ospel of Luke tells us two parallel stories – they come almost one almost right after the other – about a rich man and Jesus. The story of Zacchaeus in chapter 19 is the second of these. The first, which comes in chapter 18, we did not read today, but you are probably already familiar with it: it is the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. (To remind you: Jesus tells the rich young ruler he must sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. The young man goes away sad, according to the Gospel, suggesting that he couldn’t bring himself to swallow Jesus’s medicine.)
Rich young ruler; Zacchaeus: Between two of them, we have two wealthy, successful figures who seek out Jesus. And the stories couldn’t be more different.
The rich young ruler, first of all. Let’s imagine we’re just ordinary people in the first century, looking out the window, and we happen to see the rich young ruler strolling down the street. We admire him immediately. He looks good, he smells good, he dresses well (very rich fabrics! excellent quality!) and the best part: he’s actually a really nice guy. There’s no hint that rich young ruler obtained his wealth or possessions by any illicit or improper means, that his mistreated or squeezed anyone. Quite the contrary: as he tells Jesus, he has kept all of the complicated Jewish laws since the days of his youth. This would have meant that he diligently tithed 10% of his income; kept kosher (the strict Jewish dietary laws); honored his father and mother; and all the rest of it. He is scrupulously correct in all his ways. In today’s world, he’s the kind of well-bred young man who helps old ladies carries their groceries to their car and volunteers every Saturday afternoon at a soup kitchen (and, okay, posts it on his facebook page so everyone knows about it). Just an all-around good Jew and upstanding citizen. Really. You could not find a flaw in this guy.
Contrast this decent and righteous ruler with the character of Zacchaeus. When I was thinking about Zacchaeus this week, do you know who kept popping into my mind? Donald Trump. Grimy, conniving, repulsive Donald Trump: a man who has spent his whole life preying on the little people, disrespecting women, abusing his power to fill his own bank account and secure his empire, and earning the hatred of his whole community for being, basically, just a yucky, sucky specimen of a human being. Let’s not kid ourselves about Zacchaeus. From what we know about tax collectors in this era, they were corrupt sell-outs, the guys who got their hands dirty raising coin on behalf of the imperial Romans. Imagine we’re still looking out our window in Jericho as see Zacchaeus on the street. At the sight of him, your blood boils. You remember that one time last year when you were down on your luck, your kid had the measles, you were late with the rent, you were down to the last scraps of wheat in the cupboard, and then came (thump thump thump!) that dreaded knock on the door. The tax collector. And instead of the five coins you really owe the government, he demands six, and slips one of them into his own pocket. That’s Zacchaeus. A guy that no one wants knocking on their front door.
So we have the rich young ruler, and one chapter later we have Zacchaeus. Both of these characters have an encounter with Jesus. The rich young ruler seems to be sitting down with Jesus somewhere for a civilized, learned conversation. “Good Teacher,” is how he addresses Jesus, suggesting that this is a conversation among well-educated Jewish men. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This sounds like an abstract philosophical question, a rhetorical exercise: this is a man who has the luxury of asking questions about the hereafter. This is a man who is not bothered by pressing questions like, how will I feed my children tonight, or, how will I pay my rent this week? This is a man who has the time and education to speculate on questions of religious meaning and interpretation. The rich young ruler seeks Jesus because he seeks information about the requirements of the religious life, and seeks confirmation that he has fulfilled them all. It almost seems to me like he is expecting a pat on the head.
Let’s contrast this, again, with our grimy little man Zacchaeus. Luke tells us that there are crowds thronging into the streets to see Jesus – everyone has been hearing about this wonder-worker and rushing out of their houses to catch a glimpse of him. Something drives Zacchaeus to join them: he wants to see Jesus, Luke tells us. He wants to see Jesus. Why? Who knows. Maybe Zacchaeus has been hearing stories about Jesus from his colleagues and cronies at the tax office, or from his neighbors down the street. Had he heard about the widow’s son being raised from the dead (Luke 7)? Did he hear about Jesus’s healing of the bleeding woman (Luke 13) – or about the healing of the man with dropsy (Luke 14)? The cleansing of the lepers (Luke 17)? Healing of the blind man (Luke 18?)
Whatever it was that he heard, it made him itchy to see Jesus. There were just a few little problems with Zacchaeus’s plan. One: there were crowds of Jews surrounding Jesus, and those crowds hated him. He had wade out into a sea of all the people he had squeezed and cheated and defrauded in order to see Jesus, and it was clear they weren’t going to part like Red Sea to let Zacchaeus through to the front. Problem two: Zacchaeus knew that was a chief sinner, the epitome of the worst kind of guy. What right did he have to come near Jesus in the first place? Shouldn’t he have been ashamed of himself? Shouldn’t his own self-loathing have kept him from Jesus? And problem three (and this is almost comical): he’s short. Literally, just a short guy. So like the blind man who wants to see Jesus in chapter 18, Zacchaeus is literally and figuratively unable to see Jesus.
Finally, let’s compare how the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus respond to Jesus. We noted that the rich ruler and Jesus are enjoying a civil, educated conversation about religious and philosophical matters. But Jesus cuts right to the heart of things: you must sell all of your possessions and distribute them to the poor. Sell everything you own, and give it all away to the poor. Now to be fair to the rich young ruler, this command is unprecedented. None of the Jewish laws required this kind of generosity. In fact, most Jews would have understood fairly obtained wealth as a sign of God’s good favor, and not as a problem that required a radical solution. Why did Jesus ask so much more of the rich ruler than was legally necessary? Why did he demand so much from him? Why did he demand everything? There’s no record of how, exactly, the rich ruler responded, but there is no suggestion that he screamed or shouted or threw Jesus out of his house. Not at all. I imagine he finished his civilized conversation with Jesus and bid him good day. But – and this is crucial – he went away “very sad,” because he had many possessions. He just couldn’t bring himself to swallow Jesus’s medicine.
Back to Zacchaeus, who is by now… up in a tree. What a sight! Imagine Donald Trump, up in a tree to see Jesus. The mind reels. But that’s basically what we have here. The worst sinner – the most hated, corrupt, fraudulent trickster – makes himself silly, ridiculous, and childlike; he hoists up his tunic, grabs a low branch, and with a swing and a grunt pulls himself up off the ground and into the tree. He finds another branch higher up that he thinks can support his girth and clambers up higher. He looks ridiculous. Zacchaeus looks so silly, hanging out of that tree, his knees and hands dirty, his tunic soiled, maybe a bit sweaty. This is totally beneath his dignity (what little he has) – but he doesn’t care! He wants to see Jesus. Maybe someone in the crowd yells and jeers: ha ha, look at “big man” Zacchaeus, he’s up in the tree; and the crowd laughs, because he’s made a fool of himself in his desperation to see Jesus. But Zacchaeus just ignores them. Because coming down the road, thronged by followers, you can’t mistake it (there’s just something about him!) – that’s him. Jesus.
I almost suspect that Jesus may have laughed a little, too, when he saw Zacchaeus up in that tree to see him. But it was a laugh of delight. A laugh of total delight to see the lengths that this notorious sinner would go to just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And that one act, that one act of swallowing his pride and going out on a limb (literally :)) to see Jesus, is all it takes for Zacchaeus. So Jesus yells out in joy: “Zacchaeus! Come down, for I’m going to your house today.” And Zacchaeus hurried down and was “happy” (“happy!”) to welcome him.
There is so much joy in this Gospel story (I guess that’s why we think this is a “children’s story” – which it’s not). There is the childlike humility of Zacchaeus, his exuberance, and the excessive, undignified lengths he goes to in order to see Jesus; the joy with which Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus as a guest into his home. At the very end of the story, the palpable, obvious joy with which Zacchaeus opens his purse and says look! I will give half of everything I own and repay every debt four-fold.
And above all: the infinite joy of Jesus, when he calls the greatest sinner of them all down from the tree and into the kingdom of God. This is the same joy of the shepherd who finds the lost sheep and the woman who found the lost coin. The sheer unbounded rejoicing of the one who discovers what had been lost, but now is found.
You know, we tell this story during stewardship season because we want you to give money to Peace Church; and that’s true. If you want to sell all your possessions this morning and give the proceeds to our church, then our church treasurer will be more than happy to take you out to lunch today after the service to discuss the details.
But money isn’t what these stories are about, or at least not all that they are about. What these two men do with their money is merely a reflection of what they do with their hearts and indeed their whole lives. One opens his heart; the other closes it. One opens his life to Jesus and his friends; the other hermetically seals it off, because he has other friends, and other things to do.
Beth Moore writes: “God isn’t looking to take away our possessions. He is looking to make His Son our greatest possession. And whether you are under a fig tree, in a fig tree, or up a creek without a paddle, Jesus can still see you.”
So these two stories give us two choices.
- We can walk away this morning very sad, because we would rather pass up the friendship of God, and keep our lives just the way they are, thank you very much. We can go home again with slumped shoulders and a heavy heart, with our fists clenched tight around our hearts, our lives, and all of our treasures (monetary and otherwise), because we just can’t bring ourselves to swallow the medicine that Jesus is offering us.
- Or we can throw caution to this wind this morning and say, oh, why not – why not climb up a tree to see Jesus? Why not do something ridiculous in the eyes of the world, for the sake of Jesus and his friends? Why not embrace the crazy, mixed-up upside-down logic of the kingdom of God, and go home today to welcome Jesus into our homes, to make him the honored guest in our lives, and to share all that we have with his friends and followers?
I don’t know about you, but I know who I want to be. I want Jesus to walk home with me today, even if it means climbing a tree to do it: because I too was lost, but have been found.
Amazing artwork by Maria Laughlin: http://marialaughlin.blogspot.de/