Luke 19. 1-10
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A couple of years ago our family moved house. We didn’t go far, just two doors down the hall in the same apartment building, from a one-bedroom unit into a two-bedroom. The timing couldn’t have been better as we were about to become a family of four, Sarah being pregnant with our second. So before we’d even done a walk-through, we were pretty convinced it was the right move (the alternative being bunk crips in our bedroom closet). But, as ideal as things seemed, a peak at the place gave us pause. The timing was great, but the state of the place, less so. Floors were unfinished and unkempt. Baseboards hung off the walls with nails exposed. The drywall was filled with more holes than we cared to count. The main bedroom closet was an eye-wateringly bright orange, and, almost rivaling the sun itself, I wasn’t sure there was enough primer on the planet to meet the challenge. To top if off here had also been a cat with free reign, making the carpets were unsalvageable. My father-in-law, himself a finishing carpenter, confirmed things. “Well,”, he said after a look around, “sometimes you waver on if renovation is necessary or not, but it’s nice to know you don’t have a choice here!” A positive spin, which I think I needed in that moment. It was a house, but it wasn’t our home. It wasn’t yet fit for purpose. Thankfully, with help from family and friends we managed to renovate the whole unit in just two weeks. Floors, walls, window and door casings, finishing work, paint, the whole lot. The place was almost unrecognizable once we’d finished, in a good way. We’d seen the potential, done the work, and took up residence. After a whirlwind renovation, that place had be made fit for purpose.
These past weeks we’ve been reading Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the tax collector, and you could describe the story as a kind of whirlwind renovation. It’s such a brief episode in Luke’s gospel that if you blink you miss it. But as quick as the story is, a tremendous amount of demolition and reconstruction goes on in the depths of Zacchaeus’ heart. From the moment Jesus said Zacchaeus’ name as the tax boss sat a sycamore tree, to the state Jesus leaves Zacchaeus in when Jesus moves on – Zacchaeus had become almost unrecognizable, in a good way.
Let’s refresh our memories of the story. Jesus entered Jericho in the middle of a rowdy crowd, and Zacchaeus had run ahead to climb and tree in order to see Jesus clearly. Jesus then walked right up the foot of the tree and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house. As we’ve heard, tax collectors had a very bad reputation, so the crowd’s reaction to the new friendship between Zacchaeus and Jesus was understandable (they grumbled). Someone filthy like Zacchaeus had no business with someone holy like Jesus. As far as most people were concerned, Zacchaeus had sold his soul to the devil. And as we heard earlier, Zacchaeus’ name was a misnomer to his character. The Hebrew root word of the name Zacchaeus can be translated pure.Zacchaeus the tax boss was a walking contradiction to his very own name. Zacchaeus was anything but pure.
We also heard that Zacchaeus “ran ahead and climbed” a tree to see Jesus. But this was no playful scamper, nor the note about climbing entirely to do with his size. In those days a person of his power and position shouldn’t have been running ahead to scurry up a tree. Zacchaeus should have been held up in his mansion, and if anyone came to town they should have been coming to pay homage to him. So there was something about climbing a tree which looked undignified. Earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells a story about a lost son’s return home, desperate, cap in hand. In the episode just prior outside Jericho’s gates, Bartimaeus wouldn’t shut up, awkwardly shouting to get Jesus’ attention as the crowd passes him by. And Zacchaeus was up a tree, in his own way as improper and undignified. His actions lacked decorum and rung of change. Even more surprisingly, it seemed to Jesus enough of a step in the right direction, that is, toward Jesus himself. Jesus extends friendship and Zacchaeus reacts with humility and joy. To use Dallas Willard’s phrase, the tax box underwent a renovation of the heart. This story tells us again that we can’t contaminate Jesus with sin and shame. He infects us with life and holiness. This is what Zacchaeus discovered in the very depths of his being.
So the first thing we’ve heard in this story is that God wants in. If we think God’s not interested in us because we’re not holy enough, we’re dead wrong. God wants in and will bring renewal should we trust him. Earlier in our time in this story I mentioned that many people carry some shame or embarrassment about their past, whether they’ve been a Christian for much of it, or not. And that means many people are also on some level afraid. They’re worried God can’t love them as much as they need to be loved, or give them the kind of connection or reconciliation they crave down deep. They expect a version of rejection from God, not welcome. And so they keep their distance. Maybe they think God can’t be all that interested in them because they’re a bit of a mess. But we also took a good long look at who Jesus is and what the gospel has to say to us. And what we see in the gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, is that that way of thinking and living – of having to be controlled by shame, or having to get your act together before you let God in – is made obsolete by Jesus. So one of the things this story tells us, as do so many stories in the gospels about Jesus meeting unsavory people like you and me, is that you don’t have to clean up for dinner. Open your heart in a moment of desperation, and that’s enough for Jesus. It takes some guts, but when you’re ready to risk and trust you won’t find Jesus standing over you with a list of demands before he’s willing to associate with you. Take a step towards Jesus and you’ll meet someone already running toward you. Because of Jesus, we can expect welcome from God, not rejection.
That welcome and restorative friendship with Jesus did something remarkable in Zacchaeus. We’re not just talking some minor behaviour adjustment. Zacchaeus was given his name back. He was called pure and made pure by Jesus, even though he looked like the furthest thing from holy. He was made into what the New Testament calls a “new creation”. His name was no longer a misnomer because Jesus had called him friend. This is what we can expect too. Jesus gives us our name back. Our true name as a child of God, as a human being made in his image. We can’t overstate the drama of Jesus’ use of Zacchaeus’ name in this story. Jesus knows his name. Jesus uses his name. Jesus renews and redeems his name. Our names, our identities tied to our names, can be complicated things. But on the lips of Jesus our names are heard rightly. When he calls us son, or daughter, or beloved, or pure, or holy, no matter how we’ve thought of ourselves before, we are what he has called us. As we hear in Ephesians, “we are God’s handiwork, (or we are what he has made us,) created in Christ Jesus to do good works…”. We can see even a small example of that today in this art instillation. When Jesus gives you your name back, makes you new creature, new things start happening in and through you.
I once heard a sermon in a monastery where a monk shared that the response to salvation is always humility and joy. He drew that insight from the many stories of Jesus rescuing various people in the gospels and what then follows. Over again, the response when people open their hearts to Jesus is humility and joy.
Why humility? Humility means you become more interested in serving than being served, in giving rather than taking. That was the case for Zacchaeus. Jesus’ generous and surprising offer of friendship to Zacchaeus is followed immediately by Zacchaeus’ own generous and surprising response to those around him. He rightly and generously returns vast sums to people. What happens in the depths of his heart immediacy translates to his dealings with wealth. It’s a consistent theme in Luke/Acts – God’s benevolence so spilling over in people resulting in them becoming generous with those around them. It’s part of why we can be so thankful for the generosity of this church. A generous attitude is a very clear fingerprint of Jesus on our hearts. So at the beginning of the story Zacchaeus is a taker, in it for himself, a scourge on his neighbourhood. Once he enters Jesus’ circle, Zacchaeus gets turned around. No longer a taker, he appears to become a giver. He’s no longer a distorted reflection of authority, but becomes a more accurate reflection of God’s likeness. He no longer goes against the grain of his design, no longer inhuman, but more human. Not a curse on people, but becomes a blessing to them. So there’s a name and identity renewal for Zacchaeus, as well as a purpose renewal. He’s become fit for purpose. What’s recorded in Luke’s gospel are Zacchaeus’ first steps into God’s new direction for him. And that’s what God wants for each of us, to grow into his good and eternal designs for us.
Humility is what results when people let Jesus in, and joy. Joy, because they’re glad – this is good news! Jesus has put a smile on their face. Friendship with God is not drudgery – it’s called good news for a reason! Again this is what Zacchaeus discovered, and I doubt the following dinner party was a lifeless event. If this episode is in any way connected to Luke 15, and the celebrations following the finding of each lost thing (coin, sheep, child), my guess is that the best food and drink came out at Zacchaeus’ house when Jesus arrived. Do we have room in our biblical imagination to see Jesus and Zacchaeus, along with the disciples and others, all sitting around that table sharing joyfully? We’re a sorry bunch of stale religious folks if we don’t! Friendship with Jesus brings joy. Imagine laughing in Jesus’ circle. What a refreshing and relatable picture of holiness. Joy!
I want to close our time in this story today by looking at what Jesus says toward the end of the of the encounter with Zacchaeus. First, Jesus’ calling Zacchaeus “a true son of Abraham”, following on from Kirsten last week. And second, to consider the return of the lost and found language from Jesus as it’s boomeranged back again in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Firstly, one question I’ve got about Jesus’ mention of Abraham is what we know about Abraham’s encounter with God in Genesis, and how God tells Abraham that he will be “blessed to be a blessing”. And you have to wonder how that factors into the Zacchaeus story too. Here’s a taker, a scourge, now blessed by Jesus, welcomed by Jesus, a friend of Jesus, as Abraham is called God’s friend in Scripture. In his new life, having met the same God of Abraham in Jesus, has Zacchaeus now also been “blessed to be a blessing?” It might not be Luke’s main point in recording those words, but it’s the fallout of friendship with Jesus. This is part of what it means when Jesus makes us fit for purpose. We’re blessed to be a blessing. When we think about salvation we should think not only about what we have been saved from, but also what we have been saved for.
Secondly, and more to the main point of the whole of Luke’s gospel, we shouldn’t miss the magnitude of this statement’s ramifications. Jesus calling Zacchaeus’ a son of Abraham is shocking. Here’s a man who had done everything possible to excluded himself from his Israelite heritage and identity. He’d sold his birthright for a lump sum and was living with the consequences. And along comes Jesus who says in effect, “he’s back in with God now, I’ve re-grafted him”. That’s pretty shocking. You can see why the religious higher-ups had problems with Jesus. Zacchaeus had been a self-made pariah in Israelite society. But Jesus says he’s not out, but back in, as connected to Abraham, the great ancestor of and father of the Israelite nation, as the most pious priest in town. And all because Jesus shook his hand. What a statement from Jesus. Just like when he gives someone sight, or touches a person with leprosy, there’s an instant renewal of what was lost. That’s what being in Jesus’ circle means. It means that his gravitas, his weight of holiness, completely outweighs, beyond comprehension, whatever we bring or don’t bring to the table. So this “son of Abraham” language says more about Jesus than it does about Zacchaeus. Who in the world does Jesus think he is? Once again in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has gathered up Israel’s entire history and modes of relating to God, and is filtering it through himself. He’s reconstituting everything around himself. That was hard to accept then, and it still is today. Surely we should have to do more to make it into God’s inner circle. Out in the world we have to show our credentials, do the work, wrestle through red tape. But it’s not that way with Jesus. With Jesus, if he says you’re in, you’re in. And that makes some people grumble. Occasionally, it might make us grumble when we see Jesus letting someone in the door we’re not so sure about. It takes us our whole life of faith to come to grips with that kind of shocking kindness and capacity. And thank God we’ll never come to the bottom of it.
And now, for the exclamation point, Jesus’ big finish. We’ll close here with language from Jesus which runs right back to Luke 15:
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.“
Notice what the gospel writer is weaving back into his narravtive. Back again is the theme of lost things being found, and Jesus’ purpose to go looking. There’s a phrase we need to really hear. Jesus has repeatedly described those who aren’t in his circle as lost.
Lostness is a real problem. Our society can try and pretty it up, minimize its fallout, even deny there is such a thing as lost at all. But lostness is a problem and deep down we all know it. Lostness leads to loneliness, unforgiveness, breakdowns in the family. Lostness leads to self-destruction and the constant taxation of those around us until those relationships become wastelands. Lostness leads to confusion in our minds and bodies and spirits. Lostness makes us drink the putrid water in the pig pen because we’ve run so far from home. Lostness leads to all kinds of destruction until there’s nothing left. Lostness is no good. Lostness means distance and disconnection from God.
The good news is, our lostness is no match for Jesus, because Jesus can cover a lot of ground. So, lost does not mean beyond hope. Lost does not have to mean lost forever. Lost just means lost. As we see earlier in the three parables of Luke 15 (a lost coin, a lost sheep, a lost child) lost things can be found. And here with Zacchaeus some flesh has been put on the bones, a story about a real person to come alongside the parables.
People, without Jesus, are lost, according to Jesus. But, as much as Jesus calls them lost, he also identifies his role. He’s the seeker, the one who strides out intent on finding. In 1 Peter we read that “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” This is true. Lostness, being devoured by darkness, is a real possibility. But if the gospels tell us anything it’s that Jesus is a better hunter than his adversary, there is nothing lost than he isn’t capable of finding. Jesus can cover a lot of ground, and the looming dark powers can’t compete with Jesus’ prowess and passion.
You might feel lost today – because that happens from time to time even when you’re a church goer – don’t worry, he hasn’t forgotten you and loves you enough go looking. Maybe you can hear his footsteps now, feel his breath just over your shoulder. Will you whisper in your heart, even right now, “I’m over here”, and let him find you?
Or, as I was just describing lostness, maybe someone you know or love came to mind, because presently they’re swallowed up by lostness. An encouragement as we close. Remember Zacchaeus and the time we’ve spent in his story. Lost things are only lost until they’re found, and Jesus finds people every day. And when he does, in their foundness people can become almost unrecognizable – in a good way.