October 30, 2016: Proper 26, Year C
[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I havedefrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Have you ever noticed how Jesus had a hard time getting on with the good guys? The Pharisees, the devoted, the “churchgoers” of the first century—these are the ones who are usually scandalized by Jesus and his teaching. And this is especially so when he is rubbing shoulders with “the wrong kind of people” such as sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors.
In first century Palestine, tax collectors were especially “the wrong kind of people.” They worked for Rome, collecting revenue for the occupying political power. Devout Jews believed it was Rome that was holding back the Kingdom of God, that time in which the Messiah would restore home rule to sons of Abraham and reinstate the Golden Age of King David. Tax collectors were therefore seen as traitors. They were in league with the enemy.
Moreover, tax collectors were known for being “ethically challenged,” unscrupulous in their collections. Besides the money they got for Rome, they would overcharge (or “round up” we might say) thereby padding their own pockets. In a number of ways tax-collectors were getting rich off the oppression of their kinsmen.
Just as the good guys didn’t eat with Romans or other Gentiles, this being considered unkosher —literally, “not clean”— Pharisees and other observant Jews would not eat with tax collectors, since they were considered even worse than the pagans. But Jesus wants to have a meal with this notorious character named Zacchaeus. Christ doesn’t care that the man is unclean, doesn’t mind what his sins may be. He bids him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today,” all of this showing that Jesus is actually a friend of sinners, and is not at all ashamed to be seen with folks even as notorious as Zacchaeus.
What is the effect? As the feast, the party, ensues, Zacchaeus is transformed by Jesus’ mercy and love. Zacchaeus’ heart overflows in generosity and a desire to restore his ill-gotten gain, all of this happening without coercion or a call to repent! Apparently, Jesus didn’t have to tell Zacchaeus what a scoundrel he was; he just let his heart go out to him. And maybe that’s only way true transformation can happen.
We can apply this Gospel story in two ways. First, we can let it speak to ourselves. Secondly, it can influence the way we interact with those “sinners” we meet each and every day.
First, we are all tempted to think—probably somewhere below our consciousness—“God would love me more if I were a better person: if I cleaned up my act, if I went to church more, if I more earnestly resolved to give my entire life to him.” This passage tells us that it actually goes the other way round. It is Jesus’ love and acceptance that transforms us. We don’t fix ourselves. Rather, it is his embrace, his mercy, his friendship that makes the difference. No amount of work or willpower can transform the human heart—only love can do it! The bottom line is that Jesus loves us not as we ought to be but as we are. And it is in experiencing this love, or what Christians call “grace,” that we are transformed in ways that are otherwise impossible.
Regarding the “sinners” we meet, we would do well to follow Jesus’ lead. Sure, there are times and places to call others to repentance. But sometimes Christians fall into the trap of thinking that they are the good guys, and that it is the job of the good guys to convince “the wrong kind of people” how bad they are! How crazy is that?
Perhaps it would go better if we reached out to others the way Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus: freely, without condition, willing to be friends with the kinds of folk who would shock our churchgoing friends. Maybe we don’t need to point out how people are doing it wrong, and focus more on Jesus’ way of doing it right: accepting, including, befriending people as they are. And maybe that kind of love, Jesus’ kind of love, that will have a transforming effect.