Proper 26C-1 Luke 19: 1-10
Hard not to be struck these stories through this section of Luke, about what we might call major and sudden changes in life-direction. Just a few weeks ago Luke 15: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The son who with breathtaking disrespect asks his father for his inheritance. “Waiting for you to die is taking too long, dad.” And then who squanders it all in loose living. And then that moment, when he’s broke and broken, his eyes are opened. The wonderful phrase, chapter 15 verse 17, “when he came to himself.” He realizes all at once the crushing enormity of his sin, and his heart and mind overflow with sorrow and love—and with the desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.
We heard in Luke 17 the story of the Ten Lepers. Gathered outside a village in the borderland between the Galilee and Samaria, they are begging, calling out for a bit of kindness, a token, some spare change. Rejected in every aspect of their lives, cut off from family and friends. Hopeless. And then Jesus comes along and responds not with a coin but with the command to go and show themselves to the priest, which is what they would need to do to be certified to return to their lives. Somewhat surprisingly, they do what he tells them. On their way, they are cured of their disease. All I’m sure are filled with joy, but the story is really about this one, a Samaritan, the least likely one to want to relate to a Jewish rabbi, who stops and turns at once, when he sees what has happened. Who, like the Prodigal, comes to himself. And even before he gets to the local priest for his certificate he and he alone comes back and falls at the feet of Jesus, his heart overflowing with thanksgiving and worship.
And now in the series of portraits of people “coming to themselves,” Zacchaeus. We think about what it would be like to be Zacchaeus. “Little Zacchaeus,” although his stature is probably the least of his problems. He some time ago made what we might call a challenging career decision, as Canon Andrew Piper described for us in his sermon on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican last Sunday. Not a vocational direction for the faint-hearted. Deciding to go into the tax collecting business is a choice that raises a lot of issues. It was a lucrative profession. But we understand the downside. In those days the tax collectors worked on commission, so the more he could squeeze out of his neighbors, justly or unjustly, the more his own bank account grew. To be anachronistic, we might say that if he didn’t approve an exemption or a deduction, there could be no appeal. And he didn’t approve many of them, we can be sure. So: a job guaranteed not to make you a lot of friends! Everybody in the neighborhood looked at his lovely home and his new cars and the new clothes his kids wore to school and the fancy vacations and all the rest and they knew, they knew, that Zacchaeus had wrung all his wealth out of their hides. And they just plain hated him for it. He can feel the waves of resentment that would surround him every day--the moment he hit the sidewalk, the moment people caught sight of him.
You would wonder if maybe he hadn’t many times have had second thoughts. Sure, we all think about money, what a job pays. And we all want to do the best we can for our own family. But there’s more to life than money. What it is that makes you feel good about yourself, happy, content. And Zacchaeus must have had more than a few sleepless nights. Maybe when his kids came home from school with tears and hurt because none of the other kids wanted to be their friends. Maybe when his wife began to feel the burden of her isolation in the market and the town square. And of course the whole business was compounded by the fact that he was collecting taxes that support the oppressive system of the Roman occupation. He’s a collaborator, a traitor to his people. Can’t even show himself at the local synagogue without scowls and whispers. Probably can’t show himself pretty much anywhere, without one or two of his security people alongside. Rocks through the windows sort of a regular occurrence I would imagine. Catcalls on the street. In some ways he was a big man around town. Powerful, sure. Or at least a man with powerful friends. Not liked, not respected, but certainly feared. In so many other ways though, and not just physically, he must have felt pretty small.
So then this moment, when Jesus comes to town. I don’t know if Zacchaeus could have put into words why he was suddenly so eager to see Jesus. In theological vocabulary we talk about God’s “prevenient grace.” Before we know him, he knows us and loves us and calls us to himself. We feel like it’s our idea, like we’re taking the initiative, but it’s really his work in us from the very beginning. And now this almost slapstick moment when for all his dignity as a man of wealth and power, as if that was all nothing to him. He rushes down the block and climbs into the tree, like a kid. And who cares what other people think, how they’re going to point and laugh? Just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Again, hard to put into words, though I guess the Prodigal Son and the Samaritan Leper might understand.
Jesus has been going around the region of Judea, in these days and weeks before the Passover Festival, preparing for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Preaching, teaching, healing, blessing. Zacchaeus must have heard something of this. Something is stirring, anyway, to get him up into that tree. And then the turning point. Jesus sees Zacchaeus. Seems to know who he is, calls him by name. He seems to be the one Jesus came to town to see! He speaks to him, not in judgment or condemnation, but with kindness. A smile. To say, “I will come into your house today.” -- It has been a long time, a long time, since anybody had talked to Zacchaeus that way.
And so then, the turning point. Remembering the point in my sermon about the healing of the Ten Lepers, to point out the contrast in St. Luke’s Greek vocabulary. All ten were cleansed, we remember the way the Greek worked in that. All were cured of their disease, but the one who returned, who came back to Jesus, was saved, made whole. “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says. The Greek verb sozo. And now as it was for the Samaritan, the ocean of gratitude and thanksgiving and love that swells in the heart of Zacchaeus—it leads to a complete change of life and direction, what the word “repentance” means, metanoia, a changed life, a renewed heart and soul. “The half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus says, again from that same Greek root: “Today salvation—salvation-- has come to this house.”
A new direction. A new life. What happens when Jesus shows up. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” It is the ordinary pattern of an authentic Christian life. The Prodigal, the Samaritan Leper, Zacchaeus: when we tell our own stories as Christians they are sooner or later going to sound just like their stories, though the settings and details will be unique to each of our lives. In the same moment that we become aware of just how far away from him we are, he shows up on our doorstep. He gives himself to us to forgive and bless, to renew and to save.