The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.
Let’s begin with a pop quiz:
According to Luke 19:1-10, Zacchaeus was:
- Short in stature
- A chief tax collector
- A sinner
- A Son of Abraham
- All of the above.
If you picked “e,” you’re right, but if you’re like me there was a time when each of those seemed like the right answer.
When I was a boy, for instance, I knew that Zacchaeus was a “wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” We sang that song in Sunday school. But we also learned the story of Zacchaeus, and if you had asked me I could have told you that one day when the Lord was passing through his town he climbed up in a sycamore tree to see him. I could relate to that. If Jesus had passed through my town I might have had to climb a tree; I was a wee little man myself. But I could have also told you that when Jesus passed that way he looked up in the tree and saw Zacchaeus and told him to come down. Why? “For I’m going to your house today. For I’m going to your house today.” That’s the end of the song, and in those days, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the story. The good news was not that Zacchaeus was a sinner who got saved; the good news was that Jesus was going to his house. It made me wonder what kind of songs we would sing if Jesus came to my house.
But as I got older I learned that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and as far as his fellow Jews were concerned, that was a bad thing. He was working for the Roman government, the same government whose armies had conquered Israel back in 63 B.C. and whose soldiers still swaggered through its streets. He was taxing his fellow Israelites, and handing over a substantial portion of their hard-earned income to Caesar. But apparently he was keeping a good bit for himself. He was growing rich at his neighbors’ expense, and nobody liked that. They grumbled about him behind his back. They called him a “sinner.”
And when I got to seminary I learned a little more about that. The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia. It means, literally, “to miss the mark.” I pictured someone shooting an arrow at an archery target, aiming for the big, red bullseye in the center, but missing—maybe by an inch, maybe by a mile. So, I learned that a sinner is a “mark misser,” and that was new for me. It made me hopeful. It made me think that most sinners are at least aiming for the target; they’re trying to get it right, but they’re missing. Doesn’t that describe you most of the time? I mean, do you wake up in the morning looking for ways to sin, or do you wake up determined to do your best but by the end of the day realize, that in more ways than you want to admit, you missed the mark? Zacchaeus’s sin seems a little more deliberate than that. If the whole of the Jewish law could be summed up in the command to love God and love neighbor (as Jesus suggests), then Zacchaeus was not doing a very good job of loving his neighbors. He wasn’t even aiming his arrow in that direction. He was taxing them. He was taking more than his share. He was reducing some of them to poverty. It’s no wonder they called him “a sinner.”
So, when I became a pastor, and when this story showed up in the lectionary for the first time, I seized the opportunity to talk about Zacchaeus’s glorious conversion. He was a sinner, but for some reason he wanted to see Jesus (maybe there was something inside him that knew just how much he needed to be saved), and when Jesus saw him he did exactly what his Heavenly Father might do: instead of looking on Zacchaeus’s outward appearance he looked on his heart, and what he saw in that heart was good. So, he called him down out of the tree. He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today,” and Zacchaeus was so moved by the invitation that he knelt at Jesus’ feet, and with tears in his eyes promised to give half his money to the poor, and if he had defrauded anyone to pay them back fourfold. Jesus was amazed. He turned to the crowd and said, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a Son of Abraham!” And that’s how it works, right? If you are a sinner who confesses your sins (as it says in Psalm 32), and if you repent of those sins as Zacchaeus did and promise to live a different kind of life, then Jesus can forgive you of your sins and offer you the gift of salvation, right? That’s what I learned in church when I was growing up. That’s what I shared with my congregation the first time I preached this passage. It’s absolutely true, but it may not be what this story is about.
Because the last time I preached this passage I learned something new. I learned that the verbs Zacchaeus uses in his defense are not in the future tense, but in the present tense. That is, when the crowd starts grumbling about him and saying he’s a sinner, he doesn’t say to Jesus, “From now on I will give half of my money to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay them back fourfold,” he says, “I already give half my money to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I pay them back fourfold. It’s my standard business practice.” Well, that changes the story completely, doesn’t it?
So, why didn’t I see it before? Why didn’t we all see it? Because everyone wants this to be a conversion story, including the people who translate the Bible, even the New Revised Standard Version, the one I have trusted since seminary, the one that’s in our pew racks! The translators of that Bible and the New International Version want so much for this to be a story about a man whose life was changed forever by his encounter with Jesus that they have changed the verbs forever: they have taken an ordinary present tense verb and twisted it into something they call the “future-present,” as if Zacchaeus were saying, “From this moment on I give half my money to the poor.” But if you ask them how many times the so-called future-present appears in the New Testament they will have to admit, “Only once. Only here in Luke 19:8.” Because it isn’t a real thing. They made it up. Their love for a good conversion story has skewed their translation.
But others have taken the verbs at face value. If it’s a present active indicative verb then that’s how they translate it. In the English Standard Version, the one I have on my phone, Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything I restore it fourfold.” And when Eugene Peterson paraphrased this passage in his version of the Bible, the Message, he quoted Zacchaeus as saying, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.” And if that’s too modern for you take a look at the King James Version, published in 1611, where Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”
Reading these verbs in the present tense rather than the future tense makes it harder to hear this as a conversion story, but it makes it easier to understand Jesus’ response, because when the people start grumbling about Zacchaeus and saying that he is a sinner, and Zacchaeus defends himself by saying he gives half his money to the poor, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Why? “Because he too is a Son of Abraham.” If you can hear it, Jesus is restoring Zacchaeus to his place in the community by restoring his identity as a good and faithful Jew. And if the community can hear it, then this story has the potential to become a different kind of conversion story, a story in which it is not Zacchaeus, but the people of Jericho, who are converted.
Think about that archery target again. What if that big, round circle were the circle of community, and what if the people who ended up in the center of that circle were not necessarily the most righteous, but simply the most acceptable? Can you see how Zacchaeus would be pushed out because he collected taxes from his neighbors? But can you see how many other people might get pushed out of that circle through no fault of their own? On Friday morning I posted this question on Facebook. I asked: “What are some of the things that push people out of ‘polite’ society? For example: the man who gets fired from his high-profile job and finds that no one will return his phone calls? Or the woman whose cancer diagnosis makes it hard for people to know what to say, so they begin to avoid her? Failure, illness…what else?” And then I waited for the answers.
The first one came within minutes: “Becoming a religious wacko will do it. By which I mean—falling so in love with Jesus and being so intoxicated by the Spirit that everything else in this fallen world seems dark and drab.”
The next person wrote: “Divorce.”
A few minutes later someone wrote: “So many things will [push you outside the circle]. Grief or loss come to mind foremost.”
Another wrote: “Insecurity, self doubt”
An old college friend added: “Becoming a widow/widower or being divorced… Losing a child due to illness or miscarriage… Telling your friends/family/coworkers that you are gay.”
Someone wrote: “Drug addiction/alcohol abuse.”Bottom of Form
Another added: “Having a disability or being disfigured in an accident.”
Someone wrote: “Depression.”
Another added: “Being a trauma survivor with all the challenges that linger on for years.”
Someone wrote: “Marrying a person of another race.”
Another wrote a long post that began with the words: “Society’s intolerance of introverts.”
Someone wrote: “Extended illness,” and another agreed, writing: “The world gets tired of dealing with a person’s infirmity.”
Someone else wrote: “Divorce.”
The next person wrote: “Divorce and being gay.”
Someone wrote a longer post about the challenges of mental illness.
Someone wrote: “A child with behavioral problems. That has isolated us for years now.”
Someone wrote: “When you make a horrible mistake and you think you can’t be forgiven.”
Another added: “Poverty. Your life is going well. Then, boom. Medical event, loss of job, divorce, economy, etc. It’s amazing when poverty or loss of status strikes you. Your circle of friends or acquaintances shrink. Downright crater. You learn fast who your REAL friends are.”
A pastor wrote: “When you leave a church and people think you did something wrong.”
A church member wrote: “Gender transitioning.”
Someone mentioned the stigma of suicide and said she left church for more than ten years after no one reached out to her after her father’s death.
Someone wrote: “Being a felon. Even for non-violent offenses.”
Someone else mentioned the awkward pause in a workplace conversation when you say anything that sounds too Christian.
Another wrote: “Shame or self-pity due to not being able to measure up intellectually, financially, family circumstances, etc.”
There were more: people talked about aging, Alzheimer’s, grieving, loss of a spouse, loss of a child, loss of hearing, leaving a promising career to care for your children, disability, addiction, coming out, and again divorce, which was mentioned a half dozen times in that thread. One person wrote: “When you get divorced, no one brings casseroles!” which made me think we need to start a new ministry.
I hope I’ve given you enough examples to convince you that people get pushed out of polite society by all sorts of things. It’s as if there’s this place at the center of the circle for people who are bright, young, attractive, healthy, happily married, gainfully employed, with 2.4 perfect children, and then there are the rest of us, somewhere outside the circle, wondering how we got there. But here’s the good news: Jesus is outside the circle, too. If you look hard enough you can almost see him, poking around in the darkness, looking for people who have been pushed out of polite society, finding those whose hearts are still good, picking them up, brushing them off, and bringing them back to the center of the circle. At the end of today’s Gospel lesson he stands beside Zacchaeus and says, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a Son of Abraham.” And then he says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
And that’s the end of the story. There’s Zacchaeus, restored to his rightful place in the community. But there’s no guarantee he will stay there. There’s no promise that the people who pushed him out the first time won’t do it again. And maybe that’s why Jesus felt the need to create a new community, one he called the Kingdom of God, where everyone would be welcome, no matter what. In his thinking it would be a place where you didn’t have to be perfect; you only had to be human.
Sometimes I meet people who ask me, “Do you think I would be welcome in your church?” And I look them up and down, wondering what kind of reception they would get. These are good-hearted people for the most part. They want to come to church and I want to say yes, but I have to be honest: some of them might be hard to accept. So, here’s what I do: I say yes anyway, and then I hope and pray that they will be accepted, that this church will be for them the kind of community Jesus had in mind, the one he called the Kingdom of God, where everyone is welcome, no matter what. And sometimes I picture Jesus himself standing there beside them, introducing them to the congregation at the end of the service and saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this one, too, is a child of God.”
—Jim Somerville © 2022