November 3, 2013
William G. Carter
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy [joyful] to welcome him.
A couple of tax collectors met me at the door last Sunday. They declared the New Testament is a little hard on tax collectors. Maybe so; but then, there is the happy story of Zacchaeus. That wee little man was a tax collector, too. In fact, he ran the regional office in Jericho as the “chief tax collector.” And by the end of the story, he turns out pretty well. Now he even gets his own song.
It’s getting late in the Gospel of Luke Pretty soon, Jesus will go over the Mount of Olives and down the hill on a donkey. Zacchaeus is the last person that Jesus meets on the way to Jerusalem.
In many ways, he is the one that Jesus has been waiting to meet. Zacchaeus is a Jew who has become an outsider. He is a “child of Abraham” who has wandered off to make his fortune collaborating with the Romans.
He wants to see Jesus, and will climb a tree in order to get a good view of the Savior. He will risk being pinned up there if somebody spots him. Jesus is the one who spots him, and chooses to protect when he is vulnerable to the crowd.
As we heard throughout the fall, Jesus reaches out with God’s intrusive grace. He pushes himself on the tax collector’s hospitality, never giving the short man any wiggle room to escape him. And when the crowd sees how Jesus goes to him, they grumble and complain. Luke keeps reminding us that this is a common response to grace: people murmur and grumble whenever sinners and wrongdoers are given a break. Zacchaeus is the kind of forgiven sinner that Luke loves to tell us about. He’s the first one who actually has a name. And he welcomes Jesus. He wants to see him and he welcomes him to his table.
I could take the time, as many preachers do, and say a few words about Middle Eastern hospitality. While the crowd murmurs about Jesus going to the house of a public scoundrel, the greater scandal would be for Zacchaeus or anybody else to turn away a guest. Should you have a guest in your home, you treat the guest with a generous welcome.
It’s that way in many cultures. When I and some others were welcomed years ago into the home of villagers in Haiti, they fed us at their table while they ate somewhere else. They put before us a roasted goat that cost them many weeks’ wages. They showed us to their beds while they slept out of sight. This is how they treated guests who they had never met but were glad to receive. It was the same with Zacchaeus, except he had a lot of money. Jesus ate very well that night.
But here is the detail of this famous story that I had never noticed: Zacchaeus received him with joy. He welcomed Jesus with joy. Luke insists on this. It was as if Zacchaeus was waiting for the opportunity to cut loose of his burdens, that he wanted nothing more than for Jesus to come and set him free. And when the moment happens, when Jesus says, “Come down and take me in,” Zacchaeus does this joyfully.
When was the last time that joy set you free?
I have told some of you about a moment that I had this summer. In late August, I made my way over to a retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York, not far from the Hudson River. It was a three-day event to sing with Bobby McFerrin, the Grammy-award winning singer. There were 150 of us, pushed out of our comfort zones, circled up to sing improvised songs. And the first night, after an hour of singing spontaneously, my joy thermometer was so high that it took me hours to get down to sleep. I felt so . . . joyful.
I wrote these inadequate words in my journal:
The songs swell and rise;
A hundred-fifty tongues are loosed, three hundred feet are moving.
Every heart strangely moved, a few budged.
Smiles radiate the room, while the Spirit inhabits the tones and rhythms.
Or I can tell you about my friend Jeff. He’s retired, comfortable, with every reason to play it safe. But there was an inner restlessness to his retirement. So he brushed up his home repair skills and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. “It is so much fun to get out of my own safety net,” he says, “and do something for somebody else.” In this case, it was a young family with great needs. Yesterday Jeff was there when they handed over the keys to the family for their brand-new house. And there were tears, tears of joy.
Listen, I can tell you there is joy in the universe – around us, above us, beneath us, among us. So many of us have tasted it. Joy goes to Zacchaeus’ house; joy is what fills Zacchaeus in welcoming Jesus; joy is what frees Zacchaeus from the kind of person he used to be.
The aggressive grace of God in Jesus Christ is what changes Zacchaeus. Jesus looks up into that tree and says, “Get down here, Zacchaeus! I am going to abide in your house.” Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes him – and nothing is ever again the same for him. That’s what happens in this story. Everything else is commentary.
The scholars point out that when Zacchaeus finally speaks, it is in the present tense: “Look, Lord, I hereby give half of my possessions to the poor.” Our pew Bible translation is misleading. He’s not promising to get around to doing it – he does it. Right then and there. “Here it is, Lord. I give it away right now.” The joy of Christ dwelling in his home changes him. He will not stay selfish. He will not ignore his neighbors in need. He cuts loose half of his income right then, and there’s no mention that he asked for a receipt.
Oh no, he was changed by joy through grace, changed through God’s intrusive grace.
So this is what is on my mind of this great day of give-and-take. Christ invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, and Shorty Zack takes him in with joy. Christ gives himself to us in bread and cup, and we can take him in and enjoy his presence at our Table. The common currency is joy, the joy that he makes possible, the joy that frees whoever acts upon it.
Did you notice what Zacchaeus does? He gives away half of what he owns to the poor. He doesn’t give it to Jesus – he gives it to the poor because of Jesus. It seems he really wanted to do this, in some way he needed to do this. He doesn’t need all that stuff. He can travel lightly, without the burden of his many possessions. It’s not his stuff that will make him happy; it’s knowing that he, a short little guy in a tree, is worthy of the love of God. He too is a child of Abraham; Jesus says so.
The other thing he does is a supreme act of financial righteousness. Tax collectors in the first century were encouraged by the Romans to add whatever they wanted to the tax bills. That’s how they got to be so rich – by skimming off the top and essentially robbing their neighbors. Zacchaeus announced he will no longer do this. He will not exploit the people around him. And if he discovers that he has, he declares to restore it fourfold.
How can he do this? Because he has moved beyond the need for restitution to unbridled joy. It’s about something more than making it right; it’s doing the joyful thing, it’s about joining Jesus in the joyful work of restoring broken lives and filling impoverished hearts.
“Today salvation comes to you,” says Jesus. Not tomorrow, not next Thursday, not some day far off in the future – but today. God’s great saving power is given to the world as a gift, but it only seems to works in those who respond to it. Zacchaeus’ generosity is the beginning of his salvation – but it is also aimed at the poor and those who have been cheated. Grace creates more grace. Joy exists for the sake of even more joy.
So when we talk about money, let’s talk about joy. Where is the greater joy – in buying more stuff for ourselves, some of it we don’t even need, or extending God’s generous grace by teaching the Good News og s great joy that shall be for all the people?
When we talk about the church, let’s talk about joy. Are we just a building here on the corner, hidden away from the rest of the world and tuned in upon ourselves, or are we a people convened by Jesus to share his joy with the people we know and the neighbors we haven’t yet met?
When we talk about giving and making commitments to God, let’s talk about joy. Do we give out of unexamined habit, to perpetuate institutions, and maintain ties to the past? Or is there some way that we join together in doing God’s greater work, bearing light to darkness, proclaiming release to the captives, pointing beyond all despair to the great secret of God’s joy.
“Today salvation comes to you,” says Jesus. That’s his way of saying, “Today God comes to you.” God is here, already here, ready to be welcomed with deep joy. Have you ever wanted that more than anything else?
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.