Throughout this season of Lent, I’ve been preaching this sermon series called “Table Talk.” (Hence, the table that we have set up here down front.) Last week I spoke on the topic of forgiveness and we looked at the scripture about Jesus forgiving a sinful woman. A Pharisee had invited Jesus to a meal at his home. It was during the meal that this sinful woman snuck into the dining room and began to demonstrate her love for Jesus by washing and anointing his feet. Jesus responded by telling her that her sins were forgiven. It is a wonderful, powerful story about forgiveness.
But this morning I want us to consider the question: what is the point of forgiveness? [repeat] Is it just some cathartic process designed to give a boost to our self-esteem; I’m OK, you’re OK? Is it a “get into heaven free” card? What difference does forgiveness really make? What difference does forgiveness make in the living out of our day to day lives?
Well, last week’s topic of forgiveness cannot be separated from this morning’s topic: the topic of repentance. You see, God’s desire for us is not simply that we feel good about ourselves. Jesus didn’t come to turn us into narcissists who delight in our assurance of righteousness. God’s desire for us is reconciliation – a healing, a restoration of our relationships, not only with God; but with one another as well. And for reconciliation to occur there must be repentance.
If you are a parent, I am sure there has been an occasion when your child behaved badly toward another child, perhaps even a sibling. And, intervening, you said, “Now say you’re sorry.” But even as we say that we know that saying you’re sorry, even confessing your sin, stops short if it is not accompanied by recognition of the need for change; a sincere desire for change; that is to say, a desire to repent.
So, what does all of this mean for us sitting here this morning?
Well, this morning’s bible story is the story of a sinner by the name of Zacchaeus. Now, he’s a familiar character. If you ever went to Sunday School or even a Christian pre-school as a child, I’m sure you learned this song. Sing with me:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree;
and he said, “Zacchaeus, come on down
for I’m going to your house today. Oh, I’m going to your house today.
That’s a very cute kids’ song. And it makes Zacchaeus sound like a very cute character. I mean, what child can’t appreciate an adult who climbs trees, right?
But as some of you already know, Zacchaeus was anything but a cute character. He was a swindler. He was, by occupation, a chief tax collector.
Now, let me take just a few minutes to explain more about that. Palestine was an occupied country, of course – occupied by Rome. And here’s how their tax collection system was carried out. Roman government officials contracted with local businessmen to collect the various taxes, tolls, fees and tariffs. Those amounts had to be paid in advance. So, only those who already had some wealth in place could even afford to play this game. Furthermore, Rome really didn’t care if the system turned the screw to the little guy. Generally, those local businessmen – the “chief” tax collectors – would hire other guys to go from place to place and do the collecting on their behalf. It was assumed that the collectors would take a little something extra for their trouble and it was assumed that the local businessmen – the chief collectors – would also bill a little something extra for themselves. To top it all off, the chief tax collectors in Palestine were considered particularly despicable because the nature of their job required them to fraternize with these 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 and practice one’s faith. So, clearly, these guys give little regard for their own people and their own religion.
Now, Zacchaeus must have been very good at playing this little tax collection game because he was, according to our gospel writer, rich. And honestly, Jesus doesn’t seem to be very fond of rich folks in Luke’s gospel. Just a half chapter before this story, Jesus is approached by a ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the necessity of keeping the commandments. When the man affirms that he’s been keeping all those commandments since he was knee high to a grasshopper, Jesus tosses one more thing into the mix. He tells the man that he needs to sell all of his belongings and distribute the proceeds to the poor. Then, come join Jesus and his band of traveling disciples. But the man just can’t bring himself to do that. And Jesus concludes their interaction with these words of judgment: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. 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.”[i]
And Zacchaeus is most definitely rich. But, this story has some suspense built into it, some ambiguity… Well, it did to the original audience; not so much for us nowadays. You see, the original listeners to this story might have thought: “Aha, Jesus is going to really rip this guy apart because he’s grown rich at the expense of a lot of poor, helpless peasants… But – and here’s where it gets tricky, he’s accomplished that by being a tax collector and, for some reason we can’t possibility begin to comprehend, Jesus seems to always be befriending tax collectors and other sinners. People are continually accusing Jesus of being a friend to those kinds of folks. So, this story of Zacchaeus begins with quite a bit of suspense. Will Jesus befriend Zacchaeus because he is a tax collector? Or, will Jesus condemn him because he is rich? Which will it be?
The suspense in the story mounts when our gospel narrator tells us that Zacchaeus ran and climbed a tree in order to see Jesus. Now, we might think it’s a little odd for a grown man to climb a tree in our culture; but we wouldn’t hold it against them. But, in ancient Middle Eastern culture, grown men never run and they never climb trees. It’s childish, dishonorable behavior. So when Zacchaeus runs and climbs this tree so he can see Jesus, he is inviting that crowd – who probably already intensely dislike him – he’s inviting them to ridicule and scoff at him. Yet it is a risk he is willing to take if he can just catch a glimpse of this Jesus guy.
And so I suspect – just as I suspected with last week’s sinful woman – Zacchaeus has already heard about Jesus; has already heard that Jesus goes out of his way to befriend tax collectors. And I don’t imagine Zacchaeus has a whole lot of friends.
Now, long story short, when Jesus reaches the tree where Zacchaeus is perched, he stops, looks up, and tells Zacchaeus to come down out of the tree because Jesus wants to go to his house for dinner.
What? Why on earth would Jesus want to do that? Remember how I said that Zacchaeus was considered unclean because of doing business with lots of dirty Roman Gentiles? Well, people didn’t keep uncleanness to themselves. That stuff spread faster than Ebola. So, if Jesus goes and eats at Zacchaeus’ house, won’t Jesus leave there unclean too, right? Or at least that’s what some folks would have thought. And so, the risk Zacchaeus takes in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus winds up being nothing in comparison to the risk Jesus takes when he announces his desire to share food and fellowship with Zacchaeus. And that, my friends, just pushes Zacchaeus over the edge. He has been so dramatically impacted by Jesus’ offer of friendship that he repents right there on the spot. And he demonstrates his repentance by naming some very specific changes that he is going to make in his life. He’s going to voluntarily relinquish ½ of his belongings and he’s going to make amends with the people he’s fleeced by paying them back 4 times what he took from them. Talk about repentance!
Now, that kind of unpacks the story, I hope. It gives us a little more insight into the significance of this interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus. But there’s more to this story because Zacchaeus probably isn’t someone most of us identify with very much. I mean, most of us here this morning were probably raised in Christian homes; many of us have been coming to church for years. It’s hard for us to identify with a character as despicable as Zacchaeus… someone who so blatantly exploited people and cheated them; someone who has amassed wealth on the backs of the little guy. Remember the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme a few years back. Well, think of Zacchaues as the Bernie Madoff of antiquity.
But don’t worry. I think there is a character or two in this story that we can identify with. How about those folks in the crowd? I’m guessing most of them were good religious folk just like you and me. They too have been waiting to get a glimpse of Jesus. They too would be honored to have Jesus come to their house for dinner. But what happens? Jesus opts to spend the evening with that Zacchaeus character instead – that sinful, no good swindler. Boy that would really make you angry, wouldn’t it?
I remember once when I was little – well, very young – my mom took me to a parade. We got there early and stood on the edge of the curb so that I would be able to see everything. There would be bands and floats… floats that tossed out candy. But as the crowd began to gather, people kept stepping in front of me. By the time the parade started, I couldn’t see a thing. It made my mom angry; angry enough to say something to some of those grown men blocking my view. Parades and candy are for children and they needed to move over and let me see and enjoy the parade.
Parades are for children, right? And Jesus is for good, religious folks, right? After all, here we sit, Sunday after Sunday, week after week. We faithfully support the church with our prayers, our presence, our service. And yet Jesus, the one who calls us to follow him, the one who calls us to do ministry that looks just like his ministry; well, he seems to have this peculiar desire to go out of his way for people that don’t really seem like good candidates for church. Jesus seems to give a lot of attention to those who are sinners; to those who are rejected, despicable, disinterested, and living on the edge; people who make us feel very uncomfortable. I imagine we don’t often think about the fact that Jesus took a risk every time he stopped to pay special attention to those kinds of folks. Each time Jesus did that I imagine that some of his followers felt very uncomfortable; some perhaps uncomfortable enough to just ditch Jesus. Some of you know I work with some seminary students in Ohio. Last month when we were on campus together, one of my students shared with the rest of the group that he would not be pursuing ordination because he had, for quite some time, been feeling God call him to be in ministry in an area of his city that is impoverished and riddled with crime and drug use. He is a very gifted pastor and his suburban church is growing. He has a wife and a young child. And I confess to you, I nearly tried to talk him out of it. I had to bite my tongue, but the thoughts were still there in my head: “Why would you take this risk? You have a family; you have a good ministry; you have a stable life; your parishioners love you and the church is growing under your leadership.” Finally I did ask a question that seemed reasonable to me. “Why don’t you first approach your District Superintendent and ask if the conference would consider planting a church in that community?” He replied that a friend of his had done that very thing two years ago and been told that community had not been deemed a viable location for a new church start.
I can understand the feelings of the people in that crowd in Jericho that day. If you were in church last week, you might recall the indignation on the part of Simon the Pharisee when Jesus allowed that sinful woman to touch and anoint his feet. Simon surmised that, if Jesus was really who people claimed he was he would not have allowed a sinful woman to touch him like that. Or maybe you remember hearing the story of the prophet Jonah in the belly of the whale when you were a child in Sunday School. God wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach to the people that they needed to repent of their evil ways. But what most of us didn’t learn as children was that Ninevah was the capital city of the powerful nation of Assyria that destroyed the nation of Israel in 721 BCE. Jonah (despite his best attempts to ditch his mission) does wind up preaching repentance to the people in Ninevah and they do, in fact, repent. But it is not a fact that Jonah appreciates because, admittedly, those folks were far more deserving of judgment and destruction than they were of divine mercy and forgiveness.
It is hard, my friends; hard to reach out to people like Zacchaeus; people who are sinful; people whose lifestyles and actions have harmed others. But those are precisely the people Jesus wants us to pay attention to. Those are precisely the people to whom Jesus longs to offer his grace in radical and life-changing ways. Those are precisely the people Jesus longs to have reconciled to him and to us. Friends, there is a point to forgiveness; and it does make a difference – or at least it should – in how we live our lives. And that point, that purpose, is to carry out the work of reconciliation so that we – all of us – can be reconciled to God and to one another.
[i] Story found in Luke 18:18-25
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