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Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016

There are few things I would be caught in the middle of a crowd for. I don’t go to concerts where the tailgating starts two hours before the gates open. I don’t go try to get a place on the mall to watch the 4th of July fireworks. PBS is fine with me, thank you. And I definitely don’t go Black Friday shopping, at least not until the afternoon when the stores have cleared out. I won’t as a rule wait in line to see a celebrity either, but I might make a few exceptions. I would have liked to meet Mother Teresa; I might stand in line to see Pope Francis; I might go to the seminary and stand in the crowd, trying to work my way closer to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’m not sure but I might.

Zaccheus wants to see Jesus. He is hindered by the crowds waiting for a glimpse of this famous prophet because he is so short. He can’t get through the crowds and he can’t see from where he is in the crowd. So Zaccheus works his way around the crowd and runs ahead, throwing pride to the winds and climbing a sycamore tree to make sure to be there when Jesus comes by. Picture Zaccheus in the tree. A sycamore has low branches, which makes it possible for him to climb. See him put his short legs on the limbs and get up high enough to see over the crowd. See his face, bright with anticipation, as he works his way between the leaves so he will have a clear view.

Why does Zaccheus want to see Jesus anyway? Is it curiosity, brought about by what he has learned about Jesus? Has he heard that Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners? Has a transformation already begun in Zaccheus? Is he tired of a job where he has to gouge people to collect taxes and make a profit? Is he tired of being alone, shunned by the community? We don’t know. All we know is that Zaccheus is determined to see Jesus and he will do anything to accomplish this goal.

When Jesus comes into Jericho, there are huge crowds waiting for him. But somehow Jesus knows Zaccheus is in that tree. Somehow Jesus knows that this lost man is the one he seeks. Somehow Jesus knows Zaccheus is ready to be saved. And he does the unexpected, as he so often does. He calls Zaccheus out of the tree, and invites himself to Zaccheus’ house. Not only do you not invite yourself to stay with anyone – hospitality was supposed to be offered – you do not invite yourself to stay with a tax collector, lest you be seen to condone his behavior by associating with him. Jesus once again shows his gracious welcome to those on the margins. He does not pick out a self-righteous or even a righteous person.

His welcome to Zaccheus is pure grace and Zaccheus accepts it as such. He only wanted to see Jesus and now Jesus not only speaks to him but says he will come and stay. Zaccheus comes down quickly out of the tree with happiness in his heart. His cup is overflowing. Someone wants to be with him. Someone as important as Jesus. Something happens to Zaccheus’ heart. It is not possible to say whether it happens immediately or after Jesus has been at Zaccheus’ house. But Zaccheus, unlike the rich young ruler whom Jesus met on the road, makes an extravagant gesture. He will give half his money to the poor and pay four times over everyone he has defrauded. By any measurement, this is repentance and not just of the heart, but of the pocketbook as well. Zaccheus is the miracle (Charles Cousar) Jesus talks about when he says how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. They are weighed down by their search for money, which leads them to a focus on self and not on others. They are burdened and they often don’t know it. Zaccheus must have felt this burden because he is happy to do this thing. He feels lighter. He feels more connected to people as indeed he will be because of his generous amends for his past behavior. The presence of God in Christ in Zaccheus’ life has transformed him and he goes from being one who takes advantage of his fellow Jews to one who helps the least of these and pays back money to people whom he has defrauded. Jesus is happy, Zaccheus is happy, the crowd is working its way to happy. They are most likely skeptical of what Zaccheus has promised – once a tax collector, always a tax collector. Transformation is difficult to believe for people who have a fixed mindset.

Jesus says Zaccheus has been saved, not just for the afterlife but now. He can now be counted a Son of Abraham and heir to all the promises of the Jewish people. Jesus has done what he came to do – seek out and save the lost.

Whom do you identify yourself with in this story? Is it the crowd? The righteous? The self-righteous? Zaccheus and those like him? I tried to see where I fit, and I put myself in the pretty-well behaved category. The Lord has given me the grace to live a life of discipleship and I try my best to do that. I help the needy, I tithe my income, I repent of my sin. I was sad about this identification because it meant Jesus would rather be with people who didn’t act as well as I did. But then I began to see things differently. I didn’t carry the burden of too much wealth, but I carried other burdens that I needed to be forgiven for and freed of – I am too hard on myself; I can be a negative, glass-half-empty thinker, I am driven by the need to be productive and find it hard to relax and play. These burdens weigh on me, and Jesus came to free us from our burdens and transform us into disciples who are able to do his will at a moment’s notice. If we carry weights on our backs we can only with a great deal of trying do God’s will and maybe not even then, because one of our worst faults is not relying on God for help. I am a lost child after all and I’m happy for it because it meant Jesus will save me and is saving me. No matter how many good qualities I have, I am still burdened by pain and hardship in my soul. We all are because that is the nature of human beings in a sinful world. No matter where we are in our journey with Jesus, we need him to save us, to give us life, to make us his brothers and sisters. We need the gracious gift of his life, death and resurrection.

Where are you in your journey with Jesus? Would you push through a crowd and climb a tree to see him literally or figuratively? What would make you do that? Would you want to just see somebody famous and get down and go home? Would you want to speak to Jesus and ask him some questions you had on your heart? Could you imagine at all Jesus speaking to you and inviting himself into your life in the power of the Holy Spirit? Zaccheus was overjoyed at Jesus’ warm welcome. God always initiates grace and God is the one who invites Godself into our minds and hearts to transform us more and more into the people we can be.

Jesus doesn’t condone what Zaccheus has done, but he welcomes rather than judges. That is what lovers do. Jesus recognizes someone who needs him desperately and responds to that need. That is what lovers do. Jesus tells Zaccheus to offer him hospitality, which Zaccheus, being welcomed and noticed, is delighted to do. That is what lovers do for people who are on the verge of transformation and we are all on that verge, all the time. Jesus is our friend, our lover, our savior, and we all need him to walk beside us. There is a Zaccheus in all of us, wanting Jesus to come to us and welcome us home. May we accept his invitation to salvation and experience the joy of being free.


     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 583