Theme: Changing hearts
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, we give you thanks and praise for being with people, changing their hearts and minds to have compassion for others; be with us and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There’s an old story about an old fisherman who was very successful. Every morning he went out on the lake in a small boat and when he returned a couple of hours later, his boat was loaded down with fish. He never failed. People wondered how he did it, even when others were not catching anything at all. He always came in with his boat just overflowing with fish.
One morning a stranger showed up with his fishing tackle and said, “Mind if I go fishing with you this morning?” “No,” said the fisherman. “Just hop in and we’ll go over to a little cove where I always have good luck.”
The man hopped in the boat and off they headed across the lake until they came to a small cove. The old fisherman stopped the boat and cut off the motor. He reached over in his tackle box and took out a red stick of dynamite. He lit the fuse and held it for a moment as the fuse burned down. Then at the last moment he tossed it in the water and there was a tremendous explosion. Fish were everywhere on the water. He picked up his net and began scooping up the fish.
After watching this for a moment the stranger reached in his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Opening it up, he showed a badge and said, “I’m a game warden and you are under arrest.” The old fisherman simply reached over into his box and pulled out another stick of dynamite. He lit it and held it as the fuse burned down. Then, he tossed it to the game warden and said, “Now, are you going to just sit there or are you going to fish?”
Jesus, too, inspired people to change their minds.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and to his arrest and execution. To get there, he passes through Jericho. (Shameless plug again: you too can go be on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem with me in May.) In Jericho, Jesus encounters, yet again, a tax collector. They seem to be like locusts.
Luke actually names this one. His name is Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was very rich. He was a chief tax collector. This means that he had the contract with Rome to collect taxes. He didn’t physically collect taxes, instead he hired other people to do that. These are the ones we encounter as tax collectors in the gospels.
The people would see Zacchaeus as a traitor, because he is collaborating with a foreign occupying power. When the tax money passed from his collectors, through him, to the Roman authorities, he made sure he got his cut. Luke’s calling him rich is a big deal. There are very, very few people in Jesus’ world who are rich.
Luke also tells us something about how Zacchaeus appears. He is short. How short is he? He is soooo short that he cannot see Jesus through the crowd. He’s soooo short that no one sees him. He’s soooo short, he wears his children’s clothes. He is soooo short, he can count ants. Zacchaeus figured out where Jesus was going and went ahead, climbing in a sycamore tree.
Now a word about Jesus. Jesus isn’t even staying in Jericho. Jericho is a long way from Galilee. Yet the people of Jericho not only know who Jesus is, but they recognize him. They didn’t have TV. They didn’t have newspapers with pictures printed on them. Yet they still knew who Jesus was when he showed up. For this to happen, Jesus had to be a really big deal. And somehow Zacchaeus knows about Jesus and dearly wishes to see him for himself.
It is in a sense ironic that Zacchaeus, though rich, could not get a good spot in the crowd to see Jesus. This may be that the people of Jericho probably didn’t like him very much and it was a lot safer for Zacchaeus to hang back and climb a tree. He could have hired a private security force, but he seems to have not done so. As a chief tax collector, he may have requested some Roman troops. But they would not be available to him at his beck and call.
What happens next is really curious. Jesus passes by the tree, sees Zacchaeus, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. Is that weird or what? How did Jesus know Zacchaeus? We don’t know. Zacchaeus is overjoyed to have Jesus invite himself to Zacchaeus’ home.
As they leave, the crowd who were so excited to see Jesus so much so that Zacchaeus couldn’t find a place in the crowd, are now indignant. They criticize Jesus. “He is going to the house of a crook.” Zacchaeus is a sinner. To add insult to injury, Jesus is going to eat Zacchaeus’ food that was paid for with their money. I mean, how would you feel about something like that? Jesus’ admiring throng now despises him. Jesus was probably used to that by now. It foreshadows what will happen in Jerusalem.
The important part of the story happens next. Zacchaeus has some kind of conversion. Maybe it was because he was merely in Jesus’ presence. Zacchaeus is going to give half of his wealth to the poor, who would be most of Jericho. And he says that if he defrauded anyone, he will give restitution of four times the amount.
The offer to give away four times the amount defrauded tells us something of Zacchaeus’ honesty. I doubt anyone would make such an offer if that person was dishonest. If much of Zacchaeus’ wealth was from dishonest means, he would soon run out of money before everyone received restitution. So, Zacchaeus was an honest man. Maybe.
Jesus was overjoyed to hear Zacchaeus’ words. Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house and that Zacchaeus is a child of Abraham. Children of Abraham are also children of God. Special people singled out of humanity for a special divine relationship. Before he gets to Jerusalem, Jesus has completed part of his mission: to find those who have lost their way and turn them to God.
There are many, many people Jesus meets during his journeys that are never named in the gospels. Zacchaeus is. It could be that Zacchaeus became an important member of the young church. Remember, Jesus’ resurrection is a week away from this encounter. This could be a way for early Christians to know how it is that a tax collector could be allowed to be a member of the church.
This is a story of impulsive actions: Zacchaeus runs to tree, Jesus invites himself to dinner, and Zacchaeus’ giving away much of his wealth. It could also be argued that Jesus’ going to Jerusalem is impulsive.
Zacchaeus turns out to be very generous. He does a shift in his head and his heart. All the stuff he has is just stuff. He needs some and probably wants some, but he will give away a lot. Being very wealthy, he probably had more clothes than he really needed. He could give away half and he would still be in good shape. The same would be true of much of what he has. But it is his change of world view and of what he has that Jesus praises. That is what Jesus asks of all of us.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, instill in us the gift of generosity; that we may reflect your generous love for us in our expressions of love for others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: Luke 19:1–10 (NRSV)
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”