Rodger: First of all, before anyone panics, let me assure you that this morning’s sermon title does not mean I will be preaching twice as long this morning. There are such things as short little mini-sermons, so you needn’t assume you have to brace yourself for a long siege, in spite of the title.
I’m afraid I don’t remember a whole lot of details about my early Sunday School days—sorry, Sunday School teachers—and it’s possible my memory isn’t entirely accurate, but it seems to me that when I was a kid in Sunday School, a hundred years ago, we spent an awful lot of time talking about this guy Zacchaeus. He would pop up every couple months or so, it seemed, one way or another. We even had a song about him: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.” If anyone had asked who the most important people in the Bible were, I’m sure I would have jumped up and answered: Moses . . . Jesus . . . and Zacchaeus. We were always looking at the story of Zacchaeus.
Now as it turns out, Zacchaeus is only mentioned this one place in the Bible—one story, ten little verses; he’s not even in the other gospels. But I can see why it was thought that this would be a good story for the kids. After all, they’ve got some things in common with old Zacchaeus, don’t they? They’re both short people; they’re both drawn to parades; they both like to climb trees.
And the Zacchaeus story has some good lessons to teach kids, and to teach adults for that matter. Lesson number one comes out of the effort Zacchaeus made to get close to Jesus. In that way, he’s a good role model, isn’t he? In spite of the crowd, in spite of the natural disadvantage of his height (or lack of height), Zacchaeus makes the extra effort to meet the Lord. He’s persistent and resourceful, and he’s rewarded for it. Jesus does come to him, and goes to dine at his house.
But lesson number two seems to be the key point of the story. It is the stuff that sermons are usually made of when we look at the Zacchaeus story, and it is the content of our “first sermon on Zacchaeus” today. Now Laurie has graciously agreed to present this first sermon for us this morning; but you need to know that I prepared it. So if you don’t like what it says, or think it could be said better, blame me, not her…
Laurie: This lesson has to do with the effect the meeting with Jesus had on Zacchaeus’ life. After Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus—Zacchaeus the hated tax collector—talks to him about giving half of his possessions to the poor; and paying back four times anything he has gained by cheating people: “If I have cheated anyone, I pay back four times as much.” Now the tax collector was the symbol of cheating and greed and even treason to the people of Judea—treason because he worked for the Romans, collecting the Roman taxes from the Jews. One couldn’t get much more lowdown and dirty than to be a tax collector in this time—and that’s what Zacchaeus was, the same Zacchaeus who was now making a speech about giving away his possessions and correcting any cheating he may have done.
The Zacchaeus story, then, becomes one of several we have where a meeting with Jesus has a profound effect on someone’s life, where it is a life-changing experience.
In Luke 7, we read of a woman who was a sinner coming to Jesus as he dines at a Pharisee’s house, and upon meeting him weeps, and anoints his head and feet, breaking the flask of alabaster she wore to do so, a flask that many historians believe may have been the symbol of a life of prostitution. Jesus forgives her sins, and tells her her faith has saved her; her life has changed.
In Luke 23, we read of a criminal who is crucified at the same time as Jesus, and even in those circumstances, the meeting changes him: Jesus responds to the criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In Acts chapter 9, it is the voice of Jesus saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” that changes Saul’s life—he goes from being a persecutor of Christians to being the apostle Paul, one of Christianity’s leading missionaries, spokespersons, and writers, because of a one-instant meeting with Jesus.
The examples continue throughout history. We have all heard many stories of people whose lives have been changed by coming to know Jesus Christ—criminals who have become philanthropists or social activists, slave traders who have become campaigners against slavery, discouraged or beaten-down people whose lives have been renewed and energized by an encounter with Jesus Christ.
There are plenty of examples today of people who have experienced such life-changing encounters; there are people in this congregation who have had such experiences, who could tell us how their lives have been completely turned around by meeting Jesus Christ, the way Zacchaeus did.
Such stories have even crept into our culture, worked their way into our favorite non-Biblical stories. Now that it’s November, the first Christmas specials on TV have probably started already—you know, those twelve-minute shows surrounded by eighteen minutes of toy commercials? The first of the twenty-seven versions of Dickens’ Christmas Carol may already have been on, where Mr. Scrooge’s life is completely changed just by an encounter with the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. He goes from being a penny-pinching tyrannical grouch to a generous and upright man. Aside from the fact that he met Christmas instead of Christ, his story is virtually identical to that of Zacchaeus: the moneygrubber has a life-changing experience and begins to give his possessions to the poor and pay back anything he has gained by cheating.
The stories, then, are all around us. A meeting with Jesus Christ can turn a person’s life around, can take them from being the most evil, or greediest, or most hopeless person, and make them a shining example of the Christian life. The power of an encounter with Jesus is undeniable.
The focal point in the Zacchaeus story, the point where this life-transformation is revealed, is usually located in his speech to Jesus. Here are some versions of this speech: From the New Jerusalem Bible: “Look sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay them back four times the amount.” From the New International Version, our blue pew Bibles: “Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay back four times the amount.” From Today’s English Version: “I will give half my belongings to the poor,” and from the Living Bible: “From now on I will give half my wealth to the poor.” “From now on” becomes the key to the Zacchaeus story—before I was one way, but now I know Jesus Christ and from now on I am a new person; my life has changed. From now on I will behave differently.
And so, sermon number one on Zacchaeus ends by pointing out the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ, the way such a meeting can take the worst of lives and the worst of people and turn them around for good. If even Zacchaeus, the Mr. Scrooge of his day, can be restored by Jesus, imagine what he can do in our lives.
Rodger: BUT . . . there is a second way, a somewhat different way, of looking at the Zacchaeus story too—a way I never heard in Sunday School, or church, or even in seminary, but which gives us a second Zacchaeus sermon. To get at that second message, hear part of the story of Zacchaeus again: Once again, Zacchaeus’ speech is the key to the sermon, but hear the difference in this reading: “And when they saw it they all murmured ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’”
In other words, “Look Jesus, this is how I act; I am not a sinner like they say. My lifestyle is to give to the poor and pay back four times if I accidentally cheat someone. I’m not a sinner; I already do these good things.” As Psalm 119 put it: “I am small and despised, yet I do not forget your precepts.” This is the Revised Standard translation, our red pew Bible, and it is the King James reading.
The Anchor Bible makes it even clearer: “All those who saw this grumbled at Jesus and said ‘He has gone to lodge with a sinner.’ Zacchaeus, however, just stood there and said to the Lord “Look sir, I give away half of what I own to the poor.’”
And you know what? The old Greek manuscripts, the closest we have to an original writing of the story, back up this reading. If we look at the Greek, we see that there’s no grammatical reason to plug in “From now on I will” do these things, no reason to make it a future tense “I will” or “I am going to” help the poor.
In short, there’s no grammatical reason, from his speech, to conclude that Zacchaeus is promising to begin a new lifestyle; instead, he’s saying that he already does these good things. With this reading, his life isn’t completely changed—he isn’t a Mr. Scrooge beginning to make good, but a person who has been generous and fair all along.
Now if this is the case, Jesus’ response to the crowd in verse 9 becomes a reprimand to the people who were murmuring: Lay off, gang: this man too is a son of Abraham. See? He gives to the poor, and he’s fair.
This paying back four times the amount, by the way, is exactly the amount specified in the Law, in Exodus 21:37 and II Samuel 12:6 – so we find out that Zacchaeus is also obedient to the Law. Jesus is saying to the crowd: “I don’t want to hear your complaints or your judgements about Zacchaeus being a sinner; from what I hear, he is at least as much a law-abiding Jew as any of you are.”
Note that our account here hasn’t said anywhere that Zacchaeus is a sinful man. It says he’s short; it says he’s wealthy; it says he’s a tax collector. But it doesn’t say he’s a sinner. Only the murmuring crowd says he’s a sinner, and Jesus seems to correct them, and to reprimand them for having said it.
Why would they say it? Probably because he was a tax collector—because we know how they felt about tax collectors: if you were a tax collector, you were a bad person. And if this is the case, the focus of our second sermon becomes Jesus’ reply to the grumbling crowd: Don’t be making snap judgements about a person because of their occupation, or their wealth, or because of their politics. So he’s a tax collector, so he’s rich, so he cooperates with the Romans—so what? From his actions, we see that he’s a law-abiding Jew, a generous man, a child of Abraham. That’s what’s important—not your prejudices about his occupation or wealth.
And that’s fuel for an important sermon, too, isn’t it? Don’t be prejudiced about someone, don’t draw conclusions about them, because of their occupation or their politics or how much money they have. It’s what they do, and how they stand with God, that’s important, not our snap judgements and biases, not our opinions based on our very fallible and simplistic standards. “Don’t you be calling my buddy Zacchaeus a sinner,” Jesus says. “Don’t you be looking down on my friend here, whoever he is, because of what you think they are.”
It’s how they act as a tax collector, or a used car salesperson, or a rich person, or a poor person, or a Republican or Democrat or Socialist that counts, not the fact that they are a tax collector, used car salesperson, rich person, poor person, Republican, Democrat, or Socialist. It’s how they stand with God that counts, not our ignorant judgements.
The applications from this sermon, of course, could be many: it’s not our place to be making judgements about someone because of their occupation, because of income level, because of politics. In fact, it’s probably not our place to make judgements at all. Zacchaeus was a good man, in spite of what the crowd thought about tax collectors: he worked hard to see Jesus, he welcomed him into his house, he had always kept the Law, he had always given to the poor. He was a child of Abraham, a friend of God—always had been.
Well, maybe the people we’re tempted to make snap judgements about are good people too. Maybe the public comments we’d murmur about them would be in error too. Only Jesus knows. Perhaps we’d be rebuked by our Lord for our opinions too.
As we reflect on this well-known story in Luke’s gospel, it is appropriate to put ourselves in the place of Zacchaeus, as in our first sermon: we can renew our relationship with Jesus too; we can make new promises about our lives and our giving to the poor too; we can work on being people of God too. And it is also appropriate to put ourselves in the place of the crowd in this story, as in our second sermon: We can hear Jesus’ correction any time we’re tempted to judge someone too.
Let us pray: God, we’re grateful for the opportunity we always have, whether we’ve lately acted faithfully or not, to renew our relationship with you. Help us to be good disciples, to be generous, to be fair; and help us always to remember too not to judge other people, but to accept them as well as your children. Amen.