Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 31st October 2010, the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.
Whenever preachers come to a biblical passage which is very familiar to people, the fear of uttering clichés can be a dreaded experience. Especially when it coincides with important dates in the calendar, such as Reformation Sunday.
We all know the story of Zacchaeus, even if we don’t all know how to spell his name. We know he was a rich tax collector. We know he was a little man, and had to climb a tree to see Jesus above the crowds. We know Jesus saw him and asked him to come down, and invited himself for dinner in his house. We know Zacchaeus promised to give half his money to the poor and to return four fold whatever money he scammed from people.
We know all these things, and so we assume that this is yet another story about repentance. A man confronted with his sinfulness, accepts the mercy of Jesus, and changes his life in consequence. For many of us, this is probably the only way in which we ever read this story. This is probably because the Bible translators assumed this is what the story meant and translated the Bible in a way that suggested this way of reading the story.
Now, I promised myself that I would never mention in a sermon the phrase ‘in the original Greek’, but I’m afraid this cannot be avoided in this instance. You might have noticed that we read the Gospel passage from The Message, rather than from the translation we regularly use in our church. There was a good reason for that.
In the Good News Bible, we read Zacchaeus’ commitment like this: “I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” Did you notice the future tense? Well, the problem is that in the original Greek, the verb is not in the future tense. It is actually in the present tense, and it suggests something that Zacchaeus does in the present, or as a matter of practice.
Another translation, the English Standard Version, is probably closest to the original: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Now if we read the story like that, then new possibilities are opening up before us. It never ceases to amaze me how the Bible always manages to surprise and open up new possibilities. There is no single interpretation; there is no single meaning of the Bible. We will always read it anew, and see it in ways which speak to us in fresh and challenging ways.
If we read the story like that, then we may come to the conclusion that there is no mention of repentance in the story. It is very possible that Zacchaeus is not pledging to change his life as a result of his encounter with Jesus. The story doesn’t mention that Zacchaeus pledged to change his job, that he will stop taking money from his own people and give to the Romans. His life is not changed to perfection by his encounter with Jesus, since he continues to be employed in a corrupt system. He never stops being a sinner.
We would be perfectly entitled to assume that Zacchaeus had some kind of repentance or conversion experience sometime in the past, but the story we have in Luke 19 is not about that experience. We could read the story as a story of repentance if we really wanted to, but I believe we would not do justice to the text if we did.
We need to look at the story in the context of Jesus’ ministry and mission. Jesus states his mission at the end of this passage when he says: “For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.” This sentence is key to the way we interpret and apply this passage.
Whenever we see Jesus walking through villages and towns in Judea and beyond, we see him constantly breaking down barriers, challenging the status quo, and always reaching out to the rejected and ostracized; even when those people are rejected because they are sinners. Think about the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the lepers. It is so clear from his ministry that Jesus specialized in bridging the gap not only between God and people, but between people and people.
And this is exactly what he is doing here, with Zacchaeus. This little man was a chief tax collector, an agent of Rome, who collected taxes from the Jews and gave them to the enemy. As a result, he was ostracized, rejected and hated by his own people, as was the tax collector in the passage we read last week. As far as they were concerned, he was a traitor, and he lost his right to call himself a son of Abraham.
When Jesus calls out his name and invites himself to his house for dinner, Jesus honours Zacchaeus beyond his wildest dreams, which is why he was so happy and delighted to take Jesus home with him.
But it is here at this moment where the focus of the story turns to the other characters. The focus turns to the crowds, who were indignant and who grumped against Jesus, for ‘getting cozy with a crook’, as the Message puts it.
As a result of their protest, Zacchaeus defends himself against them, and addresses Jesus by showing him that he is generous towards the poor, giving half of his money to them, and that if he is caught cheating, he returns four-fold what he gained. Now the law only required that he return what he stole plus a fifth, so he went far beyond what the law required in these cases. It was very generous of him.
Now, Zacchaeus was no angel. The point of the story is not to defend his innocence against the grumbling crowd. But the story does suggest that Zacchaeus was in fact a very generous tax collector, and yet he was still ostracized by his fellow Jews and considered a traitor. That is why Jesus said in the hearing of the crowd: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”
Jesus does not ask Zacchaeus to give half his money to the poor before he comes to his house, and he doesn’t defend him against the crowd. What he does is to bridge the gap between them and him, by declaring him to be a son of Abraham, indirectly chastising the crowd for rejecting him, and challenging them to accept him back into the fold.
It is so appropriate to preach on this passage on Reformation Sunday. The salvation that Jesus is talking about is not a conditional salvation. The essence of Reformed theology is in the fact that righteousness is not something we give to God, but it is something that God gives to us.
When we come to Jesus, we are not immediately changed into perfection. As I already mentioned, Zacchaeus did not quit his job; he still took part of a corrupt system. That is not what salvation is about.
Salvation is not a moment in time, it is a life-long process. God does not require us to become perfect before we can be his children. God accepts us as his children before we can even begin to respond with a changed life. This message was preached from Reformed pulpits for over four and a half centuries in Scotland. Righteousness is not something we do for God; righteousness is something God does for us, perfectly, in Christ.
This message becomes so evident in the story of Zacchaeus, where salvation is not only about his relationship with Jesus, but it is also about his relationship with the people around him, it is about restoring his rightful place among his people, as a son of Abraham. It is a story about reconciliation and inclusion.
Now we may choose to identify with Zacchaeus in this story, especially if we want to interpret it as a story of repentance. But I believe our challenge today is to identify ourselves with the people in the crowd and ask ourselves: who is our Zacchaeus? Who is that person in our lives to whom we refuse the recognition of their good deeds, because perhaps they are part of a corrupt system? Are we sometimes blind to the good deeds of others, to their positive contribution to society, by focusing on their mistakes, on their social or ethnic background?
As we come together to celebrate Holy Communion these questions become even more urgent. Jesus invites us to sit around his table and share a meal with him.
We come to his table as a community of love which is built on Christ as its sure foundation. As a result we are a community of inclusion and reconciliation in a world where nobody is perfect, in a world where people still make mistakes, in a world where people are forced to participate in corrupt and unjust systems.
We come not because we are perfect, but because of God’s perfect love at work in us, calling us to reconciliation and peace making in his name.
To his holy name be glory forever. Amen.