The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26C)
30 October 2016
Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may run without stumbling to obtain thy heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-5(6-10)11-12
Luke and our lectionary are working on a theme. Last week we heard Jesus tell his disciples the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and this week we have the story of Zacchaeus. The two differ in that the former is set up as a parable and the latter is recounted as an event in Jesus’ life. Parables are stories that illustrate a point. Their setting is meant to be familiar to the hearer or reader and it is constructed as to ring true to life. Elements of the story are not particularly designed to be symbolic of something else, rather the narrative is supposed to be taken as a whole and paint a picture of how things go in the world. Many of the classic parables Jesus shares explain how the Kingdom of God works, showing us that God’s project of reconciliation is organic, a process that unfolds, that it is inclusive, and that we have agency as to whether we choose to participate in that which God is achieving.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is meant to take two recognisable types of people—a visibly religious and observant person and someone who is constructed as marginal and unsavoury—and compare and contrast them. Along the way, Jesus inverts the expectations of his listeners and holds up the “sinner” as “justified” rather than the seemingly righteous one. Jesus’ stories almost always involve a reversal of expectations. That is what he does, he shows us that life is not as simple as it seems, that life is complicated, and that people who struggle in life, people who make mistakes, people who are otherwise on the margins, have a place in the kingdom of God, have a place in what God is achieving. Jesus especially asks us to reserve our judgement, take a hard look at ourselves, acknowledge our faults, and be
open to change. Jesus tells us that change is possible and that in and through it all, we are loved.
Today’s tale of someone unexpected being invited into Jesus’ work is related to us by Luke not as a parable that Jesus tells, but as an episode from Jesus’ ministry. We got lots of details that localise the story. We are in Jericho and there is that sycamore tree. Zacchaeus is presented to us as a specific, real person, identified as “a chief tax collector, and rich,” and we are given the additional detail that he was short. He is presented to us in many was as comical, an object of derision, despite the power he exercised over people. The image of him running along the crowd, trying to jump up and catch a glimpse of Jesus, and finally climbing a tree to get above the crowd is, I think, meant at first hearing to be funny. I can see it in my mind’s eye and I, too, join the people who look down on Zacchaeus as a ridiculous power-hungry little man. Perhaps we know someone just like him.
Jesus, however, when he got to the tree and looked up and saw Zacchaeus, stops us all in our tracks: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Everyone expects Jesus to ignore this guy or, better, rebuke him for his profession. Instead, as Jesus is always both host and guest wherever he goes (just as he is at this Eucharist), by inviting himself to enter Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus invites Zacchaeus into his work and shows him that there is a place for him at the table. Jesus appreciates Zacchaeus’ enthusiasm and understands that Zacchaeus was drawn to him for a reason, that Zacchaeus sought him out, desired some sort of connection to him, even if it was just in a glimpse. In many ways it isn't so different from the unnamed woman in Mark with the flow of blood who just wanted to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Both were reviled by the religious authorities, both would have been looked upon skeptically by the disciples. And indeed, everyone who witnessed Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus was astounded, “and when they saw it they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’” But this is exactly whom Jesus is calling, each of us who is less than perfect and who recognises it, each of us who seeks to do better, each of us who is willing to make ourselves vulnerable.
Jesus is always inviting each of us into relationship, regardless of who we are and where we are on our life journey, and Zacchaeus was open to this, open to the possibility that he could be a part of the kingdom. Zacchaeus recognised who Jesus is and he acted, and his action, like that of the woman with the flow of blood, grabbed Jesus’ attention. And how did Zacchaeus respond to being included by Jesus, being singled out by Jesus? He proclaimed, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” He responds with generosity and kindness, with a willingness to own up to what he has done and to seek forgiveness. It clearly impressed Jesus that someone had such a fervent desire to be connected with him, that someone knew himself so well and was willing to act radically to change his life in response to that connection. And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” Here we have not the lesson of a parable, but rather the example of a real person who, like you or I, receives Love and responds decisively.
Jesus’ ministry was and is for everyone. He entered a town and he gathered around him anyone who was willing to respond to the work of love and reconciliation and healing that he was effecting. His presence called out to everyone, rich and poor, from every walk of life and occupation. His presence called out to those who met society’s standard’s of propriety and to those who did not, especially to those who did not, who were marginalised by polite Jewish and Roman society. And those people, those tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners responded and responded with love and enthusiasm, the kind of love and enthusiasm that causes someone like Zacchaeus to skip down the street after Jesus and climb a tree just to get a look at him. Each of us is called to follow Jesus with joy. In doing so, we will be welcomed and invited deeper and deeper into relationship with Love itself, allowing us to respond in Love and forgiveness and generosity, just like our new friend, Zacchaeus.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 25 October 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume