A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 31, 2004.
Based on Luke 19:1-10 (Proper 26, Year C).
If we invented a game called New Testament word association, it might go something like this: If I said ‘tax collector,’ you’d say ‘sinner.’ If I said ‘Thomas,’ you’d say ‘doubting.’ If I said ‘death,’ you’d say ‘resurrection.’ And if I said ‘Zacchaeus,’ you’d say…‘short.’ If there’s one thing people remember about this gospel story, it’s that Zacchaeus was “vertically challenged.” Jesus passes through Jericho. And to get a glimpse of him, the undersized Zacchaeus has to climb a sycamore tree along the route. But there’s more to Zacchaeus than his lack of height.
Let’s start at the beginning. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. A “chief” tax collector to be precise. And tax collectors in ancient Palestine weren’t the IRS bureaucrats that we’ve come to know and love. In Luke’s gospel, the tax collector is the prototypical outcast. ‘Tax collector’ and ‘sinner’ are synonymous (as we saw in our word association). And it’s helpful to remember just how this system worked. As a “chief” tax collector, Zacchaeus would have contracted with Roman officials to collect the taxes, tariffs, and tolls in a given area. He would have then employed others to collect these fees with the hope that the amount collected would yield a profit. Obviously the system was ripe for graft and abuse. And it usually was. Think combination mob-style extortion and Tammany Hall politics and you get the general idea. If he was good at working the system the chief tax collector could end up a very wealthy man. And Zacchaeus was quite successful.
Jews like Zacchaeus who collected taxes for the Romans were assumed to be dishonest collaborators with their gentile oppressors and were, therefore, hated by other Jews. But even worse in the eyes of a Pharisee, tax collectors were viewed as ritually impure. Because his work took him into all sorts of homes and businesses, the tax collector came into contact with all the unclean elements of society. And so religious, upstanding Jews like the Pharisees treated tax collectors like lepers. They avoided contact with them and would certainly never break bread with them.
The large crowd in Jericho who had gathered to see Jesus knew exactly who Zacchaeus was. He was that money-grubbing short guy everyone tried to avoid. So the crowd would have taken great glee in seeing this man humiliate himself by running ahead to scramble up a tree. A man of his economic class simply didn’t do such things. And, let’s face it, it must have been an odd sight. A short, middle-aged man putting aside all dignity to climb a tree.
But the admirable thing about Zacchaeus is that he makes an effort to encounter Jesus. He doesn’t stand by idly, he takes action. And he’s not afraid to embarrass himself. Zacchaeus is so focused on seeing Jesus that he doesn’t care at all what people think. Appearances are set aside. Which is in great contrast to the Pharisees we’ve been hearing about in recent weeks. Those who are so concerned with looking pious and acting “religious” yet fail to see the bigger picture of Christ’s kingdom.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about the Christian gospel as foolishness to those who don’t believe. Proclaiming Christ crucified seems foolish to those who have not encountered the risen Christ. But when we truly follow Jesus we do risk occasionally becoming fools for Christ. Zacchaeus is a fool for Christ. He seeks to know him at all costs, even the cost of embarrassment. By climbing up that tree he makes himself vulnerable to ridicule. But he also does something extraordinary. He puts himself in position both to see God and to be seen by God. Sometimes when we place all of our trust and faith in Jesus we find ourselves in awkward positions. Like Zacchaeus, we may even find ourselves up a proverbial tree. But there isn’t always a place for decorum when we follow Christ. Being a true disciple of Christ isn’t always neat and orderly. It can place us in compromising positions. But the reward of deeper relationship with the risen Christ is worth the cost of occasional embarrassment.
Jesus forsakes no one. And Jesus seeks relationship with all. Even a tax collector, a sinner who seeks forgiveness. Zacchaeus wasn’t trying to get Jesus’ attention up in that tree. He wasn’t trying to gain favor with Jesus. He just wanted to see him. A glimpse would have been enough. He sought to see Jesus. But it is Jesus, of course, who seeks out and sees Zacchaeus. Jesus says that he has come to “seek out and to save the lost.” That’s Zacchaeus and it’s you and me. We can seek Jesus in our own ways, climbing our own trees, but Jesus is always seeking us out in even more powerful ways than we can imagine.
And, of course, Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ heart, just as he knows our hearts. And he tells him to “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” He knew the depth of Zacchaeus’ desire for forgiveness and we end up with a life transformed right in front of our eyes. That’s the gift Jesus holds out to us: the gift of a changed heart and a transformed life.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004