TEXTS: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Luke 19:1-10
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgement comes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:1-4)
[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. (Luke 19:1-2)
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.”
I’m guessing that everyone reading this today will know that children’s hymn.
Some biblical stories suffer a great deal from their overuse in Sunday school picture books. The child-friendly pictures completely inoculate us against the shock of their message. The story of Zacchaeus is one such story. The fact that Zacchaeus was a “wee little man” and that he climbed a tree make it readily appealing to kids; but it was not written as a children’s fable.
If we had not heard the account before—and had been just reading our way through his gospel—we would find that Luke has set us up for shock in this story. He has hammered away at a particular theme for the last 18 chapters, and then—in this story—he turns it on its head and pulls the rug out from under us.
Of the four gospel writers, Luke is the one who has the most to say about the evils of wealth. Luke is the one who paints Jesus as the champion of the poor. Right from the start—even before Jesus is born—his mother is singing the praise of God who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53) Luke is the one who says that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a feed-trough. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, the Christ-child is visited, not by kings, but by poor shepherds. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus does not say “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3a), but “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20b). Full stop. And then for good measure he adds, “… woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24).
Consider the parables which Luke chooses to report. There’s the story of the rich fool who has a bumper year, stores it all up for himself and dies, unable to take anything with him (12:13-21)—a story found only in Luke. Then there’s the story of the rich man who ignored poor Lazarus lying at his gate, and when both died, found himself in hell, tormented by visions of Lazarus in paradise (16:19-31)—another story found only in Luke.
And then, just shortly before today’s anecdote, we have the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking how he might be saved (18:18-25). That one’s found in Matthew and Mark, too—but you can be quite sure that Luke was never going to leave it out!
After establishing that the young man has always been a meticulous keeper of the commandments, Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow him. The rich young man goes away shattered, unable to give up his wealth. And what is Jesus’ comment? “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25). Story upon story has hammered home this point until we almost feel we can finish Luke’s sentences for him as soon as he has identified the financial status of the characters.
So when the story of Zacchaeus begins, we’ve been well-primed. Luke introduces him with almost staged seriousness.
As Jesus was passing through Jericho, a man was there. A man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector. Read: “despised traitor who was collaborating with the Romans and profiteering from it by cheating ordinary poor people into paying too much tax and then pocketing the difference.” That’s how the system worked.
A man was there. A man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector … and he was filthy rich! We hear that, and we think we know how the story will turn out. He wants to see Jesus, but when he does, Jesus will give him a blast about his money and force him to choose between money and discipleship. Of course.
But no! Luke has set us up beautifully. And now, out from under us comes the rug! Jesus spots Zacchaeus up his tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus nearly falls out of his tree with excitement. He welcomes Jesus into his home and dinner’s on.
Now, we’ve already heard a few stories where Jesus goes out to dinner with riff-raff from the streets; and each time, we’ve been told that the devout Pharisees and the religious experts grumbled about it. “He’s going to dinner with the religiously impure. It’s a scandal! How can we take him seriously as a prophet?”
And each time, we are given a picture of some stuck up holier-than-thou types grumbling, while everyone else rejoices and is happy to party with Jesus. But is it the “holier-than-thous” grumbling this time? No! This time it says that everyone who saw it began to grumble. When it says that, you are supposed to hear, “all the people who were just like us began to grumble, saying, ‘he has gone to be the guest of some rich, thieving scum.’”
Luke, however, is not yet finished rubbing salt in our wounds. What happens at dinner at Zacchaeus’s place? Zacchaeus stands up during dinner and says to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.”
And before we can think, “Aha! Jesus will get you now! Half is not enough. It’s the whole lot for you, mister …” Before we can think that, we hear Jesus saying: “Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham.”
A son of Abraham. One of God’s chosen ones. Just the sort of person Christ came to save.
Some of you may remember that Lorne Calvert—who is a former Premier of Saskatchewan, and an ordained minister—once made the comment that “the NDP is the political arm of the United Church of Canada.” That’s his opinion. But if you think Jesus has come only as a social revolutionary to restructure society so that inequality and injustice are removed … think again! If that was all God wanted to do, I suppose he would have just sent a social-reforming politician.
Now, I’m not saying Jesus didn’t care about injustice. But I am saying that his mission was—and is—much bigger than that. What we are encountering here is the scandalously gratuitous love and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. In Jesus, we see the one who was poor, and a refugee, and whose country was occupied by a foreign military power, and who had no place to lay his head. In Jesus, we see one who was falsely accused, and betrayed, and the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
In Jesus, we encounter the ultimate victim of the brutality and unfairness of this world—of the system that the world’s wealthy and powerful elites manufacture, and maintain, and profit from. And here, in this story, we see exactly what we encounter now in the risen Christ. We see the ultimate victim, standing risen and free, and utterly without resentment, offering a welcome and a forgiveness that is so outrageously gratuitous as to be incomprehensible to us.
And not only is it incomprehensible, it is scandalous—scandalous to the point of being grossly offensive. Luke has had a great time depicting the religious holier-than-thous being offended by Jesus’ inclusiveness—but now he’s turning his sights on us! Now, he’s drawing pictures of people we don’t like! People whom we regard as filthy scum. People we think the world would be better off without. And he’s telling us that Jesus welcomes them just the same as he welcomes us. The implication is clear: if we want to join the company of Jesus, we’d better be ready to learn to accept these people.
Ain’t that a kick in the pants? It’s one thing to say that Jesus includes the poor victims who have been cast out and victimized—but it is quite another thing to say that Jesus is just as ready to accept and include the wealthy, powerful victimizers.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself wanting to stick with Habbakuk, screaming blue murder at God until he comes and sorts out all the violence and injustice. I’m shocked to discover that—when God does come—he doesn’t just save the downtrodden … he also welcomes and accepts their oppressors. Luke is telling us that the love and grace of Jesus makes absolutely no distinction between rich and poor, strong and weak, mighty and lowly. All are equally lost, and in need of grace. Differently perhaps, but equally.
What happened to: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”?
Well, when you look at it again, Jesus did not actually say that God would have trouble accepting a rich person into the Kingdom. He said that rich people have trouble accepting the invitation.
When you’re used to being able to buy or maneuver your way into things, it can be hard to let go and accept something as a free gift. The poor have had more practice at accepting things they cannot achieve for themselves. But when I find the spotlight turned back on me, I’m having trouble accepting it as a gift, too. As long as I’m thinking that some random billionaire should not be getting the same as me, I’m implying that I’ve earned better! And that puts me right up there with that Pharisee we heard about last week: “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that rich, power-mongering despot over there.”
As galling as it might be, Luke is telling us this: until we are ready to welcome the rich and the powerful to the table—no strings attached, no pre-conditions—we are not yet ready to take our own places at the table. We are saved by nothing other than accepting the free gift of undeserved grace in Jesus Christ. But you know, as long as we are trying to tell God who else is and is not worthy to receive it, we have not actually accepted the gift ourselves. We’re still buying into the idea that salvation is for those who deserve it. When we finally realize that it is sheer gift—freely offered to people we despise as much as it is offered to us—then we will know what it means to accept it or to reject it.
Always remember, Jesus is the One who promised: “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37b). Let us pray daily for grace in all its fullness—grace that enables us to accept not only Christ, but everybody he brings with him!