Monday, November 05, 2007

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Responding to Jesus

Responding to Jesus
Luke 19:1-10
November 4, 2007
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Zacchaeus, a big-time tax collector, knows how to live large. But he himself is small in spiritual stature. Upon encountering the resurrected One, Zacchaeus’ view of the earth is transformed. He gained great wealth in his capacity as an agent for the state (Rome), but know he was an agent for hospitality, generosity, and justice – all as a result of the self-invitation of Jesus.

Sermon Function: To illustrate how critically important it is to make stewardship a fiscal discipline, particularly if there are larger amounts for which one has made responsible. And to demonstrate how our management of possessions is utterly transformed when Jesus finds us amongst the shrubs and calls us into service.

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Well I hope you all had a happy and safe Halloween this year. At our home over in the Pavilions, we had not a single trick-or-treater. Sara and I both lament the fact that we will now have to each consumed our respective quantities of mini-Snickers and bubble gum.

Actually, when it became apparent that we weren’t going to get any scary visitors, we decided to go out for a walk to catch the last bit of the action. We were pleased to see all of the costumes. We even saw one youngster on stilts! He probably stood about eight feet tall. In today’s scripture passage, we learn about Zacchaeus, a character who is renowned because of his height. He likely could have used some of the stilts that our treat-or-treat friend employed to scare the neighbors into giving him a treat.

Whether or not this story is familiar to you, I invite you to consider some questions before we begin. Reflect a bit on these as I read the text.

First: Who invites whom in the story?

Second: What happens to Zacchaeus?

Third: What does this story tell you about the responsible use of money and possessions?

Let's listen now to God's Word.

[Read Scripture - Luke 19:1-10]

Opening Remarks

We are in a season of discernment and planning and stewardship here at the church. We spoke last week about another tax collector, one who out of his knowledge that he was a sinner pled with God for mercy and left the temple justified. The tax collector stood in start contrast with the Pharisee, who loudly proclaimed his self-righteousness in prayer before the assembled people of God. We were taught a few important lessons in that sermon. First, when it comes to giving, we ought to give with a prayerful and confessional disposition. Second, our giving is in response to something wonderful that God has done for us through the incredible gift of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

This week, we have another tax collector to talk about. His name is Zacchaeus, a word that is derived from a term that means “pure” or “innocent.” Zacchaeus likely didn’t live up to his name. Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector” and was, as recorded in Luke’s gospel, very wealthy. Like other tax collectors at that time, others would have viewed him as a traitor to his nation, ripping off the people with his abusive tax practices. He lives in Jericho, a town that could be considered the Las Vegas of the day. Jericho was favored by the Herods, the Roman-approved Jewish “kings” who reportedly built lavish satellite palaces there along with various sports arenas, theaters, and other pleasure-oriented venues. It was an interesting place for Jesus to stop, but Jesus always seems to stop in interesting places, fascinating places, risky places. One writer put it this way, “What Happens in Jericho stays in Jericho.”1

The narrow street of Jericho would have already been crowded, but you can imagine that people where also gathering to view this man about whom they have heard very interesting stories. Profound stories about his man’s teaching and feeding and healing acts, many times with the undesirables, prostitutes, disease ridden and leprous beggars, and even tax collectors. We don’t get a thorough accounting of what was going on in Zacchaeus’ mind as Jesus approached, but we can imagine a few scenarios. He might have simply been curious to see what all the buzz was about. He might have wanted to just see what Jesus looked like. He might have heard about other encounters with other tax collectors. And if that was the case, perhaps Zacchaeus was a bit worried about his situation. He was flush with riches, an official of the Roman government who was living high of the backs of the people. He is identified, in the last verse of our text, as a Son of Abraham. Maybe, just maybe, he had climbed to the top of the self-achievement ladder and now found himself wondering what many of us wonder in this society: Is this it? I’ve gotten everything I want in life. I’ve checked off all the boxes of self-sufficiency and have built an almost impregnable financial empire out of which I can relax and enjoy life. Many people have made it, but then they realize that there is something missing. Something fundamental.

Perhaps Zacchaeus is one of these people. He climbs up the tree to see what is going on because, as our text humorously notes, he is short in stature. Long on wealth and prosperity, but a bit short perhaps on spiritual maturity. It’s remarkably easy to judge Zacchaeus harshly, and many did.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to get a better view. A straightforward explanation. But there might have been another reason, and I hadn’t thought of this one until I read an interesting article on this passage. Perhaps he went up there to get a good view, but one can also imagine that, amongst the leaves of the tree, Zacchaeus might have actually been hiding from Jesus, and from the crowds.2 It’s rather, well, embarrassing for someone of incredible means to climb a tree just to see some interesting rabbi pass by. But maybe the social and spiritual situation was such that Zacchaeus really didn’t want to be seen, to be called out for the person he was, and wanted to avoid embarrassment.

So there he is, perched and perhaps safely hidden away. Jesus comes down the road, through the crowds. He arrives at the place where the tree is. He stops. Perhaps he’s seen something that tipped him off, and he looks up into the tree. He looks right up, and sees a man there. He knows his name, and calls out to him. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5 NRSV).

“Oh boy,” Zacchaeus might have though, “this man found me up here. And now he wants to come to my house.” Interesting, isn’t it? Zacchaeus didn’t even get a chance. Jesus has invited himself to this wealthy man’s home. Now he has to come out of the tree.

Our Lives Today

And aren’t we just like Zacchaeus, in a way? We may or may not be wealthy, but we frequently, in our sin, act in ways that we would prefer, many times, for other people not to know about. This is particularly the case in our modern society, when so many deeply sinful behaviors can, through the wonders of technology, be engaged in without anyone else even knowing. But God knows the secrets of our hearts. And despite our best efforts to stay hidden and not be found out, here is this man, Jesus, who comes to the place where we hide and calls us out!

Jesus, then, reaches out to Zacchaeus first. He calls out to him, and Zacchaeus responds. He responds “joyfully.”

Others talked. Our text says, “Grumbled.” This is a common feature in the gospels. Jesus attends to those who are sinners, and others take note. And we should take note as well. In Luke’s Gospel, the rich don’t necessary make out well. But here is Jesus who, having just healed a blind beggar outside of Jericho (in the nine verses just prior to today’s story), Jesus is now hanging out with another cultural outcast, the mega-wealthy. Poor man and rich, it seems that there isn’t a sinner that Jesus won’t speak with. Notwithstanding the balances in their respective bank accounts, they are both poor in Spirit.

Extending the hospitality of his home, Zacchaeus is suddenly prompted to come clean while in the presence of the Savior of the World, whose light is now shining down brightly on Zacchaeus, so much so that nothing can remain hidden. Nothing. One can imagine Zacchaeus perhaps remembering, in some far off corner of his mind, the words of Psalm 139:
O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven [or into the tree?], you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Ps 139:1-12 NRSV)
Nowhere to Hide

Zacchaeus has been, in a word, “busted” by our Lord Jesus Christ. He’s been found out, discovered, and called by Jesus. There is nowhere to hide. No tree high enough. No valley low enough. Nothing will keep Jesus from Zacchaeus.

And here, in the text, we see what happens. Jesus makes the first move, and after being exposed by the Light of the World, Zacchaeus realizes that everything has changed. The world has shifted out from under him. The desires of this world have slipped away. Zacchaeus has slipped out of his earlier, curious mood, and now wants to respond. Even though Jesus has invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home, Zacchaeus is now moved to give, to show mercy, and to do justice.
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8 NRSV)
Zacchaeus, realizing that nothing was as it was before he was discovered up in that Sycamore tree, is now compelled to respond in some fashion, in some way that draws him closer in his relationship with this man who he has never before met, and who he will likely not see again on this side of the Cross.

At this point, it is very important to note Jesus’ response. He says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10 NRSV). Isn’t this what we actually fret about? Has Zacchaeus actually “purchased” salvation through his generosity and mercy? No. Remember, Jesus approached Zacchaeus first. And in response, Zacchaeus’ worldview is transformed. The Son of Man came to save the lost of those sons who count themselves descendants of Abraham. And we know, too, that by his death on the cross, death itself was defeated, and the curtain that separated God from humanity was torn asunder.

What We Now Know

The pattern of God calling and humanity responding is pervasive throughout scripture. Time and time again God calls. Many times, God calls those whom we might not. David was an adulterer. His predecessor Saul was mentally unstable. Paul, formerly Saul, persecuted the followers of Jesus. Jesus Christ comes to those who are lost, to those who, despite following all of our society’s rules for success, nonetheless find their lives a spiritual dessert. Jesus comes to those who are up in the tree, or behind their bedroom door, and asks if He can join us in our homes. He might as well ask to come inside us, because that’s what he seems to do here. The danger, of course, is that everything we think we know about ourselves is put at risk. Why? Because when Jesus comes in, we end up finding out who we really are, and it’s always not what we thought.

Is Jesus knocking at your door today? Is your life filled with worldly things? Are you feeling like you’re in a spiritual dessert, and that despite all of the goods that you have gathered something is still missing? You’re here in church today, and for me that means you’ve climbed the tree and are perhaps interested in seeing who this Jesus guy is. Or perhaps you’re already up in that tree, believing yourself to be nicely concealed, but now you feel His eyes upon you, asking if He can come in to your home. And if you let him in, and he transforms your life, how will you respond? That’s the question that must underlie any thinking we do during this time of increased emphasis on stewardship, planning, and the future of this particular church and how it serves the community.

Paul Scherer, in his exposition on this passage in the Interpreter’s Bible, makes this excellent observation:
There are times when we talk about finding God in Christ. Infinitely truer is it that in him God finds us. And when we’re found, nothing stays the same. Everything is transformed, we turn our lives over to him, and we end up finding out who we really are, the beloved ones of God.3 [Emphasis added]
In just a minute, we’ll be celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The basic reason for celebrating this sacrament is this: We know, by faith, that Jesus Christ is present with us during the meal. While we dine together, be on watch. Jesus may just be looking at you, calling you out from sin and the world, so that you might truly know who you are.

Let us pray.

Merciful God, righteous judge of all, you send Jesus among us to seek and to save those who are lost. Grant that we, like Zacchaeus of Jericho, may eagerly seek the Savior, joyfully welcome him into our homes and lives, and gladly do what is pleasing in his sight. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, how and forever. Amen.4

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas

1This material is taken from Calvin’s Seminary’s wonderful Center for Excellence in Preaching website here.


3Scherer, Paul. “The Gospel According to St. Luke.” Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. VIII. New York: Abingdon Press, 1953, p. 323.

4Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993, p. 384.