Sunday, 3 November 2013

How Small Was Zacchaeus?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
3rd November 2013

Luke 19:1-10  He 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."

Luke 18:18-27  A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  19 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  20 You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.'"  21 He replied, "I have kept all these since my youth."  22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.  24 Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."  26 Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?"  27 He replied, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God."

Today’s story from Luke’s gospel is one
          that I think I’ve known my whole life.
I can remember as a little child in Sunday School
          learning that song about Zacchaeus
                   who, apparently, was a very little man
                             and a very little man was he.
          He climbed into a sycamore tree,
                   for, in defiance of the normal conventions
                             of conversational grammar,
                   the saviour he wanted to see…

Well, we all know Zacchaeus, don’t we?
          Good old Zacchaeus, good old tiny little Zacchaeus.

But the question that occurred to me,
          as I was preparing for this morning, was this:
                   Exactly how little was he?

We don’t know very much about this pint-sized hero
          of the opening paragraph of Luke 19.
But I’d like to know just how vertically challenged he was.

I mean, would our fun-sized tax collector
          be small enough
          to fit this pulpit correctly,
                    rather than towering over it as I do?

Or would our well endowed Lilliputian
          be diminutive enough
          to walk under the communion table?

Or would our arboreal Borrower
          be petite enough
          to slip into my pocket?

Or would Zacchaeus be small enough, possibly,
          to pass through the eye of a needle?

You see, we cannot read the story of Zacchaeus
          in isolation from that of the rich young ruler
          from the previous chapter.

In the rich young ruler, we meet a good man,
          a law-abiding and godly man,
who ultimately goes away saddened by his encounter with Jesus,
          because he discovers that he loves his possessions
                   too much to be parted from them.
And then Jesus says,
          "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 
          Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
                   than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

So who then, we are left wondering,
          can enter the kingdom?
Is it only those who give away all their money?
          Are the righteous only to be found among the penniless?

I hope the answer to this is ‘no’,
          because I, along with many others, am far from penniless.

And so we come to Zacchaeus,
          a small man who has received something of a bad press over the years.

I started the sermon with a passing observation
          about the importance of grammar,
and I’m afraid we have to spend a moment or two
          on a technicality of Greek grammar
because it affects the way we read our passage.

Normally, Zacchaeus is presented as a bad man, a corrupt man,
          someone who has grown very wealthy by defrauding others
          and collaborating with the Roman occupation of Israel.
And his encounter with Jesus is normally understood as a conversion story,
          with his decision to give away half his money
                   and to repay those he has defrauded
          providing the evidence of his repentance and salvation.

And the Bible version we use here at Bloomsbury, the NRSV,
          certainly translates the story in this way:

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."

But the difficulty here is that this passage, in the original Greek,
          is not in the future tense at all.
It’s in the present tense…
          In other words, Zacchaeus isn’t promising
                   to change his ways from here on in;
          rather, he is explaining that this is already his practice!

The RSV captures this sense much better:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord,
‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor;
and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’

He isn’t so much repenting,
          as he is attesting his righteousness.

And if this reading is right,
          a very different Zacchaeus starts to emerge from the story.

He’s not the bad man who repents,
          rather, he’s a man trying desperately to be good,
          in the midst of a financial system
                   that tends towards corruption at every turn.

After all, he is a tax collector, and a chief tax collector at that!
          He’s the big cheese at the top of the tree,
                   and the tree he’s at the top of is pretty dirty in places.
          He’s a man who has managed to climb his way to the top,
                   but who knows that the climb has left his hands somewhat soiled.

          And so he already has a system in place
                   to ensure that his money doesn’t own him,
                   to ensure that his money doesn’t corrupt him.
          He gives half his money to the poor,
                   and if he defrauds someone, knowingly or not,
                   he repays them four times as much.

Tom Wright sums up the problem facing Zacchaeus,
          and it’s the same problem faced by so many of us…
He says, ‘Wherever money changes hands,
                   whether across a grubby table in a tin shack
                   or across a sparking computer screen in a shiny office
                             on the ninety-ninth floor of a Wall Street skyscraper,
                   the hands all too easily get dirty.
          Whenever money starts to talk,
                   it shouts louder than the claims
                   of honesty, respect and human dignity.’

In the eyes of his society,
          Zacchaeus the chief tax collector was a negative figure.
The game of ‘bash the banker’ is clearly nothing new,
          with those who succeed financially
          having always been an easy target
                   for those further down the pyramid.

Jericho was a centre for the collection of taxes,
          and the Romans worked with the Jewish tax authorities
          to ensure that not only were the taxes collected
                   for the local government of Judea,
          but also that taxes were taken
                   to pay for the Roman occupation of the land,
                   and to fund the wider regime of the Roman empire.

The Jewish population massively resented paying taxes to Rome,
          and regarded those who were involved in the taxation system
                    as traitors to their nation,
                   as collaborators with the Romans.
And so Zacchaeus would have been ostracised by his own people,
          pre-judged as a sinner
          because of his profession and his success.
Zacchaeus could protest his personal ethical code all he liked,
          but in the eyes of his own people,
          he was no longer fit to be called a Jew.
He was, to put it another way,
          lost to the house of Israel.
He had been crowded out
          by those who would belittle and demean him.

‘Zacchaeus was a very little man, and a very little man was he’
          you can almost hear the local children chanting,
          as he is diminished in their eyes.

Crowd-mentality can be an ugly thing, can’t it?
          As we collectively decide who’s in, and who’s out;
                   who’s part of us, and who’s lost to us.
Society fixates on certain people, certain professions,
          and rules them persona non grata.
And so some people live at one remove from society,
          not necessarily because they are bad people,
          but just because they don’t fit.

It seems there was something about Zacchaeus
          that drew him to Jesus.
Like so many of us who have money and possessions,
          there was something in him that nagged,
          something that drove him to seek a better way.

It’s surely no co-incidence that when Zacchaeus tries to see Jesus,
          he climbs a tree to the top,
          over the heads of the crowd who were in the way.
He might not be the bad man of his own legend,
          but he certainly seems to be a man who is used to getting to the top.

The crowd would have kept him in his place,
          but he is determined to catch a glimpse of the good rabbi,
          who is talking about a better way, a new way of being human,
                   where status and hierarchy case to matter,
          and where each person is valued for who they are,
                   not for who other people think they are.

And as so many others have discovered since Zacchaeus,
          when someone goes looking for Jesus,
          they discover that Jesus has been looking for them all the while.

In the background to Luke’s story of the lost tax collector,
          are three other stories of ‘lost-ness’ also unique to Luke’s gospel,
                   I’m thinking of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin,
                             and the lost (or prodigal) son,
          all of which demonstrate that God’s primary concern,
                   as revealed in Jesus,
          is to recover that which is lost.

Like the good shepherd searching for the lost sheep,
          like the woman searching for the lost coin,
          like the father searching for the lost son,
so the Son of Man seeks those who are lost,
          in order to restore them
          and to bring salvation to their house.

The parables of chapter 15 become reality in chapter 19,
          and the stories of finding that which has been lost
take flesh in the telling,
          becoming real in the life of a little tax collector.

And so Zacchaeus climbed his tree,
          rising above the crowd that had already written him off,
                    had already consigned him to the back of the queue.
And the stage was set for his encounter with Jesus,
          the scene so beloved by Sunday School teachers down the years.

Zacchaeus looks down, Jesus looks up,
          their eyes met across a crowd...
          and suddenly everything is different.
Zacchaeus starts as a spectator,
          but quickly finds himself drawn in
          as an active participant for the kingdom.

Jesus does what he has done elsewhere,
          and invites himself to share a meal
          with the ostracised tax collector.

Luke’s gospel is particularly, and somewhat surprisingly,
                   positive about tax collectors:
          they are listed amongst those coming to be baptised (3.12, 7.29),
                   they come near to Jesus to listen to him (15.1),
          Jesus regularly shares food with them (5.29-30; 7.34),
                   one of the disciples, Levi, is a tax collector (5.27),
          and the tax collector in the parable
                   we looked at just last week goes away justified (18.13-14).

It’s almost as if, for Luke, the socially marginalised tax collector
          is the perfect example of exactly the kind of person
          who the religious establishment would write off
                   as unredeemably compromised
          but whom Jesus intentionally reaches out to.

The children’s song captures the moment beautifully:

          And when the Saviour passed that way,
          He looked into the tree and said,
          'Now, Zacchaeus, you come down,
          For I'm coming to your house to tea.'

In the ancient world, eating with someone was a highly symbolic action.
          To go to someone’s house, and to receive hospitality from them,
                   was to impart value upon them.
          To take the gift of food from someone
                   was to pay the giver an honour.
And for a rabbi like Jesus to take the initiative
          and invite himself to the house of a notorious outsider like Zacchaeus
          was an unusual move, to put it mildly.

The visit of Jesus to the house of Zacchaeus
          was an intentional breaking down of the barriers
          that had kept him apart from society.
To eat with him, to share food with him,
          was to impart to him an honour
          that no-one else would grant.

And it’s as Jesus sits at his house,
          that the righteousness of Zacchaeus is revealed.
It emerges that he is not what others had thought he was,
          he isn’t a man on the make,
          determined to succeed whatever and whoever the cost.
Rather, he is a man who has not allowed his money to own him,
          and who has discovered the possibility
                   of a life lived out of grace and generosity;
                   both generosity of spirit, and generosity of pocket.

The contrast with the rich young ruler couldn’t be more clear:
          The rich young ruler was publicly holy and visibly righteous,
                   a great man, a tall man,
                   the kind of man others would look up to,
                    as an example of someone who had it all and had made it work.
          And yet, when he met the call of Christ,
                   he discovered that his love of money
                   was keeping him from entering the kingdom.

          Zacchaeus on the other hand was shunned by his own people
                   he was looked down on as a small man,
                   looked up to by no-one.
          And yet, when he met the call of Christ,
                   he discovered that his generosity and humility
                   attested his righteousness far more
                             than any public display of holiness could have done.

His fourfold repayment to anyone who he may have defrauded
          was at the top end of that required by the Jewish law (Ex 22.1)
and his giving of half of his money to the poor
          was clearly a highly generous act.

But, and here’s the significant thing,
          we are not led to believe that either of these acts on Zacchaeus’ part
          left him as a poor or an impoverished man.

Half of a lot is still a lot,
          and even once the compensation has been given
                   to those who have been defrauded
          we can still think of Zacchaeus as a man of means.

And yet, his response is clearly adequate in Jesus’ eyes…

Plainly, ‘giving it all away’ is not the economic response
          that is required of everyone who would follow Jesus.

Perhaps what we can learn from Zacchaeus,
          the small man who passes through the eye of the needle,
is that what is required is a discovery and embodiment
          of the kingdom values of generosity and humility.

For some of us this may involve a radical transformation
          of our approach towards money
But others of us may find here a gracious assurance
          that we are loved and accepted by Jesus
          and welcomed into the kingdom of God.

Whatever it is that Christ asks of us,
          it begins with hospitality,
                   it begins with him reaching out to us
                             across all assumptions and attitudes
                             that would divide, exclude, and condemn
          it begins with the sharing of food,
                    and the breaking down of barriers.

Jesus invites us, too, to eat with him,
          and to see what we might discover about ourselves as we do so.

And so we come to the table,
          at the invitation of Jesus.

We come as we are:
          little people, tall people,
          the sinners and the righteous,
          the poor and the wealthy,
          the holy and the compromised.
We come, not because of any goodness of our own,
          but because we need mercy and help.
And as we eat with Jesus, and he with us,
          salvation comes to our house also,
          as our eyes are opened to the possibilities
                   of a life lived out of generosity and grace.

That which was lost is found,
          that which was excluded is made welcome,
and the new society of the people of God,
          that new way of being human that is the kingdom of God,
          becomes real in our midst.

So Jesus invites us to eat with him,

          and he comes to our house to eat with us.

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