Signs, signs everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind
Do this don’t do that, can’t you read the signs.
This song by the Five Man Electric Band was a song of protest, but it also is a song about judgement. The first verse says “The sign says Long haired freaky people need not apply. So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why. He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do.” I took off my hat and said imagine that, huh, me working for you!
How often have we let the way someone looks, dresses, styles their hair, affect the way we view them? How often have we let stereotypes about professions, schools, race, gender, religion cloud the way we see someone else?
We all have our own judgements, and some are well deserved. But when these things get in the way of us hearing the word proclaimed, or witnessing God’s grace they need to be put aside.
Today’s scripture lesson can be difficult to hear when we look at it through cultural stereotypes or even our own stereotypes. The typical interpretation of this story is as follows:
Once upon a time Jesus was going into a city and people were excited to see him. The news traveled to a short man in the crowd who happened to be a tax collector (cue the boos). He couldn’t see the guy everyone was talking about so he chooses to climb a tree.
Jesus was walking past and noticed this strange man up in a tree. He looks up and tells the man to come down and then invites himself to dinner.
People complain that this short guy, probably with a Napoleon complex, isn’t worth Jesus’ time and effort. After all tax collectors are known sinners, bad hombre’s.
Zac hears these complaints and his pride is hurt. Or maybe just maybe he feels a twinge of guilt. He stands up and says to Jesus and the crowds “I will stop sinning right now. I’ll give half of everything to the poor and if I’ve defrauded anyone, (and they can prove it) I’ll pay back 4 times the amount.”
The crowd rejoices, Jesus says mazel tov and now salvation has come to this house. Everyone celebrates and Jesus moves on toward Jerusalem, one more saved soul on his belt.
That is the happy sanitized version, the VBS, Sunday school version. But I’m not sure that really accurate to the scripture we have, and how the Gospel of Luke intends this story to be seen.
Tax collectors traditionally are seen as bad guys. But time and time again in Luke tax collectors are something different. They are with the crowds that are baptized by John the Baptist. When they ask him what they should do he doesn’t say “Leave your profession because you cannot follow God and be a tax collector.” Instead he tells them to take no more than what they are owed. This indicates that tax collectors were not all sinners, there were some good apples in the mix. They just got painted with the same broad brush and so were tainted by association.
Jesus calls a tax collector to follow him. While Matthew does give up his job, he is seen as someone who will be a part of the inner circle. There is no dramatic change of heart, like we see in the Apostle Paul, rather he is called like Peter and responds. Just as he is, good enough for Jesus.
In our text last week Jesus holds up a man praying publicly crying out to God and beating his breast, aware of his sins and seeking relationship and forgiveness. This man is a what? A tax collector. And Jesus calls him justified.
So our first assumption, that all tax collectors are evil by nature doesn’t fit with the way Luke describes this group of people.
Zacchaeus is in the crowd seeking out the master. We are told that because he was short he could not see Jesus. Well, actually, it is intirely possible that he couldn’t see Jesus because Jesus was short. The term could just as easily apply to Jesus’ height as to Zacchaeus’ in the Greek. SO perhaps that lovely children’s song really should be Jesus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.
In our society however, shortness is a bad thing from a leader especially. The shorter candidate rarely becomes the president, for example. To think of Jesus as short shocks the senses and makes many of us squirm. Well, I don’t know for sure his height, but I do know that those pictures of him with blonde hair and blue eyes are not accurate.
Whatever the reason, Jesus’ hight or his own, Jesus finds Zaccheaus up a tree, unwilling to let any obsticales keep him for seeing the master. In his search to see Jesus, Jesus sees him. Jesus comes forward, calls him out of the tree and invites himself for the evening meal.
Who you ate with was a big deal in that culture, as we’ve discussed before, it was much like the junior high lunch room where who you sit with denotes how well liked or popular you are. Jesus is going to the house of a tax collector, who the common world judges based on his occupation and relationship with the Roman oppressors as sinful.
The crowd murmurs, grumbles, complains as they watch these two walk off together. Finally Zacchaeus can take it no longer. He stops and cries out to Jesus and to the crowd still listening.
Before I go into what he says, I want us to pay attention to his body language. What does he do to speak? Does he throw himself at Jesus feet like the repentant have done throughout Luke? Does he beat his breast like the Tax collector from chapter 18? No, he stands there. He stands in the presence of God, and the crowd. This is not a stance of repentance. This is a stance of defiance.
And what does he say? Well if we read from the NRSV or the NIV we hear him say “ I will give half of what I own. I will pay back 4 times what I’ve taken.” But these translations are honestly just bad.
I am not a Greek scholar, even though I studied Greek in seminary. I do however know some Greek scholars and have read the works of many scholars and as lot of them feel this is the worst translated verse in the scriptures. There has been an entire tense in ancient Greek created to be used in this one verse. It’s not used anywhere else in the whole of scripture.
The Common English BIble does a much better job with it. It reads “ Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
Not I will, but I am doing, its present tense, not future perfect, present as in ongoing. This is not a new promise. This is a declaration of what he is already doing.
And what he is already doing is way above what the law required. The law said give 10% away, to God to care for others. He give 50%. The law said if you defraud someone, pay them back twice as much. He is paying back four times as much.
Zacchaeus, who has been painted with the brush of sinner, is really going above and beyond God’s call. He is doubling what is required of him.
Jesus proclaims that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house not for Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus already believes in Jesus as lord, remember he wanted to see the master, a term not used by non-believers in Luke. No, these words are for the crowd to hear. This man, the one you ostracized, is a Son of Abraham, a child of God, a member of my flock. In your presence I say he is one I came to find and he is one I love.”
This is not a story about Zacchaeus’ salvation, this is about his restoration to the people of God. This is Jesus once again showing us that God is at work in places and people that we would never expect. This is the kingdom of God breaking out into the corners of the world that human beings thought were too corrupt to see hope, truth, let alone salvation.
Transformation happens in many different ways. Some have a Saul/Paul experience, a radical change that is life altering. Some have lives of faith that are lived quietly, without fanfare and hoopla, but still faithful.
Two questions arise from this view of Zacchaeus’ tale for me. One, Who do I grumble about? Who is it that I see and think, why would God offer them anything? They are too short, too tall, too big, too skinny, too rich, too poor, too famous, too insignificant, too, so many things.
How often do I let someone else’s outside keep me from valuing them inside?
But the second question is this, what am I doing that is causing grumbling?
Jesus welcomed someone who was unpopular and the crowds complained. Am I showing the radical, inclusive love of God in a way that might make the crowds complain? Am I standing up and saying that God’s love is big enough for all of us, even those that some people think are undesirable? Am I offering good news to all humankind, like the angles offered the shepherds?
This question is the most important to me personally. If I’m really extending God’s grace, there are some who won’t like it. But am I letting fear of their dislike or grumbling keep me from proclaiming the truth I hold so dear?
Jesus issues the invitation to discipleship to all, the invitation to a real relationship. The invitation to wholeness. The invitation to salvation. It is open and available to all. It is not something that we deserve; it’s not something we can earn! It is a gift, a precious gift given because of who God is, not because of who we are!
This invitation is open to all persons, in all places, at all times! Praise be to God that there is no LIMIT to the grace of Christ! There is no person who will be passed by. Isn’t that amazing! I ask, no I beg of us this morning that we not be like the crowds that try to keep people from coming because they are too young, too old, to short, too rich, too fill in the blank. But that we would be like Zacchaeus, so desperate to see the Lord that we would literally go out on a limb for the chance of that contact! All praise and Glory be to God, who is and was and is to come. Amen