The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, Year C - October 30, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

 

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 26, Year C

October 30, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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 to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." 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." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." (Luke 19:1-10)

 

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How many of you learned the song (we just sang) as a child, in Sunday school?  And if not, I bet that somewhere along the way, you probably heard the story of Zacchaeus, who climbed up the sycamore tree, “for the Lord he wanted to see.”  And of Jesus, who is so tickled by this, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, making this wee little man as happy as can be!  

For many of us, that’s about all we ever get to know about Zacchaeus, whose story tends to get overlooked in our lectionary because it often falls on the same Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day and use alternative readings.   So when we hear it today, we are reminded that there is a bit more to this little guy who Jesus calls down from the tree.  Not only is he short, but he’s also described as a “chief tax collector” and “rich.”  

Here is what we know about chief tax collectors in Jesus’ day:  In the first century, Roman officials would contract with local entrepreneurs to collect the prescribed taxes and tariffs in a given area. These “chief tax collectors,” were required to pay the contract in advance. They would then employ others to collect the taxes with the hope that this would yield a profit. The system was of course open to abuse, and Jews who collected taxes for the Romans were assumed to be dishonest and were hated by other Jews for their complicity with the Gentile oppressors.

In the context of Luke’s Gospel, this puts Zacchaeus in the role of an outcast – the kind who Jesus tends to befriend, over and over again.  As is so often the case, Jesus messes with our assumptions about who is a sinner, and who is a saint.

So, I think it is fitting that we think about this story right before the Feast of All Saints, which falls the day after Halloween, or more exactly “All Hallows (Holy) Eve.  As you know, Halloween comes tomorrow night, and I’m excited that our congregation will be hosting a party for the children and families at Peter Paul Development center this afternoon.  But so often we forget that the original focus of this cultural celebration was to honor the souls of the faithful departed, saints and sinners, one and all.

The name Zacchaeus means righteous, which seems to be pure irony in this story, given that his profession makes him the kind of person his own people despised – a traitor, working for the oppressor.

Not only that, but his wealth would have been gained through extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, by exploiting the working poor, and by taking care of his cronies. There's an unspoken assumption of corruption here. Zacchaeus is the kind of man who deserves our disdain.

And he was, as we all know by now, so short that when he was eager to get a look at Jesus passing through town, he does something utterly undignified for a man of his station. He runs ahead of the crowd, climbs up into a tree, then waits for Jesus to pass by. Imagine a powerful lobbyist in Washington doing something similar during a presidential parade!

When Jesus reaches that tree, he looks up, sees Zacchaeus, and tells him to come down. He then invites himself to be Zacchaeus’ guest!, “I must stay at your house today." And so Zacchaeus climbs down and "welcomes Jesus gladly."

The response of the crowd is predictable. Luke says that they began to grumble…”He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'"

And so, here again, the writer of Luke returns to one of his major themes, that Jesus “welcomes sinners.”  It’s the same theme we had in earlier stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost prodigal son. In which we’re told, "the son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost."

What’s interesting about today’s story is that Zacchaeus defends himself before the hostile crowd. He says that he'll give half of his possessions to the poor, and that he'll repay fourfold all the people who he's cheated. (And that would be a lot of angry tax payers.)

Read in this way, Zacchaeus is a sinner who repents and is converted on the spot. He promises future reparations.  And Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.”

But there's another way to read this story, and it depends on how you translate Zacchaeus’ promise of restitution to the people he’s taken advantage of, particularly the verbs “give” and “repay” – which in the original Greek are in the present tense.  Is Zacchaeus saying, I will give? Or I do give?  I will repay?  Or “I do repay?” This is a good example of the interplay between translation and interpretation, something we’ve been talking about these past months in our faith formation programs.

You see, even though the verbs are clearly in the present tense, the typical way of translating this story is what we’ve got in the NRSV we used this morning, which renders the verbs in what is called the "futuristic present." That is, Zacchaeus the sinner repents and vows that henceforth he'll make amends.[1] 

The problem is, this tense is nowhere else to be found in all of Scripture or Classical Greek literature.  Which means that a new grammatical category was made up just for this particular passage, as if the translators needed to have the story fit the usual pattern of repentance preceding salvation.  (And why would they do that?  Your guess is as good as mine, but I think it has to do with our tendency to conform God to our expectations!)

And so the second option follows the scholarship behind translations like the good old KJV, which render the verbs as a "progressive present tense." And this is found lots of places in the ancient Greek, and would imply that Zacchaeus has already been giving to the poor and repaying those who feel cheated, and will continue giving and repaying. 

In other words, Zacchaeus isn’t making promises about the future, but rather, he’s defending himself and shocks the crowd by appealing to his past good behavior.

Understood this way, Zacchaeus, is not a sinner who converts but actually, a saint who surprises, a “hidden saint” about whom people have made all sorts of false assumptions - about his corruption, about his character. And so he defends himself: "Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution."

The crowd had demonized Zacchaeus. But Jesus praises him as "a son of Abraham."

I think I like this second translation. Because it seems to fit with the many other times that Jesus calls out so called “good” people who are bad – who grumble and mumble - and commends “bad” people who are actually good – the lost sheep who are found.

Consider, for instance the unlikely heroes we’ve heard about this year in our readings from Luke. The Roman soldier with great faith, the "good" Samaritan, or the Samaritan leper who was the only person to give thanks for his healing, or the tax collector in last’s week’s gospel, who was commended as more righteous than a sanctimonious Pharisee, as each prayed at the temple.

All of this makes me think that the story we hear today about Zacchaeus isn’t about a sinner who surprises everyone by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn't like with all sorts of false assumptions. Perhaps the real irony in this passage is that Zacchaeus does live up to his name.  Perhaps he is the righteous one, and Jesus knew that all along.

Which brings me back to All Hallows’ Eve…because it seems that Jesus is once again confronting our own assumptions about who is a sinner and who’s a saint, and demonstrating the “tricks” we play in our own minds as we “treat” one another – one way, or another. 

Whatever interpretation of this story you choose to accept, Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus makes the point that you cannot hold a person hostage to a category that person has outgrown, whether sinner or saint. This is one of the underappreciated dynamics of life: that we do have the capacity to grow beyond yesterday, to outlive it.  As one writer puts it, “We can be evolutionaries—always becoming.  Which means we don’t have to allow our lives to be packaged in the small boxes people present to us.  We can live in to our growth, rather than internalizing the blindness of those who can’t see our worth beyond our mistakes of yesterday.”

Zacchaeus and the savior—The righteous one and Jesus— each teach us that we can outgrow the bindings of past trauma, unlearn the lessons of oppressive relationships, and banish our lingering demons. We have the grace for growth, and it is knocking on our front door. Trick or Treat?

 

Amen

 

 

[1] See footnote in David Lose’s “In the Meantime” Commentary for this week’s lectionary http://www.davidlose.net/2016/10/pen-24-c-reformation-the-unexpected-god/

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