November 3, 2013
For the past six weeks we have been in the middle of a single conversation that began this way at the beginning of chapter 15:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
First, Jesus told three parables of the lost and found (a sheep, a coin, a son), to this crowd that included tax collectors, an otherwise unspecified group called sinners, disciples, Pharisees, and scribes, concluding each parable with an earthly celebration of friends and neighbors and rejoicing in heaven. (Luke 15)
Jesus followed the lost and found stories with a parable about a dishonest manager who squandered his master’s property. When he realized that his dishonesty had been discovered, he quickly forgave portions of the debts owed to his master so that he would be welcomed by them into the eternal homes when he was discharged. The moral of the story was to make friends for yourselves with dishonest money because no one can serve two masters—you cannot serve God and wealth. (Luke 16:1-13)
The Pharisees and scribes ridiculed Jesus because they loved money. (Luke 16:14)
Jesus fired back with the parable of the unnamed rich man and poor Lazarus, the starving homeless man who slept outside the rich man’s gates. When he died, Lazarus was carried by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man died, was buried, and found himself being tormented in Hades. Abraham refused to allow Lazarus to cross the deep chasm that separated the poor, who had finally entered their reward and comfort, to tend the misery of those who had been comfortable in earthly life. And by the way, you can’t say nobody told you—Moses and the prophets did a fine job of explaining God’s justice. (Luke 16:19-31)
And further more, Jesus says, if you cause a little one to stumble, you’d be better off if you had a millstone tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. And if anybody sins against you and repents, you have to forgive. I think it was the millstone thing, although it could have been the forgiveness thing, which made the disciples throw up their hands and plead for more faith. Which Jesus countered with the first century equivalent of “Just do it!” Do what God requires simply because God requires it—and believe it or not, it’s for your own good. Don’t expect to be rewarded for doing what is expected of you. Period. Faith is a matter of following the law and the prophets. (Luke 17:1-10)
There are a couple of interruptions in this particular discourse, and some time passes. But Jesus returns to his theme with two more parables. In one, a widow has to keep badgering an unjust judge to win her case. Faith equals persistent insistence on justice in an unjust system. (Luke 18:1-8) In the other a Pharisee uses his prayer to brag on himself, while a tax collector is seen beating his breast at a distance, begging God for mercy. (Luke 18:9-14)
C.S. Song, an Asian Christian theologian, imagines in his book The Believing Heart, that Jesus watched people and wove what he saw into his parables. Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors in the crowd on that first day when the Pharisees grumbled. Could he identify with the dishonest manager, he was a chief tax collector, and with the unjust judge as well? Could he have a homeless beggar sleeping outside his gates? He was a rich man. Have widows begged him for mercy?
When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through Jericho, he climbed a tree to get a better view at the itinerant preacher. Why do you think Jesus singled Zacchaeus out of the crowd? Because he was perched in a tree? Maybe. But maybe Jesus recognized the tax collector he saw praying and beating his breast in the temple, sitting in that tree. Maybe Jesus wanted to know about the agony in his prayer. He called out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
And our story comes full circle. Now, not just the Pharisees, but all who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Hadn’t anyone been listening? But this time Zacchaeus tells them why! Zacchaeus had been listening. It couldn’t have been easy for him if he really was the tax collector Jesus saw praying in the temple. It meant searching his soul, acknowledging his actions and owning the results of his actions. It meant looking deeply at this relationship to others and owning his part in the cause and effect of poverty. But when he figured out how to make amends, he was free! “Look,” he says to Jesus, “half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Can’t you see the joy on Zacchaeus’ face?! He got it! He got the gospel message! He heard what Jesus had been saying and he committed himself to action. He saw himself in the parables, his heart was touched by compassion, and he did what he could, with the dishonest wealth he had acquired in serving the Roman Empire, on behalf of the poor. He determined to repent of the fraud he had committed by repaying not double, but two times double—four times! Compassion had come to his house. Justice had come to his house. And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Can’t you see the joy on Jesus’ face?! The good news broke through. Real people can make a real difference and bring about the kingdom of God.
Let’s talk for a minute about the word “salvation.” I grew up hearing the question, “Are you saved?” understanding it to mean, “Have you made a decision for Christ?” It could also be interpreted, “Are you going to heaven instead of hell?” I have grown to understand the gospel to make very clear that salvation is a communal idea. Salvation means wholeness and healing, not a ticket to heaven. And it comes from making the community whole and well. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home when he obeyed the sum of the law and the prophets: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Zacchaeus got it. He loved God enough to love his neighbor as much as he loved himself. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home when justice was accomplished. There was a celebration at Zacchaeus’ house that day, and great rejoicing in heaven.
Our prayer life should lead us to seek restorative justice. We need to take a long look at how our actions cause injustice, or how we are complicit in continuing injustice. Let me give you a very small example. I greatly admire a woman who learned enough about how coffee is grown and picked that she decided she would only drink fair trade, shade grown coffee to enable poor farmers to make enough money to educate their children and to protect the environment. But fair trade, shade grown coffee is considerably more expensive than coffee that comes in a can. Because she was on a limited income she learned to drink less and savor her coffee, knowing that her decision was restoring justice for people she would never meet. You’ve made a similar decision with the coffee that you buy for the church. The people on this island are more environmentally conscious than any place I’ve lived. How do we as Christ’s representatives in our community stand for restorative justice? How do we create justice in our small circle of influence? In our homes, families, work places, and communities? I invite you to spend some time in prayer searching each of the stories in the four chapters of Luke leading up to the story of Zacchaeus, chapters 15-18 to see if one of those stories speaks to your life.
May salvation come to your house and this church in a powerful way as we work to make the community whole and well. Remember, salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home when he heard the stories of Jesus and recognized his own behavior in them. Salvation came to his home when his prayer convicted him and he repented of his part in causing others harm. Salvation came to his home when he chose to make reparations—to create restorative justice. Salvation came to his home when he obeyed the sum of the law and the prophets: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Zacchaeus got it. He loved God enough to love his neighbor as much as he loved himself. May it be so for us as well and may there be great rejoicing in heaven.