Sermons That Work

With the Story of Jesus and Zaccheus, Proper 26 (C) – 2004

October 31, 2004

With the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus we are nearly at the end of Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey from the region between Galilee and Samaria up to the city of Jerusalem (17:11 – 19:27) for the events leading to the Cross. The stories and parables told in this section all point to one of Luke’s basic convictions about Jesus, summarized at the end of the scene with Zacchaeus: “The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save the lost.” (19:10) Luke has illustrated what is meant by “the lost” with fairly typical Gospel characters whom Jesus finds along the way, or tells about in parables: lepers (17:12-19), a widow (18:1-8), a blind beggar (18:35-43), and a rich young ruler (18:18-29). Of all these lost souls, none is more “lost” than Zacchaeus, and none less typical.

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost is frequently replaced by All Saints’ Sunday, so the Zacchaeus story is often lost to Episcopal lectionary preaching. Perhaps that is why this rich, chief tax collector, who climbs a sycamore tree to look at Jesus, is lodged in Sunday school curricula more often than in an Episcopal pulpit. True, Zacchaeus seems tailor-made for a Sunday school lesson: every child in the room can relate to someone short in stature who has to climb a tree (climb a tree! Wow!) in order to get a look at what is happening inside a crowd gathered on the streets. But even in the hands of a really good Sunday school teacher, the story of Zacchaeus is usually greatly simplified.

Zacchaeus is not the ordinary kind of tax collector that appears in so many other scenes with Jesus in the Gospels; he is the chief tax collector, and he is rich. His wealth derives from the fact that he is an entrepreneur who has successfully bid for a contract with the Roman colonial administration to collect taxes and tolls in a given area, and then farms out the actual collecting to others who pay him a fee for the job. While in fact there may have been many honest tax contractors, the prevailing view was that a tax contractor was a vicious extortionist. Zacchaeus would also have been seen not just a traitor but as a collaborator whose prevailing interests lay with the Romans, not with his compatriots. Had ancient Palestine ever managed to evict the Romans, the crowds in the streets of Jericho would have shaved Zacchaeus’ head and crucified him upside down in the city center as the worst kind of betrayer.

As an “outsider” and “lost soul,” Zacchaeus is way beyond anything blind beggars, widows, and lepers represent in the stories that have brought us to this point in the Gospel narrative. To understand this is to grasp how truly shocking Jesus is when he voluntarily asks for this man’s hospitality—and therefore how shocked and amazed Luke wants us to be by God’s enormous generosity, grace, and mercy. The story of Zacchaeus is the last of such encounters in Luke’s Gospel; he represents the worst-case scenario of how low you can sink and yet be saved.

To the average listener or reader of Luke’s community, the notion of Zacchaeus’ repentance must have been almost beyond imagination. This is one reason why Luke gives such a wildly exaggerated account of the chief tax collector’s promise or vow of repentance and reparation. First, Zacchaeus says, “half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.” The ordinary limit imposed on charitable giving was about 20% of one’s possessions, and Zacchaeus vows a lavish 50%. Secondly, in the matter of required reparations to those he has defrauded and harmed, instead of the statutory additional 20%, Zacchaeus vows a massive 400%. This enormous and virtually un-measurable response only makes sense if we realize how enormous and un-measurable is the mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance of God towards the repentant sinner. We are in the presence of abundant generosity here, the overwhelming abundance of God’s acceptance, and the overwhelming abundance of the sinner’s thankful response.

The story of Zacchaeus is peculiarly appropriate to a Sunday dated October 31 on the calendar. Yes, our congregations will have their heads full of Halloween, especially parishioners with children and grandchildren, and those of us who buy large, decorative pumpkins. But our Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed sisters and brothers celebrate Reformation Sunday today, and the story of Zacchaeus brings life to what is otherwise a dry and dusty plank of Reformation theology: justification by grace through faith. The story shows very clearly indeed that God’s voluntary acceptance of Zacchaeus came before the chief tax collector’s repentance. Jesus showed God’s forgiveness by entering the life and household of a sinner, and the sinner’s repentance followed as a consequence.

In our liturgy we put confession first, and absolution afterwards. If we have spent many years doing this week after week on Sundays, we cannot help but get the impression that first we have to repent, and then we get forgiveness as a reward for repenting. But in our preaching on this day we have to point out that God actually does this thing backwards. With God, forgiveness and acceptance is there before we repent. And this is always and everywhere our chief reason for thanksgiving, be it the eucharistic Great Thanksgiving, or tiny prayers of gratitude in the course of daily life. No character in Gospel stories exemplifies more than Zacchaeus the abundant love that God bears towards the ungodly while they are still in the squalor of their ungodliness.

If we are committed to showing this kind of love, “not only on our lips but in our lives,” as the General Thanksgiving in Morning Prayer puts it, then the proper response to a child who has just broken the Steuben vase on the mantelpiece is to hug him first, and withhold the pocket money later. The right way to show God’s kind of love and forgiveness to anyone who cheats you is to send them flowers. And if we let rip our imaginations along that trajectory, we soon realize that the love and forgiveness of God surpass anything we can come up with ourselves. This love extends to the abuser, the liar, the thief, the cheat, and the killer, in circumstances that often produce too much human damage and hurt for us to begin to forgive until we see signs of repentance.

This is why the story of Zacchaeus comes so near the end of Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the Cross. What Jesus showed to a chief tax collector in Jericho is that God accepts and transforms the unacceptable, loves the un-loveable, forgives the un-forgivable. In Jesus death, God will voluntarily take on all the squalor and damage of sin, so that we can all respond to his love freely, and abundantly. Zacchaeus’s immeasurable repentance is a small icon of what happens when we see that in Christ God invites rather than demands repentance, and creates in us the response of repentance and reparation, instead of standing there waiting for us to make the first step. Zacchaeus was saved by grace and invited to faith—and so are we all.

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Christopher Sikkema


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