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Monday, November 23, 2020

Luke 19:1-10 Unraveling that Which Binds Us


Luke 19:1-10

            I am not a tall person. While my husband is about six feet tall, and none of our three kids are under 5’10”, I barely come in at 5’3”so I am used to people towering over me. It happens all the time in my own home! While I wouldn’t consider being 5’3” terribly short, and I wouldn’t consider myself a “wee little woman,” I do know something about how hard it can be to see if there is a large crowd of people gathered and I am sitting or standing way in the back, where my husband prefers to hang out.

It means that I miss a lot of the action. It means that oftentimes it is as difficult to hear as it is to lay my eyes on whatever is happening at the front of the crowd. It means that I have a permanent crick in my neck from trying to see around people when at the movies, a play, or other public events.

            Therefore, I understand Zacchaeus’ dilemma. He has heard that Jesus is passing through Jericho. And, he wants to see this man he has heard so much about.

All around town stories have been spreading about this itinerant rabbi who has been traveling the countryside curing diseases, and healing people’s lameness, and driving out demons. Perhaps Zacchaeus has heard stories of Jesus reaching out to people no one ever even noticed before. Maybe he has heard that Jesus speaks of a radically loving and forgiving God who has transformed the lives of many a sinner along the way.

            The story that is told about how Zacchaeus solves his dilemma, and then what happened that day when Jesus came to Jericho and met Zacchaeus is so familiar and so beloved that it was made into a children’s song. While the song doesn’t appear in hymnals much before the 1940s it was probably around long before that. Perhaps you even learned some version of it in Sunday School or church camp:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he;

He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.

And when the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree

And said, ‘Zacchaeus you come down!”

For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.

            For children, a wee little man climbing up in a tree just so that he can see Jesus pass by is what makes this story special. But we all know there is much more to this story.

What makes Jesus’ actions radical and the story truly remarkable is that Zacchaeus was not a nice person. But even before Zacchaeus fully knows who he is and even while he is mired in his sin, Jesus seeks him. Jesus sees him. Jesus spends time with him. Jesus shows him something that unravels life as he knows it, and in so doing transforms him for the better. That’s the part the children’s song misses.

He was perhaps one of the least likely people anyone would expect to be given the honor of Jesus’ choice as host and dinner mate. For Jesus to have even noticed and acknowledged him was offensive to many of the fine people who filled the city and stood in the crowd that day.

So, when Jesus does notice Zacchaeus, when he speaks to him and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, the people do what people always do when they are jealous, think something is unfair, or when they are irked by good things someone undeservedly has bestowed on them. They grumble.

            You see, Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector – he was a chief tax collector. Jesus indicates here that Zacchaeus was a Jew. Yet he worked for the Romans, collecting taxes and he made quite a lucrative living doing so.

During the Roman occupation, positions like this were awarded to local citizens through the trading of favors or bidding for the positions. For Zacchaeus to hold such a high level position and to become rich doing it indicates he worked the system to his advantage at every turn, often at the expense of his neighbors and fellow Jews.

            Zacchaeus represents the oppressive nature of life; he represents corruption and greed; he represents, perpetuates, and profits from an economic system that robs and defrauds those on the bottom of the economic ladder. That is how he became wealthy. That is how he supports and even advances that status quo that disadvantages and further impoverishes his neighbors.

            Is this the kind of person you would want to sit at the dinner table with? Is he the type of person you would welcome, or befriend? If your answer is “no”, then you are like most of the people in Jericho.

They deem Zacchaeus a sinner and an unworthy person and host. They don’t want him to be part of their fellowship or community. They don’t even acknowledge him if they can help it.

            Yet in that moment, with a crowd of clamoring people surrounding him, it seems Jesus has eyes only for him. Only for Zacchaeus – this sinner and perpetrator of injustice and inhumanity.

            By so doing, Our Lord unraveled Zacchaeus’ vocation and his identity. After supping with Jesus, after being seen, recognized as a descendant of Abraham, after receiving a kind of reverse hospitality from Jesus, Zacchaeus is transformed forever.

            His complicity in systems of oppression are unraveled.

            His greed is unraveled and replaced with radical generosity. There are laws regarding restitution for unjust financial practices or cheating. Zacchaeus far exceeds – by many times, in fact, the required payments when he pledges his atoning payments to those he has defrauded.

            Alternatively, the citizens of Jericho also experience an unraveling, of their expectations of who is worthy and who is not.

Their expectation of who lies within the limits of forgiveness and reconciliation are unraveled.

            This story challenges each of us to examine our own financial practices in light of Jesus’ actions and values. This is something we are loathe to do. Talking about money, especially our individual attachment to it and to the things it can buy is not a popular topic in our society. One of the sermon topics preachers often receive the most pushback on is the topic of money, our attachment to it, and Jesus say we do with it.

            This story points us to questions regarding whether our spending practices might perpetuate oppression in our world. Where do our goods come from? Who makes them? Are they justly treated and paid for their labor? Are they in fact enslaved, trafficked humans, even children?

I know that no one wants their pastor standing before them asking them to think about how in fact their buying choices might create and empower systems of classism and poverty. It may be difficult for us to consider alternative lifestyles to the conspicuous consumption so prevalent in our society.

            But Jesus consistently calls us to examine our relationship with money, especially as it shapes and reflects our relationships with others.

            It is an immensely complicated topic, but an important one to consider as we strive to live as disciples of Christ, who knows our hearts and forgives our wayward tendencies.

The thing is, I know this congregation. I know how generous you are. I know how faithfully you support the church and a plethora of ministries to which we are connected, giving of your time and treasure when you know there is a need to be met.

I know the list of organizations and ministries supported by the members of this congregation is long – our treasurer can tell you just how long it is, as he works to keep our reports accurate.

            I know that hardly a month goes by in which we don’t receive a thank you from a local service organization or ministry that has received financial or material support from Zion because of your generosity. Recently, around 50 Vacation Bible School kits and 100 backpacks filled to the brim with school supplies were given away to children in our community because of your generosity. There is much to celebrate in the ways this congregation strives to faithfully share our bounty in the world.

            Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that our tendencies toward acquisition and hoarding come at a steep cost to the people around the world, to our environment, and to our very souls.

So, what are the ways in which we need to continue seeking to unravel our unhealthy attachment to things, in order to make more room for the people who need our notice, who need to be lifted up, and to be seen?

            How do we unravel our obsession with our smartphones and the stuff we hoard that is produced in oppressive places ripe with unjust employment practices? Might we begin by researching the companies we do business with, the charities we contribute to, and the places where we buy our goods?

Might we examine our houses and our lives to discover what waste we are creating at the expense of the environment and those in poverty? Might we open our eyes and our hearts and use our voices and our votes to care for the people Jesus showed us to care for?

            It is in joy and gratitude to Jesus that Zacchaeus’ greed is unraveled and becomes an example for us of overwhelming, radical generosity.

It is in joy and gratitude to Jesus for always seeing us, always teaching us, always forgiving us, and always loving us that we, too, become unraveled from all that binds us, freeing us to live in holy joy and generosity. May we always be moved by this unrelenting gift of God.



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