(Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.)
In our first reading for today Paul talks about how well the church at Thessalonica has been modeling God’s coming kingdom. Paul says the Thessalonians show an amazing amount of love for each other. They stand loyal to Jesus, and stand by each other even in the face of persecution. Their reputation for love and loyalty has traveled all through the Roman empire.
And as people talk, Jesus’ name is being lifted on high. Paul says Jesus is “glorified in them, and they in Him.” And the glory they bring to Jesus, by the grace of Jesus, is reflected back on themselves. This is a picture of what all of our churches – large and small – aim to be.
By contrast, the people surrounding Jesus in our story of Zacchaeus bring glory to neither Jesus nor themselves. But Jesus doesn’t let that slow him down. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in Jericho.
As our story opens, Luke says Jesus is “passing through Jericho”. The main road from Galilee to Jerusalem passes through Jericho, which sits on a plain to the east of Jerusalem.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. As this story takes place, he is maybe only two weeks away from the cross, maybe a little less – although the disciples haven’t grasped this yet. The disciples were expecting Jesus to claim his kingdom as they enter Jerusalem. In fact, the grand entrance we re-enact on Palm Sunday is only a few days away at this point.
So immediately following our story today, while Jesus is still visiting Zacchaeus, Jesus tells the disciples the parable of the talents. You recall the story: three servants are given 10 talents, 5 talents, and one talent, and later the master returns to see how the three have invested their talents (or not) while he was away.
Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples that he will be going away soon, and he will leave them with talents and gifts to use in building up the kingdom. The point being the kingdom is not coming quite yet.
BUT – the kingdom of God is beginning to break through just a little… and in ways nobody but Jesus is expecting. Up to this point Jesus’ ministry has included a lot of teaching, healing, and feeding of large crowds; but now his focus shifts to the redemption and healing of souls: to new beginnings for people who are trapped by the evil in the world and/or the evil in their own lives.
So Jesus is passing through Jericho. And there’s a man living there who wants to see him. His name is Zacchaeus, and he is a tax collector, and he is rich. Which tells us he was not a very nice person: not because of his wealth, but because tax collectors back then got rich by collecting too much. Tax collectors back then were basically on the same level as collaborators with the occupying army. The Romans used them to collect taxes, expecting that the tax collectors would collect more than was required and keep the difference. So the tax collectors were basically getting rich on the backs of their own people. And Zacchaeus was, as Luke says, a “chief” tax collector – one of the ringleaders of these bandits!
And Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He just had one problem: he was short. He couldn’t see over the crowds. So he figured out what to do: he ran ahead on the road Jesus had to travel, and climbed up a tree so he could get a good look.
All of this raises the question “why?” Why would a man like Zacchaeus even want to see Jesus? He’s apparently heard of Jesus, which was not unusual – Jesus was kind of a celebrity. And people can have lots of reasons why they might want to see a celebrity. Some people look for bragging rights: “guess who I saw!” Some want a photo they can put on Snapchat or Facebook. Maybe Zacchaeus wanted to see what all the fuss was about. He’d heard the Pharisees criticize Jesus, he knew the rulers in Jerusalem were afraid of Jesus, and the common people loved him. Was it celebrity-seeking that made Zacchaeus climb that tree, or was it something more?
I like to think Zacchaeus’ heart had been touched by the things he’d heard about Jesus… that Zacchaeus wasn’t just celebrity-stalking. I get the feeling Zacchaeus sensed something special about Jesus, something different, something out-of-the-ordinary – and he wanted to know why. Luke says Zacchaeus “wanted to see who Jesus was”. He wanted to know… something… as much as he could… about this man.
I hope all of us come to church on Sunday wanting to know who Jesus is. I know we enjoy seeing our families and our friends, we love coming to this familiar place, and we love doing things for the community around us… and all these things are good… but most of all I hope we come wanting to see Jesus, and to know Jesus.
So I think that’s what Zacchaeus was after. But here’s the surprise twist in the story: as Jesus and the crowd passed the tree Zacchaeus was in, Jesus looks up and sees Zacchaeus. The one who wanted to see is now being seen.
Have you ever sat in an audience at a play or at concert, and had someone on stage see you, personally? (I’m not talking about kids’ recitals or things like that – kids are always looking for us! But a play or a concert where you don’t know anybody on stage.) As a member of the audience, we expect to do the seeing. We don’t expect to be seen. And if someone on stage meets our eyes and holds our gaze for a moment, it’s a strange experience. It’s startling. But living into that moment can be fun, and as a member of the audience, we have the chance to reflect back to the person on stage, “hey, I appreciate what you’re doing.” And that can be thrilling.
I think in a way that’s what Zacchaeus felt. He was startled, at first, to be seen by Jesus. Startled when Jesus spoke to him. Surprised to discover the man he wanted to know, wanted to know him.
Jesus wants people to know him, because knowing him is eternal life. Knowing him is the door to the kingdom. And Jesus wants to know us too. Jesus wants to see us, and hear from us, be with us. And that can be a little startling sometimes.
People who try to follow Jesus as part of the crowd, without being noticed, always end up getting discovered somehow. Remember for example the woman with the flow of blood, who snuck up behind Jesus in a crowd, and touched the hem of his garment and was healed? Jesus insisted on asking “who touched me?” even though the crowd was pressing around him. And he waited until he got an answer. Jesus always calls people out of hiding, out of the shadows and into the light. And that’s a good thing. Even for naturally shy people, it’s a good thing.
Now Zacchaeus – he was not the shy kind! He wanted to see Jesus and he was not going to quit until he did. He made a plan, he worked it out, he thought ahead, he was creative. And God honors this kind of determination. Remember a few weeks ago we heard the parable of the unjust judge? Jesus says even a judge who is unjust will cave in to a person who keeps coming after him, and coming after him, and coming after him. How much more will Jesus be found by those who seek him? Jesus says, “If you seek me, you will find me.”
As a side note – I find it interesting, by contrast, that King Herod also wanted to see Jesus. Luke tells us back in chapter 9 that after King Herod beheaded John the Baptist, he heard about all the things Jesus was doing and he started thinking maybe John had come back to life. “Herod said, ‘…who is this about whom I hear such things?’ and he tried to see him.” (Luke 9:9) But he never did, at least not until after Jesus was arrested, and then Jesus refused to say a single word to him.
I think the difference is, Herod didn’t really want to see Jesus all that badly. He said he did, but he wasn’t whole-hearted about it. Consider:
- Zacchaeus made plans and figured out a way to see Jesus. Herod was king – he could have done whatever he wanted – but he didn’t do anything to make it happen.
- Zacchaeus wanted to know who Jesus really was, and he didn’t care what it cost to find out. Herod remembered what he had done to John the Baptist, and he was afraid. He didn’t trust in Jesus’ message of forgiveness.
- In Zacchaeus’ case, Jesus approached Zacchaeus, invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, and Jesus was the guest of honor. In Herod’s case, Jesus was dragged in chains into Herod’s palace, he had no choice whether or not he wanted to be there, and Herod made him the evening’s entertainment for his dinner guests. And when Jesus failed to be sufficiently entertaining, Herod had him beaten and sent away.
Herod didn’t really want to see Jesus or know Jesus… not the way Zacchaeus did.
Jesus knows what’s in a person’s heart. And he saw Zacchaeus. Not only that, he saw Zacchaeus differently than other people saw him. Jesus knew Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and a scoundrel, and a collaborator. But Jesus also saw someone who really wanted to know him. Someone who was willing to give up all the trappings of this world – the riches, and the position, and the power – for the sake of something real and true and lasting. And Jesus said to him, “Hurry! Come down!” (That’s a command in the Greek, not a suggestion.) “Don’t wait! Come down now! Today I must stay at your house.” And Zacchaeus received him with great joy.
Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ call, not with nervousness or self-consciousness. Zacchaeus is like the man who has found the pearl of great price, who in his joy goes and sells all that he has and buys it. Zacchaeus doesn’t care what the cost is. In celebration of this new friendship with Jesus, Zacchaeus gives away half of everything he has to the poor, and refunds anyone he’s cheated four times over. And Jesus says, “today salvation has come to this house!”
This is a healing of the highest order: not a physical healing, but a spiritual healing. Rebirth and renewal of a man’s soul, and spiritual healing for his whole family. It’s a new beginning for all of them.
You would think people would be happy for him… but instead the crowd starts to grumble. “What is this?” they complain. “Jesus has gone to be the house-guest in the house of a sinner!”
They’re jealous. They’re like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The crowd – which is made up mostly of Jesus’ disciples – are suddenly sounding like a bunch of Pharisees.
This kind of reaction is not all that unusual. I think we’ve all felt it from time to time when someone unexpected comes to faith in Jesus: “Lord, really? That one?”
Jesus confronts this attitude right away, and says: “I have come to seek and to save the lost. And this man also is a child of Abraham”. In other words, a child of the covenant, a child of the faith-family.
Besides, if Jesus doesn’t eat with sinners, we’re all in trouble.
In this visit with Zacchaeus, Jesus is laying out the final piece of his game plan. He is setting up his final move before the crucifixion comes. He is declaring his purpose in coming to earth: to save the lost. And within two weeks’ time he will have accomplished it, dying for us on the cross and opening the door for all of us to become children of the covenant and citizens of the Kingdom.
So for takeaways today, I have five:
- Wanting to see Jesus and know Jesus is where it all begins. It’s not enough just to know about There’s a lot of information and mis-information out there about the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Being a follower of Jesus is about knowing Jesus, not just knowing about Him.
- In our efforts to see and get to know Jesus, be creative! All relationships take effort, and this one is no exception. Don’t be put off by perceived limitations. Find a tree to climb (metaphorically speaking) if you need to. Don’t quit, don’t let go.
- Remember that Jesus wants to see us too. If we seek we will find… and Jesus will find us as well. Don’t let that be a scary thing. I was thinking: Zacchaeus really went out on a limb trying to see Jesus. And I think sometimes that’s true for us as well. Sometimes when Jesus finds us, we are hanging on to the end of our limb. That’s OK. Jesus is not bothered by people hanging out on limbs. He knows how to handle it.
- Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’ house and into his life… and Jesus invites himself into our lives too. So the question becomes, how will we respond? Will we say, “Oh, Lord, I haven’t had a chance to clean the place”? Will we say, “Ok, well, you can stay for the weekend but I’ve got to get back to work on Monday”? Or will we say, “Come on in, make yourself at home… mi casa es su casa”? Jesus isn’t just coming for dinner… he’s coming for forever.
- Salvation and citizenship in God’s kingdom is open to everyone… no matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done. Knowing Jesus changes everything. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom changes our relationship with Jesus. We are no longer strangers but friends. We want to spend time with Jesus, because we find him delightful. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom changes our relationships with others. Our relationships begin to be marked by justice, and fairness, and compassion. We become willing to make things right where they have been wrong.
And as these things happen in our lives, we – and our church family – begin to become the kind of church Paul was talking about, that develops a reputation for loyalty to Jesus… that gives glory to Jesus through the way we honor God and love each other. And this becomes our glory, by the grace of Jesus. AMEN.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Luke 19:1-10 [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 10/30/16