The following is a sermon I prepared for my preaching class this week. It’s based on the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector from Jericho, from Luke 19:1-10. If your church follows the revised common lectionary, it’s the story coming up on Sunday, October 30, 2016.
Before we begin, I want you all to pull out your copies of the reading for today and in verse 8, where it says “I will give to the poor” and “I will pay back four times as much,” cross out the word “will.” The actual Greek text has the verbs in the present tense, which makes it unclear if these are things Zacchaeus intends to do or if these are things he is currently doing. If it’s the future tense, this becomes a conversion story. If it’s the present tense, it’s…something else.
We could certainly read the Zacchaeus story as a conversion story. The story of another sinner, an abuser of God’s people, who encounters Jesus, repents, and turns from his evil ways. A chief tax collector who profits off of his own Jewish people and betrays them to the Roman empire changed into a generous champion of the poor. We could read it as that, and that would be okay, but that’s not what the Gospel of Luke wants us to see. Luke is all about Jesus seeing the value in marginalized people, calling forth the forgotten and lifting them up to a place of honor. We see it in the healing of the lepers, the story of Lazarus the beggar, the special attention Luke gives to women, and so on. And we see it here, with Zacchaeus.
Now, I want you to stop and think for a moment. Does that make you uncomfortable? Are you uneasy with the idea of a wealthy, powerful government man being a marginalized person? I know I am.
But maybe this year in particular there is an important message in there we need to hear. Because we are in the middle of an intensely uncomfortable election cycle. We have two much-reviled candidates, hated in no small part for their wealth. We see them as aloof, as completely unconnected to the issues of working- and middle-class families. Rich off of the labor of others. Betrayers of our nation. Our very own modern-day Zacchaeuses.
Let me be clear. I am not telling you one of these candidates is better than the other. I’m not telling you one of them is a misunderstood Zacchaeus and the other is just a jerk. I’m not telling you one of them is God-appointed and the other is a fraud. I’m not really telling you much of anything either way. In fact, I’m not going to tell you much about Zacchaeus, because I think in so many ways, this story isn’t about Zacchaeus or other wealthy, powerful people.
It’s about us. The little guys. Because in contrast to Zacchaeus’ physical littleness, we feel little in power. We feel like our votes don’t matter. We feel like our representatives don’t listen. We feel like our laws, tax codes, markets protect the wrong people, and hurt us and the ones we love. And we turn that feeling of powerlessness into hate, into anger, into greed for a justice that no longer resembles God’s.
We must never forget that we are Christians. We care not about the power, wealth and justice of this earth, but the power given to us in grace and the gift of God’s law and promise. Jesus’s love tears down the walls that separate us through politics, money and social convention. Jesus doesn’t look at us and see our value in terms of our income, our production levels, or our voting record. Jesus looks at us and loves us precisely because we are his.
That’s why when Jesus rode through Jericho that day, and he looked up above the crowd and saw this funny little man in the branches, a man who I can only assume looked the picture of wealth and power in his fine garments and perfumes sitting like a monkey in a tree, Jesus didn’t laugh, or condemn, or gasp in shock. Instead, he called out to Zacchaeus and bade him to come down so that the Messiah might dine with him tonight.
Jesus didn’t single Zacchaeus out because he knew he’d get better food and entertainment at Zacchaeus’s house. He singled him out because he loves Zacchaeus. Because Zacchaeus, whether we like it or not, is a child of Abraham, one of God’s people—just like the rest of us.
When we look at people and make judgments against them based on their position in society—high or low—we forget that we are God’s people. When we determine the worth of a person based only on what we can see, we forget what God sees in all of us. When we forget the needs of people we arbitrarily decide are not needy, we forget that only God knows our needs. It’s not the other person who is lost when we do these things, it’s us.
So maybe, in the end, this is a conversion story. But it’s not Zacchaeus who is converted, it’s the rest of the people of Jericho. It’s all of us, all of the children of Abraham. Everyone who has ever looked at a Zacchaeus and declared that person a sinner without bothering to know them. Anyone who has ever let a feeling of injustice turn into a hatred that blinded them from seeing even our oppressors as beloved children of God.
If this is you, and let me tell you it is certainly me, I urge you to find a way to let go of that hate. If ever you feel small, powerless, weak, or marginalized, don’t let those feelings blind you from seeing your neighbors the way Jesus sees them. Don’t let yourself be corrupted by anger. Instead, turn that anger into a desire to pull yourself up into the trees, above the raging crowd, so that you might better see Jesus. And while you’re up there, you might just meet your Zacchaeus, so that you can know and love them as God does, as a fellow child of Abraham, a fellow inheritor of God’s promise.