We are back in the gospel according to Luke this morning, and if you were with us last week, you might remember that the second half of Luke’s gospel is all about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and towards the cross. Last week, Jesus was somewhere between Galilee and Samaria. Today, he gets to Jericho – his last stop before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem – what we call ‘Palm Sunday.’
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
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 sycomore 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.’
Jesus arrives in Jericho to much fanfare – even though he wasn’t really stopping, the crowds come out to see him. That crowd included Zacchaeus, who was a Jew but worked for the Romans collecting taxes. And there are two levels to this portrayal of Zacchaeus as a villain – one political, and one religious.
Politically, people hated tax collectors because paying taxes was a reminder that they were completely under the thumb of the Roman empire. They did not have their own king or kingdom, and even their ability to live and worship according to the Law was questionable depending on who was in charge.
Religiously, these tax collectors also violated the Torah on the regular, because they often demanded bribes or ‘extra fees’ on top of the already-high taxes – then used that to line their own pockets. (That’s what the writer here is insinuating when he says ‘Zacchaeus was rich.’ He was rich because he stole it.)
But still, this chief tax collector is at least curious about Jesus, so he goes out to see what he can see. By now, he’s certainly heard the stories about this man who does miracles and baffles the religious leaders and talks in stories and parables. He’s been called the Messiah more than once.
But Zacchaeus is short, so he can’t see, so he climbs up in a tree. (Fun fact: what we know as sycamore trees only grow in North America. This particular sycamore was actually a type of fig tree that grows really tall and really wide – making it the perfect climbing tree.)
And the climax of the story comes when Jesus, who was just passing through, sees Zacchaeus. And despite all of his dysfunction, all of his greed, all of the ways he’s taken advantage of others, Jesus says: “you. Come here, because we’re going to be friends.”
And in the time it takes for him to scramble down from that giant fig tree, there are already complaints: “he doesn’t deserve this.” “Why is Jesus hanging out with that guy?”
Suddenly, though, without any convincing or preaching or even talking with Jesus, Zacchaeus announces that he’s giving up that life.
There’s no telling how this transformation took place, because it was all internal. Whether it was a sudden realization that what he’d done was wrong or it was a moment of pure joy at being welcomed and accepted by Jesus, Zacchaeus immediately repents of every wrong he’s done and agrees to pay reparations.
Even that announcement is interesting, though – because the Law only requires someone who’s stolen from another to pay back the original amount. He goes above and beyond, not only donating half of everything he has, but agreeing to pay back all those he stole from 4x what he’d taken.
On the one hand, we might think: “all Jesus had to do was look at the guy, and he gave himself up.”
But on the other, I think Zacchaeus represents for us the folks we might have given up on – the ones we’ve written off as being ‘too far gone to help.’ Maybe Zacchaeus had been ready to turn things around for a while, but he didn’t know how to start. Maybe what it took was Jesus seeing him – all of him, as he was in that moment and not filtered through all the wrong he’d done – to break down the last of the walls holding up that old life.
The friends and neighbors he’d known his whole life couldn’t make Zacchaeus change – not with all the glaring and grumbling in the world – but the compassion and acceptance of Jesus opened the door for him to change his own ways.
Perhaps moments like this were what Jesus was thinking about when he sent the disciples out to minister throughout Israel, saying “the harvest is plenty, but the laborers are few.”
My mother was a social worker for several years, and one of her favorite sayings has always stuck with me: “you can’t fix people.” Our job as Christians is not to guilt or shove or shame anyone into a different life – even if we think it would be better for them. Rather, as Dorothy Day says, “our job is to love people without stopping to inquire whether they are worthy.”
Only the Holy Spirit can truly change our hearts. The people who love and care for us can pray and hope and encourage and offer all the support in the world, but at the end of the day we must each be responsible for our own morals, our own faith, and our own faithfulness.
Because this is true, the Church needs to be both incarnational and invitational:
we need to be able to show up, to see folks as they are, where they are, and to invite them into deeper relationship – both with Jesus and with this beloved community. Not everyone will take us up on that, but perhaps there are more Zacchaeus’ around than we realize.
My hope for the church is that we can continue in this ministry of presence and love for decades and generations to come – that we can be a center of welcome and encouragement, where folks are empowered to be the people Jesus has called them to be, and where the hurting and despairing come to find hope.
To do that, we rely on the generosity of this community – not only financially, but with time and energy, talent and gifts, and the occasional thing that no one really wants to do but needs to get done.
So every time we show up, donate something, plan a Sunday School lesson, or come to a committee meeting, we’re not only following in the faithful footsteps of those who came before us, but we’re making it possible for future generations to encounter Jesus in a way that changes everything.
In that hope, then, I want to invite you to take out your pledge cards for next year and your time and talent forms – and as we sing our next hymn, bring them forward, place them in the baskets on the Table, and offer what you can with joy and thanksgiving.