Sunday, 3 November 2019
How Zacchaeus has been
and libelled for too long
Sunday 3 November 2019
The Fourth Sunday before Advent
11.30 am: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.
The Readings: Habakkuk 1: 1-4, 2: 1-4; Psalm 119: 137-144; II Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12; Luke 19: 1-10.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
The readings this morning tell us how the oppressed, the small people, those who are made to feel small by others, especially the proud and the violent, are truly cared for by God, have the promise of new life, and are invited into the kingdom.
In the first reading (Habakkuk 1: 1-4; 2: 1-4), the Prophet Habakkuk cries out:
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith (Habakkuk 2: 4).
The Psalmist says, ‘I am small and despised’ (Psalm 119: 141). Yet he lives by the law, and he prays that he may live.
In the New Testament reading, Saint Paul and his companions recognise the sufferings of the Christians in Thessaloniki, but they can give thanks for their faith is growing abundantly, and their love for one another is increasing.
In the Gospel reading (Luke 19: 1-10), Zacchaeus is despised both as a tax collector and as a man who is ‘short in stature.’ Both his occupation and his physique squeeze him to the margins and put him outside the community of faith. Yet, he is seen by Christ not as he seems to others, but as God sees him to truly be.
Last week, we looked at the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple (Luke 18: 9-14). Imagine if Zacchaeus was the model for that publican, that tax collector.
The story of Zacchaeus is a fast-moving story: every verse from verse 1 to 7, in the original Greek, begins with the word καὶ (and), indicating that the pace has heightened, the story is speeding up, we are moving closer to the climax of this Gospel.
Christ is about to set out from Jericho to Jerusalem. From Jericho, the road is going to be uphill more treacherous: remember that it is on this road between Jericho and Jerusalem that a certain man is mugged and left for dead until the Good Samaritan passes by (Luke 10: 25-37).
Jericho was a major resting place or stopping point on a main trade route, making it a lucrative and profitable location both for tax collectors and for bandits.
But Jericho has other significance: the walls of Jericho fell down at the call of the trumpets (see Joshua 6). So in this reading, after Christ passes through the walls of Jericho, his call breaks down all the walls people erect around themselves, individually and collectively.
Who is Zacchaeus?
Certainly, Zacchaeus is not any run-of-the-mill tax collector – he is the ἀρχιτελώνης (architelonis), the chief tax collector, and so by contract had the right to collect revenues throughout this district. His name (Ζακχαῖος, Zakchaios) means pure, but his neighbours would have despised him, not only because they believed he squeezed the last drachma and the last lepta out of widows and children, but because they would also have seen him as a collaborator with the Roman administration.
There, a man who wants to see Christ is probably pushed to the back of the crowd for two reasons that count him out: he is small in stature, and he is a tax collector.
The physical problem shows how Zacchaeus is pushed to the margins by those who should have counted him into their social and religious community. He is of little stature not just physically, but socially too.
Can you imagine yourself as a little child trying to see a great parade – perhaps a Saint Patrick’s Day parade – when you were small?
Did everyone want to let you through?
Or did you not count? Did no-one stand aside for you?
No-one is going to stand aside for Zacchaeus. They belittle him, and they probably think he deserves it – after all, the taxes he collects support the Roman occupation and administration.
But Zacchaeus overcomes, rises above, his exclusion, by climbing the tree – is there a symbolic reference here to clinging to the Cross? In any case, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus – something you could imagine a child doing, but surely not the sort of thing a well-paid civil servant should be seen doing?
Zacchaeus sees Jesus and Jesus sees Zacchaeus.
And Jesus invites himself not just to dine with Zacchaeus, but to stay with him: ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today’ (verse 5).
Normally, it is the potential host rather than the intended guest who does the inviting. So once again, Jesus the Guest becomes Jesus the Host.
Zacchaeus is delighted. But the good burghers of Jericho are unsettled. They murmur that Jesus is heading off to dine with sinners.
We are so self-righteous at times in our churches that I am worried we are in danger of being unwilling to welcome those who would be seen today as the little people.
One rector I know in a comfortable parish challenged his parishioners, who are very generous in their giving, especially when it comes to development agencies, mission agencies and what we once called Third World causes.
He asked them how they would react if Syrian refugees were moved into a vacant hotel or hostel in the parish on a Saturday night, and all of them presumed to come to church on the following Sunday morning.
In welcoming Jesus, Zacchaeus has what can only be described as a conversion experience.
The NRSV translation tells us that he promises to amend his ways and that, in the future, he will give half his possessions to the poor, and return anything extra he has squeezed out of people when he has been collecting taxes.
Unfortunately, the NRSV translation is a little inaccurate here. Zacchaeus makes no such promise about the future. He says, in the original Greek, that this is what he is doing in the present – the present tense is used.
If he is telling the truth, then Zacchaeus has been grossly misrepresented, misunderstood and libelled by his neighbours and within his own community, even at the point where he is dining with Jesus.
The present tense is important. For this day, on this day, Christ affirms that Zacchaeus too is a child of Abraham, that he too is an heir to those promises made long, long ago to Abraham.
Those who needed conversion were not Zacchaeus and others like him on the margins, who were in need of seeing people as Christ sees them.
Christ seeks out the sinners, the lost, those who are excluded, those counted out, and invites them to the heavenly banquet. Like Zacchaeus, they too are brought from the margins into the centre.
The one person everyone thought was outside, is on the inside as far as Christ is concerned. And those who think they are on the inside are in danger of finding that they are on the outside.
Are we welcoming enough, as individuals and as a Church?
How would we feel if Jesus came to your parish next weekend, but decided not to come to our church on Sunday morning, but to go somewhere else?
What if we were left without Christ being present in our church on Sunday morning … in either Word or Sacrament?
How often are we prepared to welcome Christ’s presence among us only in the way we choose, on our terms?
For those of us in what might be described as ‘High Church’ or Anglo-Catholic traditions, do we neglect Christ’s presence in the Word too often?
To those of us in what might be described as ‘Evangelical’ traditions, do we neglect Christ’s presence in the Sacrament too often?
Saint Paul tells his readers this morning ‘Your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing’ (II Thessalonians 1: 3).
May our faith and love continue to increase and to grow abundantly so that we count in those who are overlooked, those who are not counted in, those who are pushed to the margins.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Luke 19: 1-10 (NRSVA):
1 [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.’ 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8 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.’ 9 Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time)
The Collect of the Day:
Almighty and eternal God,
you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints:
Grant to us the same faith and power of love,
that, as we rejoice in their triumphs,
we may be sustained by their example and fellowship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Collect of the Word:
Merciful God, righteous judge of all,
who sent Jesus among us
to seek and to save those who are lost:
grant that we may eagerly seek the Saviour,
and joyfully welcome him into our homes and lives.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
421, I come with joy, a child of God (CD 25)
509, Your kingdom come, O God (CD 29)
639, O thou who camest from above (CD 36)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.