SJF • Proper 26c• Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
While the Gospel is full of people whose lives were changed by contact with the saving power of Christ, I’ve always been attracted to the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector from Jericho. And that’s not just because Zacchaeus is the biblical hero of short people! Rather it is because of the wonderful risk that Zacchaeus took, and the answering risk that Jesus took in response to it.
This biblical event is like one of those old medieval paintings with two panels facing each other, each of which tells half of the story, but which also reflect each other in meaning or theme.
+ + +
The first panel shows us the little tax-collector climbing a tree, getting up above the crowds so that he can see Jesus. Now, it is important to think for a moment about what prompted this little man to do this; tax collectors normally don’t climb trees! We can be sure that Zacchaeus has heard something about Jesus, maybe only the noise of the crowd, but wants to know more. The text does not tell us what exactly he has heard; perhaps he’s heard about the healing miracles, or the wise teaching Jesus has given as he has moved from town to town. Perhaps he’s heard that this Jesus has gotten on the wrong side of the Pharisees — which is the neighborhood he himself lives in and knows quite well! Or perhaps he’s heard of the experience of his colleague, the other tax-collector Levi, who invited Jesus to his home for dinner and ended up with the name Matthew. Perhaps Zacchaeus has heard about some of the stern stories Jesus has been telling about rich people and their fate — the same stories we’ve been hearing in the gospel over the last few weeks — and being a rich man himself, is perhaps becoming a bit worried about what might lay in store for him! Or perhaps all he hears is the noise of the crowd and naturally wonders what is going on to cause such a commotion.
Whatever the impulse, it is enough to inspire this little man to action. Being a short person myself, I can understand the frustration he must feel when the crowds block his view. When I was in England last week, in London, I missed most of the changing of the Guard. Not the big show at Buckingham Palace but at the Horse Guards nearby; and not on the parade ground where they troop the colors but in the inner courtyard, where are there are just two horses and 14 guards — but still only saw the two on horseback, because I was at the back of the pack! I got a better view, to be honest, of the backs of peoples hands as they took pictures with their cell phones.
So I understand what it is like. But more importantly, I can also understand the power of the call of Christ that must be at work in him to allow him to set aside any sensitivity over his height, and take a risk. This little man — rich though he is — you must understand, is not a popular man in Jericho; he is an outcast in his own town no matter how rich he is; as I noted already, he is a man considered a hopeless a sinner by the religious leaders. And no tax collector, good or bad, is ever particularly popular with those from whom the taxes are collected. It wouldn’t be too far off, if we were to do a modern version of this story, to picture Danny DeVito in the role of a local loan-shark or swindler. That is how the people of his time regard tax-collectors, who make their living not so much by the legitimate collection of taxes, but by bribes and extortion, and the hand that goes this way — you know what I mean: behind the back, under the table! Out of sight. Such people — people who make their treasure that way — treasure as well what little respect they get — remember how important respect was in the world of the Godfather! — and to risk the ridicule of climbing a tree, risking the contempt they already know from their neighbors.
What must be the power of the grace of God at work in this tax-collector that he risks making a fool of himself by climbing a tree so he can see Jesus. He knows he will look ridiculous, but he doesn’t care. He wants to see Jesus, and so he nails his pride to that tree. Perhaps he knows, somewhere in his heart, that this is the most important thing he ever does in his life; the most important thing: to see Jesus Christ.
+ + +
That’s the first panel of this picture. The second panel shows us Jesus doing something equally surprising and equally risky. He calls Zacchaeus and tells him to come down, and invites himself to the tax-collector’s house to be his guest.
Jesus flies in the face of convention in doing this, as outrageous in Jericho as he’s been elsewhere in his ministry, mingling with folks the Pharisees and scribes think are beyond the pale, the riff-raff, the low-down. But Jesus is, after all, only doing what he was sent there to do: bringing salvation to a son of Abraham dispossessed by his self-righteous brothers. Jesus flies in the face of custom and tradition, and evokes a change in a man who was thought past hope. The change in Zacchaeus, the thankful response to salvation crossing his threshold, as he turns his life around, literally turning his riches around and returning half — half — to the poor, and four times over to anyone he has wronged. He experiences true wealth, the sure and certain knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness, the Good News in all of its fullness, compared to which all the treasure he has accumulated over the years is, as Saint Paul called his learning and pedigree, so much rubbish.
But that is still to come. For now, the panel shows us Jesus calling Zacchaeus, and the tongues start to wag at once: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” You’d think by now the religious leaders would have gotten the message, but clearly they still haven’t got a clue. They don’t understand who Jesus is, why he is there, what he is doing, what risks he is willing to take. All they see is their own outrage: that nasty little sinner Zacchaeus, and Jesus going with him as his guest. In the panel painting you can see them heading off to dinner, while the crowd stands in a huddled group off to the side, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues.
+ + +
That’s the second panel. Now I have a surprise for you. Maybe not such a surprise if you’ve seen those medieval panel paintings. Because just as in a medieval altar piece, these panels fold open, to reveal something else. When we fold open those two panels, a third panel is revealed, that draws the themes of the first two into one. It shows us someone else taking the greatest risk of all; someone else lifted up high, someone else regarded by the crowds as a sinner, ridiculed, jeered at, mocked at. It shows us the crucified Christ. For the same Jesus Christ, accused for dining with a sinner would himself one day be lifted high upon a tree, not so that he could see us, but that he could be seen. Hanging there in the shame of the cross, he would once again be called a sinner by the leaders of the people, but be justified by God’s love for his only begotten Son when he raised him from the dead. He would reveal himself thus to the whole world for the sake of the whole world. He would open the treasury of true riches that cannot be stolen by thieves, corrupted by rust or moth, or stored up but never used for the good they could have done, if only we would use them. Jesus reveals his love in his death, not just for the sons of Abraham, but for every son and daughter of the living God, his Father in heaven, and our Father in heaven. Jesus reveals himself as the friend of sinners who seeks out the lost and will not rest until all are gathered at his feet to fall in worship and adoration, to marvel at this one man whose death brought life and immortality to many. And so the central panel shows Christ in glory upon the cross, the tree he climbed for us, not so that he could see us, but that we might see him, and be drawn to him, and be saved by him.
But for now let us close the panels — in our gospel readings, Jesus is still on the road, and Calvary lies up ahead, where we will revisit it in a few weeks, when on the last Sunday before Advent we will once again look upon the king in his glory upon the cross. Let us return to that scene in Jericho, the one on the outside of the panels, with Zacchaeus going off to dinner with Jesus, as the crowds mutter in the background.
The Gospel does not record if or how Jericho changed because of Christ’s visit to Zacchaeus’ house. Jericho may not have changed, but one of its citizens did, and we have seen the beginning of that change in the gospel. But going forward from that do you not think that from then on guests at Zacchaeus’s table were treated differently, as they treated him differently, now that he had changed from being a corrupt tax collector to one who went out of his way to pay back four-fold anyone he’d ever wronged. Regardless of how high or low, we can be sure that they were greeted with joy, and respect, treated with humility, and served with open hands. We can also be sure that Zacchaeus retold that story time and again, the story of the day he risked making a fool of himself for Christ’s sake, climbed a tree to see the king of glory as he passed, and shared his table with the one who would one day take the greatest risk of all, and share himself with the whole world upon the cross. May we too risk the embarrassment of seeking Christ and being Christians in a world that seeks its own way instead of the way of God, today and every day of our lives, risking being Christians even if people think we are foolish to be so, climbing a tree if need be, and striving to see Jesus, and welcoming him into our hearts, to the glory of God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. +