Proper 26c, October 30, 2016

October 31, 2016

Spiritual Climbing

Luke 19:1-10


1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


I think there are many of us who learned a song about Zacchaeus when we were children. You know the song. Feel free to sing along with me if you remember it: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior came that way, He looked up in the tree, And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down out of that tree, for I’m going to your house today.” It’s a memorable song, I’ve remembered it for about 50 years now, but that song doesn’t explain what this story is all about.


This is a story that requires more of a nuanced interpretation than a children’s song can capture. You have to read between the lines in order to extract what’s going on in this story, so I’m going to fill in what isn’t exactly stated. I may be wrong, but there’s nothing new about that.


I think it’s worth noting that Jesus had clearly become the object of a lot of attention at this point in his ministry. The word had gotten out about the amazing things he had been doing, and people were turning out in huge numbers to get a glimpse of him. This wasn’t exactly what we would think of as a political rally, but it’s close to being one, and I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that there were people thinking Jesus was the one who could make Israel great again!


The fact that this was going on in Jericho is also significant. Jericho was a city with lots of meaning for Jews. Jericho was a city that had fallen to the Jews early on in the conquest of Israel – you probably remember that song also “Joshua at the Battle of Jericho”. I’ll spare you my performance of that song, but it’s important to keep in mind that Jericho had deep roots in Jewish identity, and you can bet it was a place where people harbored a good amount of resentment toward their Roman occupiers and the local people who cooperated with them.



Zacchaeus was considered to be an official sinner by his peers because he had the job of extracting tax from his fellow Jews to give to the Romans. He wasn’t the one who designed the system, but he was the point-man for a system that was very offensive to the Jews.


We’re told that Zacchaeus was of short stature, and that’s why he had to run ahead and climb a tree to see Jesus, but I think we can also imagine that there was a universal lack of hospitality toward Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was affluent, but he wasn’t appreciated. In fact he was probably despised, and that makes Jesus’ decision to go to his home for dinner an unexpected turn of events. This is not what the town leaders had in mind.


Instead of going to the home of the person with the most religious status, Jesus announced that he was going to the home of the most official sinner, and this caused the crowd to grumble.


Jesus was what you might call an equal opportunity offender. Jesus was relentless in his portrayal of the truth, and this put him at odds with powerful individuals and groups at every turn. Last week, we read the story of Jesus identifying the lostness of the Pharisee who was much too proud of his righteousness. Jesus was often critical of the official leaders of the Jewish community, but in this story, Jesus seems to have annoyed average citizens.  This story calls in to question the root of the enthusiasm that the people had for Jesus.


I’m not exactly sure what this crowd expected of Jesus, but his decision to go to dinner with the man who took their money and gave it to the Romans was not something that went over well with this crowd that had gathered to greet him. I don’t think Jesus was unsympathetic to the values and traditions of his fellow Jews, but he had no interest in responding to enthusiasm that felt misplaced to him. Jesus often found it necessary to defy the will of a crowd because he didn’t trust that what they wanted was what they needed. People often confused their nationalistic dreams with their allegiance to God, but Jesus didn’t have such confusion.


This isn’t as quaint of a story as that children’s song might lead you to believe. Jesus stepped in to what might be called a Jewish Nationalist Rally, and he responded to their enthusiasm by choosing to have dinner at the home of a notorious Roman collaborator. You don’t really pick up on the scandal of this situation on this when you sing that song.


But the other thing that’s worth noting about this story is the way in which Jesus responded the behavior of Zacchaeus. It’s remarkable that Zacchaeus had made an effort to get a look at Jesus. Why would Zacchaeus even want to have an encounter with Jesus? Things were going well for Zacchaeus. He was rich, and it would be of no advantage to him for Israel’s relationship with Rome to be disrupted. It’s not easy to understand why Zacchaeus had joined the crowd to gain access to Jesus.


It’s worth noting that it wasn’t going to be in his best business interest to show up in support of Jesus, but Zacchaeus knew that he needed something other than wealth. Zacchaeus wasn’t needy in a financial sense, but he knew he needed something, and he knew to look to Jesus for help.


You might say everyone who turned out to see Jesus that day was looking to Jesus for help, but many of the people were looking to Jesus for the wrong thing. Many were looking to him to change the system they thought was the cause of their troubles. Certainly there would have been people who were needing healing or relief from other personal problems, but behind the group mentality was the desire for Jesus to repair the oppressive political situation that they were living under, and Jesus never encouraged people to be more critical of others than themselves.


Zacchaeus wasn’t sick or impoverished, but he was living as an officially unrighteous person, and I think that made him more conscious of his need for the kind of help that Jesus actually came to bring. Jesus came to heal all forms of personal brokenness, and he also sought to repair the people’s misunderstanding of who God is. Certainly Jesus aspired for the world to be properly ruled, but he was not out to change the world through political revolution.


This is not to say I don’t believe God grieves over our broken political systems. I fully believe God intends for us to work for justice in this world, but we should never confuse our own partisan political  interests with the agenda of God. And as he had said once before, it’s important to get the logs out of our own eyes before we reach for the specks in other people’s eyes.


I don’t doubt that those good Jews who were lining the road as Jesus came to Jericho had good reasons to be upset about the way they were treated by the Romans. There’s no doubt that they were the victims of a terrible political system, but it’s never very helpful to think that God is as upset with our political rivals as we are. It never helps our souls to demonize anyone. I don’t pretend to understand how involved God chooses to be in the political dynamics of this world. There’s a good amount of evidence to show that God is not closely involved the way power is accumulated and utilized in this world, but it never seems to go well when we think God wholeheartedly endorses whoever or whatever it is we are endorsing. It’s so easy for us to confuse our own personal needs with what we perceive God to be seeking.


And Jesus was so good at identifying this conflation of personal agendas and righteous causes. Jesus is so good at seeing who we really are what we really need. Jesus knows our actual needs before we do, and he always responds well to those actions we take to step out of our normal way of seeing the world in hope of seeing who he really is.


Maybe Zacchaeus was accustomed to climbing trees, but I’m guessing that this was not a normal thing for him to do. I may be wrong, but in order to get a good look at Jesus, Zacchaeus stepped out of what we might call his comfort zone, and by stepping in to such a different place he was able to have a powerful encounter with Jesus. I don’t think the primary lesson from this story is that we should spend more time climbing trees, but I’m pretty sure there is a lot of value in stepping in to places where we aren’t fully familiar. It’s so easy for us to grow accustomed to viewing the world in our own familiar and favorite ways, and that causes us to develop an unfortunate form of blindness.


You would think that with all of the information we have at our fingertips we would all be well and widely informed about all the things that are going on in the world, but in some ways we have developed some selective misinformation. There is this tendency to develop what you might call a silo mentality. As you all know, a silo is a really tall narrow structure that can be filled with a single type of grain, and sometimes that’s the way we accumulate information. We fill ourselves with an abundance of a very narrow viewpoint.


This might be our modern way of erecting the tower of Babel – we build ourselves and our causes up as high as we can without bothering to take in to account the inconvenient information someone else might have. Mass media is a great new tool for us, but if we aren’t careful about the way we use it we can become as hardened and inflexible as concrete silos.


Zacchaeus could easily have harbored a silo mentality. He was doing a job that needed to be done, and I’m sure he could have justified his abundant income by the difficulty that his position put him in. I’m sure there were tax collectors who didn’t care what people thought of them or how ostracized they were from the faith community, but Zacchaeus wanted more than what he had. He didn’t want more money, he wanted a new relationship with God and with his neighbors. He wanted to see things differently, and he did the only thing he knew to do – he climbed a tree to get a better glimpse of Jesus.


Maybe we all just need to go climb a tree every once in a while. I know that’s not an option for all of us, and that’s clearly a bit of an oversimplification of the text, but I don’t think it’s wrong to say that we would all do well to find ways to see the world from a different perspective. Zacchaeus didn’t let his pride keep him from doing what he needed to do to get a good look at Jesus, and neither should we. Climbing a tree might be a good thing to do, but it would probably be more helpful to change the channel every now and then.


We all have our own particular forms of blindness and obstacles that we need to overcome. We have all been given some understandings that we would do well to release, and there are things we can all do to get new views of who Jesus is. It’s not easy to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, but as Zacchaeus has demonstrated, it’s a glorious thing to run a little ahead and do what we can to get a glimpse of his gracious presence.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


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