’t like very much. She says, “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Sarah Joan replies, “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”
There’s a song by the Judds called, “She is His Only Need” about what sounds like a good and solid marriage between two people named Billy and Bonnie. Part of the evidence given of their great devotion to one another is the way that Billy pays attention to Bonnie. Rather than essays, Billy turns his attention into gifts, small and large. Well into their retirement, Billy wants to make sure Bonnie had everything she wants and needs. The song says, “And ev'ry once in a while you could see him get up/And he'd head downtown/'Cause he heard about something she wanted/And it just had to be found/Didn't matter how simple or how much/It was love.” His purchases weren’t about showing off. They were about showing how much he saw her, what she enjoyed and what she needed to get by. He was a good husband to Bonnie because he was paying attention.
The next time you are reading the Gospel of Luke, I want to you to note how many times that they tell us that Jesus was paying attention. They may not put it quite that way, but, that’s what he’s doing: paying attention. The scholar Ira Brent Driggers compiled a list of some of the occasions when Jesus was paying attention: In Luke 5:27-28, Jesus sees a tax collector named Levi and calls him to be a disciple. In Luke 5:12-16, Jesus see and tends to a man with leprosy who called to him to for help. In Luke 9:37-43, a man from the crowd calls out to Jesus, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” Jesus saw him and healed the boy from his seizures. In Luke 13:12, Jesus saw a woman with a physical disability and healed her. In Luke 18, it’s a blind man that he sees and heals. Over and over again, Jesus sees people who are usually ignored. He feels someone near him who needs healing. Consistently, Jesus pays attention and, in so doing, shows someone love. In this fairly familiar story, Jesus turns that attention and love to Zacchaeus, someone who most of the community would have thought was not worth it.
Jesus was going into Jericho, an important city to Romans because it was a customs center. It was a city deeply connected to the taxation system that the Romans required the countries they overthrew to take part in. Tax collectors, like Levi in the story I mentioned earlier and Zacchaeus, in this story, did not have good reputations. Not only did the people of Israel, like any forcibly colonized people, resent giving money to support Rome, it was also understood that he demanded more than was required from people in order to fill his own pockets. Zacchaeus would have been understood to be both a traitor to his people and a cheat. He would have been excluded from the good graces and common life of his community because he was one who was materially making people’s lives harder for his own profit.
Sometimes, in those stories mentioned earlier, people desperately want Jesus to see them. They call out for him as soon as they see him because they believe he can help them. It’s not clear if Zacchaeus wants to be acknowledged by Jesus. It just says that he wants to see Jesus, possibly to see what all the ruckus is about. The act of climbing the tree is pretty extraordinary though. Most of the time, grown-ups don’t go climbing trees to look over crowds. And, yet, Zacchaeus does. Dr. Driggers wonders if this could be a sign that Zacchaeus is doing more than just being curious. He is searching for something.
The previous stories in Luke also show us that Jesus doesn’t always need to be asked for help in order to realize that someone needs it. Remember, he pays attention to people. He would have likely heard all about this tax collecting cheater named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus job, and bad reputation, would have gotten him some level of renown. Jesus recognizes him and also sees his need. Immediately, this man known to be fairly terrible, becomes an incredible host. He clambers out of the tree as quickly as he could and takes Jesus into his home.
A good person wouldn’t have dined with someone with such a bad reputation. That’s what the people in the town say when they see Jesus spend time with Zacchaeus. If Jesus was as good as people said he was, he would have known what they knew: That Zacchaeus was not worth the trouble. But, Jesus sees people, saints and sinners alike. He sees potential and pain and sorrow. He sees something worth saving. Dr. Driggers reminds us in the commentary on this story, Jesus risks judgement from the broader community to go stay with this man who was looking for something. Jesus thought his mission was worth the risk.
Loving someone who steals things will not always work out the way it does in this story. We know that. Nevertheless, something about being seen and trusted elicits a change in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus has a new plan for his life: To live it more like God wants him to. His money has come from extorting his people. His transformation means that he is going to return what shouldn’t have been his anyway. Half will go to those who have nothing, the poor in the community. He will use the rest to repay the people he has defrauded, paying four times what he took from them. It probably won’t fix all the harm he’s done, but, it will get all of them closer to the life that God hoped for them.
Jesus said “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Jesus connects this act of amend-making to Jewish tradition. To be a child of Abraham is to be one who messes up but also continues seeking God. Even the process of multiplying what you return to people as a kind of retribution for your acts has roots in their shared tradition. Exodus 22:1, Leviticus 6:5, and Numbers 5:6-7 all direct people to pay back more than they take. Zacchaeus is affirmed as a son of Abraham when he lives out the best of their shared tradition with a promise to continue to live a life changed by his encounter with Jesus. Jesus promises to look for the lost. Sometimes that means the sick and forgotten. Sometimes that means the influential and powerful. Change is possible, with God’s help. Jesus saw that potential in Zacchaeus.
There is a Zen Buddhist teacher named John Tarrant who once said, “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it, we bless and are blessed.” I hope that you feel Christ’s attentiveness to you, especially in the midst of this trying season. I hope that you can practice some Christ-like attentiveness, too. Maybe you’ll offer a teenager a kind word and affirmation. Maybe you’ll buy something sweet for your spouse. Maybe you’ll give someone a second chance, even if you’re not sure if they deserve it. Heck, maybe you’re Zacchaeus in this story, desperate enough to see Jesus that you’ll do anything to catch a glimpse. It would be easy these days to be distracted or to ignore what you don’t want to see. I hope you’ll remember this story and remember that something beautiful and redemptive can happen if you pay attention.
Resources noted in this sermon:
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.