Archive for November 11th, 2010

Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy
Luke 19:1-10

I just want you all to know that I’ve had that cute little song we all learned in Sunday School stuck in my head all week long. You know… “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed him by, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down from there;
For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today”

There– you’re welcome. Now that song can be stuck in your head for several days too!

I’ve heard the song for years, probably like you, and once I got past the age where I was doing Sunday School flannel board activities, I’m not sure I’ve really given Zacchaeus much thought. He’s never been a character that’s persuaded me of much of anything, other than that short people have to fight extra hard to get anywhere.

But I am convinced that everything in scripture has a purpose for being there, so when wee little Zacchaeus showed up in the lectionary, I was curious. On the surface, it looks like a pretty straight forward sort of thing.

Let me refresh you on some of the details of Zacchaeus’ life, in case, like me, you haven’t ever gotten much past the flannel-board activities and the goofy song. Zacchaeus was rich– really, stinkin rich. And if that weren’t enough, it was believed by those around him that he became rich off them. He was a tax collector, but not just any tax collector– he was the chief tax collector. Which of course, is bad enough in itself– but even more than just taking up the money, he would have been seen as a collaborator with the much hated Romans. To take a position like that, whether we assume it or not, folks around him would have assumed that he was greedy. No one likes someone they perceive as greedy! And of course, he was short.

Truth be told, I’ve always liked Zacchaeus and his cute little song. And I have no idea why– he really doesn’t seem to have a lot going for him. As much as I’d love to believe otherwise, if I had lived during his time, he probably wouldn’t make my list of favorite people. If I were really honest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed him…unless he became obnoxious in hopes of overcoming his disadvantage. And if I had noticed him for being obnoxious, I sure wouldn’t think fondly of him. That’s exactly how it must’ve been for him. As a rule, generally overlooked. But if he got noticed, well he probably wasn’t anyone’s best friend.

But of course, as he so often does, Jesus picks the one odd bird out of a crowd and focuses on him. Little, bitty Zacchaeus becomes the focus of Jesus’ attention. Surely, there were tons of other “worthy” folks that Jesus could’ve picked out. But no, of course, we know, that’s not what Jesus does.

One of the first places in this story that fascinates me is that the crowd grumbles about Jesus going to eat with a sinner. I want to shake my finger at them, and tell them to mind their own business. After all, whose concern is it who Jesus eats with? And of course we know, this isn’t the first time that Jesus has eaten with a sinner. Two thousand years later, we know that that’s what Jesus ministry was all about. But it was important for Luke to tell us that the crowd grumbled about it.

But just as I get ill with the grumbling, nosy, whiny crowd… a small voice nags at me, “Well, wouldn’t you grumble too?” Ouch. Yes, I probably would, much to my disgust. Even though we know that Jesus was all about being with the ones who weren’t perfect, I think we still would like to control Jesus. We’d like Jesus to eat with, and love, and save, the ones that we think are worthy of Jesus’ attention. Truth be told, it’s almost as if we’d like to protect Jesus from those people– as if their sin might be contagious. Of course, just as I put on my self-righteous hat, I realize that I am those people. I don’t cheat people out of their money, but my sins are no less troubling to God.

Sure, Zacchaeus defends himself. I imagine him drawing himself up to his full height, and using his deepest voice to say, “Look. I’m not such a bad guy.” The greek is troubling here, and all of the commentaries debate over it. Some translate verse 8 as the ESV that we read does “I give half my goods to the poor.” That makes Zacchaeus sound like he has been falsely accused. But other versions and commentaries render the greek as “I will give” as if something has changed within Zacchaeus, as if Zacchaeus is put on the spot and defending himself.

We could argue about which way we think it ought to be and the theological ramifications of each, but what really intrigues me is Jesus’ response. Jesus doesn’t pat him on the back, and say “Good for you, buddy”. Jesus doesn’t even really acknowledge Zacchaeus’ sacrifice, either present or forthcoming.

What Jesus does instead is name Zacchaeus. He says, “Today salvation has come to this house”, which if you think about it, is a nice bit of wordplay. Of course, Christ is salvation, and we know that Christ stayed at Zacchaeus’ house. But we also know that something besides wordplay is going on here. Zacchaeus’ life is changed. He is saved from himself, from his lonely lostness. Jesus in this moment gives Zacchaeus an identity.

What’s that you say? Zacchaeus already had an identity? Sure he did. He was a tax collector. He was short. He was wealthy. Surely that’s enough to define a person? So what would happen if he quit being a tax collector? What if he lost his wealth? Where then would be his identity? Sure, Zacchaeus had things that made him stand out from other people, things that we could use to describe him to our friends. I would argue, however, that those things weren’t his identity, just like our jobs, our status, or whatever else we think defines us aren’t our identities. If, after all, those things were Zacchaeus’ (or our) identity, why in the world would Jesus bother to give him a new identity, which is exactly what is happening when Jesus calls him a son of Abraham. I’m not a big fan of skipping around to passages, but this one is important. In Galatians 3, we learn that a “Son of Abraham” are the ones of faith. And in Luke 13, the woman who was bent over for 18 years, was called a “Daughter of Abraham”. When people are identified this way, it says something first of all about their faith. But it also says something about their identity within the family of God. Often the ones who are described by their connection to Abraham are the ones who are for some reason outcasts. The woman I just mentioned would have been doubly “out”, one because she was a woman, and two, because she had such a serious physical deformity.

And certainly, Zacchaeus was an outcast, though by way of his occupation more than anything else. He had to have been lonely. He must’ve wished that he had someone to confide in. But of course, no one was willing to step up for that job. But Jesus comes along and says, “Look, Zacchaeus, it doesn’t matter what people say, or if they laugh at you, because you belong. You have a place in this family, in my family.” The fact that Zacchaeus is a tax collector isn’t important. Neither is the fact that he is wealthy or short. Those words describe him, they don’t identify him. His identity is in the fact that he’s been called family, by no less than Jesus himself.

Gosh, he’s even been called a person of faith, in so many words. How interesting. Is that how you would’ve described him? Faith is probably not the first word that came to my mind as I thought of Wee little Zacchaeus, who was known for cheating people out of their money. I wonder how Jesus thinks of faith– it sure must not be the way that we think of it. Let’s be honest. When we think of “faithful” folks, we might as well substitute the word “saint”. When we think of faithful people, we think of people whose lives are spent in prayer, in service, and in other things that we deem as “Christian-like”. Faithful, to us, seems to mean obedient. But the people that Jesus calls faithful aren’t always the ones who get it right. In fact, as often as not, “faithful” seems to refer to the ones who are missing the mark– at least as we would think of it. The ones that Jesus calls faithful are the ones who don’t trust in themselves for healing or salvation. Zacchaeus knew that he wasn’t ever going to be a part of the “in” crowd. He was never going to belong. He was never going to get it right. But when he meets Jesus, and finally has a person in whom to place his trust, everything is different, and he knows it. Suddenly, he doesn’t need to justify himself before people. He doesn’t need his wealth to make up for his lack of loved ones. In the words of the song, Jesus is all he needs, and for that reason, he is held up as a man of faith.

I mentioned earlier that there is a debate about how to translate Zacchaeus response–whether he is currently giving away his earnings or if that is a promise as to how he will be in the future. Because the greek could be legitimately translated either way, I think we have to use the context to decide. The gospel, that is, the good news, in this sermon is that Jesus comes to seek and to save the lost. And as I look at this story, that must have been such good news to lonely, outcast, missing-the-mark Zacchaeus. I’d argue that something is changed in Zacchaeus when he meets Jesus–before Jesus can even get the words out, Zacchaeus knows that he was once lost, but now has been completely found. I’d argue that Zacchaeus makes a promise for his behavior in the future, just as I’d argue that he’s been changed from a taker to a giver. His response is a huge outpouring of gratitude for having been claimed by Jesus.
Something changes. I know you’ve all seen the cartoon movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, and how near the end, the grinch goes from having a heart five sizes too small, to just bursting with so much love. It gradually creeps up, and his heart seems to be warmed. I think that’s what must be happening to Zacchaeus, as he realizes that he matters to Jesus. Suddenly love and grace and compassion creep into his heart, and wait! What’s that feeling? Is it hunger? Or indigestion? No, it’s some other inside bubbling. Zacchaeus has been surprised by Joy.

Last week during the hymn sing, we sang a song called Pass it On– and I remember the words “It only takes a spark to get a fire going”. We don’t hear anything about Zachhaeus after this day, but I’d bet you that he became that spark that helped to encourage other people.

What can we learn from this Wee little man with the cutesy song? He is held up as a model of faith, not because he is doing everything right, but precisely because he knows he isn’t ever going to get it right on his own. He is changed by his encounter with Jesus, and suddenly joy bubbles over into every aspect of his life. But surely this isn’t anything shocking to us– we’ve all been changed, or are in the process of being changed, by our encounters with Jesus, or else no one would be here. No one treks to church Sunday after Sunday just because it’s the popular thing to do. We know that we’re a part of Christ’s family, but how easy it is to forget that brand-new feeling of being in a relationship with Christ. How quickly we let this amazing thing that has quite literally changed our lives become a rule-based drudgery.

Zacchaeus, prophet though he isn’t, has a word for us today. The word isn’t righteousness, or perfection. It’s joy. And it changes the very essence of who he is and how he is in the world.

May you go forth into the world in joy, because you too have been changed, named, and claimed, by Christ. Sons and Daughters of Abraham, salvation has come to this house today! Can I get an amen?


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