By Pastor Tracey
If you drive a car, I'll tax the street
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat
If you get too cold, I'll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet
Cause I'm the taxman, Yay, I'm the taxman.
Those are lyrics to the old Beatles song “Taxman.” If there’s one thing that spans all centuries and cultures, it’s a common disdain for the “taxman.” Taxes have become a big topic of discussion during this election season. Now, I don’t think most of us object to the rationale for taxation. If you think about it, the concept of pooling our resources so that everyone’s needs are met is about as Christian and biblical a concept as can be. It’s a big thing in the book of Acts. And we understand that taxes are needed to provide care for our veterans, to build schools for our children, to pave our city streets, and – of course – to help provide for all of us in our retirement years. Yet, it’s the practice or process of taxation that seems, inevitably, problematic and controversial. We seem unable to develop a system where every pays their “fair share”; a problem stemming from disagreement as to how one defines “fair.” Necessary or not, none of us enjoy paying the tax man.
And that brings us to this morning’s bible story about a tax man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a wee little man. And I’m not just talking about his stature. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and, in doing so, Luke gives us quite a bit of information.
Here’s how the system of taxation worked in 1st century Palestine. Palestine was an occupied country; occupied by Rome. Now the Romans occupied quite a few places and an ever-expanding empire carries with it an ever-expanding price tag. It takes a lot of money to be an expansionist. There’s the expense of armies to defeat the country one is over-taking. There’s the expense of occupying forces to “keep the peace” (wink, wink). There's the expense of setting up local government in any given locale – after all, government headquarters ought to be comfortable enough to keep local leadership committed. And, of course, you need enough people in place to ensure a system of checks and balances; to make sure no one gets too big for their britches and gives Caesar a run for his money. All in all, it took a hefty chunk of change to keep the Roman governmental machine running and precious little of it trickled down. To make matters even worse, here’s how the collection system was carried out. Roman officials contracted with local businessmen to collect the various taxes, tolls, fees and tariffs. The amounts had to be paid in advance. So, only those who already had some wealth at their disposal could even afford to play this lucrative game.
Rome, for its part, didn’t care a bit if the system turned the screw to the little guy. Generally, those local businessmen – the “chief” tax collectors – would hire other guys to go out and do the unpopular work of collecting the money. It wasn’t a very pleasant job and it was assumed that the collectors would take a little something extra for their trouble. Likewise, it was assumed that the chief collectors would also bill a little something extra for themselves. Now, the chief tax collectors in Palestine were particularly despised because the nature of their job required them to fraternize with those Roman Gentiles and, each time they did so, they made themselves ritually unclean for a period of time. When one was ritually unclean, one could not enter the temple to worship. So, these were folks who demonstrated disdain for their people and their religion. So, now you know why I say that Zacchaeus was a wee little man… in more ways than one.
Now remember that, although on Sunday mornings we hear just bits and pieces of the gospel stories, the gospels originally were recited out loud and performed in one sitting much like attending a play today. So, if you were a first-century Christian listening to this story, what you would have already heard would have set you up for some expectations when you’re introduced to the character of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. You see, Luke’s gospel has quite a bit to say about tax collectors. For one thing, Jesus seems to have an embarrassing habit of befriending these despicable folks. When Jesus is labeled as “a friend to sinners and tax collectors,” let me assure you; that’s no compliment. So, when we learn that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, we might very well expect Jesus to befriend him. But, here’s where things get tricky; because the final description Luke gives for Zacchaeus is this: He’s rich. Now, that complicates matters; because the rich don’t fare very well in Luke’s gospel. Just a few verses before this story of Zacchaeus, Luke tells us of an encounter between Jesus and a rich ruler. The ruler wants to know from Jesus what it is that he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus initially tells him that he must obey the commandments. And the man assures Jesus that he’s done that. Then Jesus tells him that there’s one more thing he must do: he must sell all that he has and give the proceeds to the poor and then follow Jesus. This the man cannot do. He loves his money too much. And as he walks away, Jesus makes this pronouncement: “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.” Ouch! Jesus doesn’t have a lot going on in the way of subtlety or tact.
So again, we arrive at this story of Zacchaeus uncertain what to expect. There is a tension here; things could go either way. Zacchaeus is a tax collector – clearly an outcast, despised and ridiculed by others – and, therefore, likely to receive compassion from Jesus. But, he is also very rich and, therefore, likely to elicit judgment from Jesus.
As the story progresses, we’re told that Zacchaeus is eager to see Jesus. Now, we don’t know exactly why. But, perhaps Zacchaeus has heard that Jesus has this reputation for befriending tax collectors. Who knows? But his height is an obstacle. So, he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up in a sycamore tree so that, when Jesus reaches that point in the road, Zacchaeus will be able to get a good look at him. Now today, in 21st century America, we can’t possibly understand the scandal Zacchaeus running and climbing that tree would have created. In the Middle East, both then and now, no respectable adult male is going to run and climb a tree. It is humiliating behavior reserved for children. So when Zacchaeus decides to run and climb a tree, he makes a decision that seeing Jesus is more important to him than what anyone might think of him or say about him. These people already dislike Zacchaeus for taking their money and giving it away to those dirty Romans. To see him embarrass himself publically must have been pretty gratifying to the crowd. Kind of like watching the school bully trip with his lunch tray and spill everything all over himself.
But here’s the thing, from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, there’s been this reversal of fortunes thing going on. I spoke about it two weeks ago when I preached on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Just as the poor become rich and the rich become poor, Luke’s story has already told us as far back as chapter 1, that the proud will be laid low while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
So how is Jesus going to respond to Zacchaeus who has just engaged in humbling behavior by running and climbing a tree just so he can see Jesus? The audience, hearing this story for the first time, might be holding their breath.
And then it happens: Jesus stops under that tree and speaks words to Zacchaeus that will exalt him in the eyes of the crowd. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus says. “Come on down out of that tree because I’m going to your house for dinner.” What? Is Jesus crazy? I mean, this guy is a jerk. The good righteous folks in the crowd must have been gritting their teeth at this point. They’re grumbling to one another.
You see, to “break bread” with someone, to share table fellowship in the ancient world was a sign of friendship. And for someone to host a rabbi in their home; it really boosted that person’s reputation and honor. Jesus confers honor on Zacchaeus by receiving his hospitality. And that’s the reason why the people in the crowd begin to grumble. After all, there might well have been some good religious folks in that crowd that had come out to see Jesus; people who would have been far more appropriate and deserving of the honor. But, Jesus chooses Zacchaeus because – fortunately for all of us – Jesus isn’t a big fan of giving people what they deserve.
Now Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus results in an immediate life change; right then and there. Zacchaeus repents. He vows to donate half of his riches to the poor. And, for those he has defrauded, he will make restitution to the greatest extent of the law. The Old Testament and rabbinical teaching, you see, had a variety of laws on the books regarding how one ought to make restitution if one had wrongfully taken another’s property or belongings. Those laws related to a variety of different circumstances and intents. Some called for an even return. Others dictated giving back twice as much. But Zacchaeus chooses the law that is most demanding: the law of returning fourfold. In response to Zacchaeus’ announcement, Jesus declares him to be a son of Abraham.
Being a child of Abraham has been a common theme in the sermons of these past couple Sundays. That Abraham guy was a pretty important character and whether you’re a first century Palestinian Jew or a 21st century Hoosier, being a child of Abraham is a coveted status and here’s why: because, as we discussed last Sunday, being a child of Abraham means that we embrace God’s promises in our lives. It means recognizing that we’ve been blessed by God beyond our wildest imaginations. It means, as Zacchaeus demonstrates that we understand that God has blessed us in order that we might bless others. It means we realize that the good we have in our lives should never be hoarded or used to provide us with some kind of personal advantage over others. It means we comprehend, above all else, that God’s grace means we don’t get what we deserve. We are blessed not because we’ve earned it; not because of anything we’ve done; but because of what God’s done. We are blessed not because of who we are; but because of who God has made us become: his beloved children. As I mentioned last Sunday, when we give to anyone – the church, a friend, a family member, a stranger in need – we should give out of a sense of gratitude. Zacchaeus was clearly so thankful for the change that Jesus brought to his life that he has an immediate desire to be generous with others. Not simply to do what is fair; but to do what is gracious, even extravagant.
Friends: as I mentioned last week, before we count our money, we need to count our blessings. We are called to give out of gratitude. We give not based on what we’ve earned; but based on what God, in his grace, has given. We are blessed to be a blessing.
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