The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Many a child came home from Bible School singing a song about Zacchaeus. You may forget your cell phone number, but you’ll always remember, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he.” This past week I watched on You Tube as someone’s dancing darling performed to the song. She shakes, looks up at an imaginary Zacchaeus, wags her finger, and demands he come down now, over and over. I’m sure her parents are thrilled. I think it could be awhile before Dancing with the Stars comes looking for her.
Zacchaeus is short, vertically and short on friends. He’s a tax collector – Rome’s CHIEF agent in Palestine. He’s wealthy, known and despised by his people. Today Jesus passes through Zach’s hometown, Jericho. Shops close, schools let out, and sidewalks are packed with people straining to see Jesus.
The wee little man wants to see Jesus, too. When he gets downtown, the place is so crowded, all he can see is backs and bottoms. No one will let step aside for Zach to see. So he finds a tree to climb and hides among branches and leaves. Here Jesus comes. He stops, walks over and looks up into the tree. Jesus calls him down – and hurry. The crowd wonders, “Will Jesus whack Zach with one of those parables about wealth and the evils of greed?” Jesus draws a breath and continues, “You’re my host. I’m going home with you today.” Zach is elated and shimmies down. Maybe he hasn’t yet thought how this will go over with Mrs. Zacchaeus, “Honey, guess who’s coming for dinner?”
“What – is Jesus serious?” “Of all people to go home with,” the crowd mumbles and grumbles to each other, “He’s cavorting with a blatant sinner, that rotten Zacchaeus. Son of God would never do something like that.”
During the murmuring, Zacchaeus blurts out, “I’m giving half my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times.” That’s way more than the Law requires for restitution. Now, I’m not sure which is worse, telling the wife he’s brought home an unexpected dinner guest; or telling her, “Honey, hand over your charge cards.
Jesus has the last word, “This man is no sinner. He’s a son of Abraham. I came to seek and save the lost. Today salvation comes to his household.” He would know. After all, his Father makes the rules.
Jesus ignites something in Zacchaeus. He calls him something no else has – Son of Abraham, a citizen in God’s reign. Others have kept Zach out – a sinner, not fit to be with others; he doesn’t belong. Sometimes we become what others label us – good labels and bad. We need to be careful with our words.
But then Jesus passes by and tells us we’re God’s beloved, and have been all along. When Jesus calls us, he brings salvation with him – to our house, too. And the sign we have fully received God is we are changed – totally turned upside down, headed in another direction – toward God’s desires. That’s what salvation, wholeness, healing look like. One saved by God’s love might give generously to the poor, or make other amends.
And whether Jesus goes to Zach’s literal house or not – Luke doesn’t tell us, Jesus does enter the house of his heart. In that inner place Jesus lives forever. Jesus has restored Zach to his God-given place. Jesus breaks through boundaries and walls that keep tax collectors and any sinner from believing God loves them, too. It’s the good, religious folks of Jericho who resist such good news.
Jesus came to call out and save the lost. That’s what he says. When sign on to follow, Jesus doesn’t say, “Stay here, sit on pews, listen and feel comforted.” Jesus gives us a mission. We make amends, become generous, look at others with love, and look out for their well-being. That’s a sign Jesus is in our house. Then he sends us to continue his mission, seeking those who are yet to know and believe that they too are Abraham’s Child, beloved, citizens in God’s reign; call them down from trees if they’re up one; hear their stories of pain and exclusion, invite them see the place they already are – beloved of God, citizens in God’s reign. And we put our arms out to welcome them home.
Those grumbling, self-righteous religious folks who won’t seek and welcome those Jesus wants are exposed that day for what they have become. No wonder Jesus gets labeled a trouble maker. Jesus upsets the norms, the religious order, and the status quo. Outsiders become insiders. Insiders stand outside looking in, wondering what’s just happened – that’s a sign God’s reign has come. If we have good sense, we’ll get with the program.
I wonder what people in the world see in us church folks. I hope they experience Jesus’ love, seeking them through us – our arms open to embrace and welcome them home. I hope they see us a force for changing the world for God’s sake.
Our story began when we met a short IRS guy, standing tall on his accomplishments and financial success. The story ends with a guy who towers over others in faith and grace, and his great assets and successes at the expense of others are now so small. Be careful, because I’m going to ask you think about it long and hard. Do you really want to meet Jesus? When it happens you’ll be transformed, different – and you’ll know it, and so will others. It’s a sign of salvation.