Br. James Rostron, n/OHC
Year C - Proper 26 - Sunday, November 3, 2013
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
|"Zacchaeus, hurry and come down" - Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns|
“Two blind men followed him, crying aloud, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David.’”
“They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.”
“As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.... They called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’”
“She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’”
There are many stories in the gospels that begin, like these, with people who come to Jesus seeking healing. And often at the conclusion of these stories Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” But the story we heard today is different. Zacchaeus is a wealthy, seemingly healthy, individual, who does not seem to be suffering. And he does not ask Jesus for anything; he simply wants to catch a glimpse of Jesus to satisfy his curiosity about what this man looks like who has been causing such a stir. Nevertheless, Zacchaeus is saved, even though Jesus does not refer to the existence of any faith within Zacchaeus.
This unique story is found only in Luke’s gospel, and Luke has positioned it at the end of his travel account, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem. This, and the fact that it is so rich with detail, makes it very worth our while to consider the story carefully. First, we are told that Zacchaeus is a rich tax collector. He is very likely a social outcast because of his collaboration with the Roman Empire, and he would be reviled as a traitor by others in that society. It is remarkable, then, that he chooses to be present at a large, outdoor gathering where he might face the wrath or ridicule of his peers. Second, Zacchaeus climbs a tree. That is probably not something you would see a rich person doing, and it would certainly invite unwanted attention. Yet, he did show up in this great crowd, and he did climb a tree. He even ran through the crowd to get ahead of Jesus in order to do so. All of this together makes it seem clear that Zacchaeus has a strong desire to see Jesus.
Another significant detail in this story is that Zacchaeus is described as being short in stature. This is of course why he needed to climb a tree. But, symbolically, the use of the word “stature” might be telling us about more than just Zacchaeus’s physical height. It may be conveying that he is lacking in his spiritual, rather than just his bodily, growth. Still, Zacchaeus apparently had an inkling that something needed to change in his life, and he took action in climbing that tree. In doing so, Zacchaeus elevated himself above the mass of people on the ground and away from the tyrannical social order of which he was a part. He set himself above his peers and took a step toward heaven and closer to God.
Next comes, to me, the most significant, and moving, event of the story. “When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said, ... ‘[Zacchaeus,] ... hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’” This is an amazing moment. It is the moment when Zacchaeus’s world is changed. He just wanted to see who Jesus was. While he was perhaps responding to an unrecognized and ill-defined impulse toward God, there is no indication that he intended to speak to Jesus or to ask Jesus for anything. Nevertheless, Jesus noticed him and called to him. And with such urgency: hurry, I must stay at your house. Imagine yourself in Zacchaeus’s place. “Are you talking to me!?” The closest “real-life” situation I can think of is to be standing in the front row at a concert, or waiting by the edge of a ball field, or attending a lecture and to have your favorite singer, player, author, or some other famous celebrity call to you to join them for dinner. That would be totally unexpected and pretty darn exciting, a once-in-a-lifetime event. But now, let your imagination go a step further, and put Jesus right in front of you, telling you that he must stay at your house today. That would be truly amazing!
The next detail Luke gives us is that Zacchaeus was quite happy to welcome Jesus to his home, just as you or I would likely be. This adds further support to the notion that Zacchaeus climbed the tree not simply because he was curious but because he felt drawn to Jesus, even if on a subconscious level. In response to Zacchaeus lifting himself above the crowd and toward God, Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, thereby awakening the goodness that had lain dormant within him. Zacchaeus then stood firm in the face of the crowd’s grumbling about Jesus going to the home of a sinner, and he confirmed his desire to go in the way of Christ. “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.” This is a powerful story of conversion.
One final, important detail is given next, when Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” The phrasing is very universal in nature. Jesus is speaking not to Zacchaeus, but to all those present, and to us. Also, he is speaking not only about Zacchaeus but about his family, as well as the whole nation of Israel. Salvation is available to all who are descended from Abraham. Furthermore, Jesus is stating that salvation was given because Zacchaeus is a member of this nation and not because his faith has made him well. Salvation is a free gift from God. In the final sentence of the story, as Jesus is concluding his journey to Jerusalem, he declares the significance of his encounter with Zacchaeus, which is also the good news of his mission on earth: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Now, of course, comes the question of how this gospel story is alive for me, and for you. An answer came to me quite unexpectedly during the past week, as I prayed with the passage and began to write down some thoughts. Early last week, I returned from a workshop hosted at a convent in Ohio. It was a wonderful event, the best part of which was the chance to meet other Anglican religious from across North America, including quite a few other novices. At one point during the week, we were offered a tour of the convent. The buildings are much newer than ours, and I found myself coveting the sisters’ clean, neat, well-functioning spaces. Their roof didn’t seem to have any leaks, like ours does, or hopefully now, did. So, I’ve found myself grumbling this week, despite Benedict’s admonishment against it, about all the flaws in our living spaces here. And, this grumbling spilled over to include all the flaws in my brothers. Living in community is indeed a challenge! I’m sure we all grumble from time to time about our various communities at work, home, and church. And there are no doubt plenty of flaws to be found, some of which, shockingly, might even be our own. And our own coworkers, family members, and fellow parishioners might be grumbling about us!
This grumbling became the background noise as I prayed with the story, and just in the past few days it dawned on me that I was in need of a tree to climb. I found a beautiful painting on Wikipedia, by Niels Larsen Stevns, of the scene described in the story. There is Zacchaeus, perched above the commotion on the ground, looking down at Jesus, whose hand is extended upwards toward Zacchaeus. Like me, I imagine Zacchaeus had his share of troubles and gripes, and he most definitely was the object of grumbling amongst his peers. Yet, I see a bubble of peacefulness surrounding him in the midst of chaos. This imperfect man followed an impulse to look toward God, to make himself available to God. God responded, and in turn Zacchaeus responded to God. And from this simple interaction came salvation for Zacchaeus.
Seeing myself in that painting, up in that tree, rising above and letting go of all the grumbling, within and around me, I asked myself, where in my life are those places, real or metaphorical, that will enable me to rise above, to disengage from, the everyday, ordinary troubles and challenges of community life and of the world, where I can make myself fully available to God and to let God know that I desire to live in God’s truth? Where are they for you? Perhaps you or I find it when we go into our room and pray. Or listen to that transforming piece of music. Or lend a hand to our neighbor. Or ponder a work of art. Or watch the sunset. Or go climb a tree. We all are Zacchaeus, whose name means “pure and righteous one.” God loves us. All that is required is that we incline our ear toward God.