“Hanging Out In a Tree”
October 30, 2016 – 24th Sunday in Creation – Year C
I’d like to tell you a story about a woman who sold insurance and was very successful. She is dark skinned and rich. So rich in fact that many people speak disparagingly of her. She wanted to see Jesus, but on account of the crowd she could not see over their heads. So she climbed up an apple tree, knowing that Jesus was heading toward Naramata on his bike. When Jesus came riding by he glanced up and saw the woman. Stopping the cart, Jesus got out and yelled up, “Issa, hurry and come down; for I wish to spend time with you.” So she hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus. But, those who saw what was happening were aghast! You never heard such grumbling and gossiping. “Jesus has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” they said. The Issa stood there dumb-founded, for she gave generously to the Food Bank, the Care Closet, the hospital building fund, and she tithed a full 10% of her earnings to her church. “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back 4 times as much,” she promised. Jesus was humbled. He announced that she was set free and was granted salvation to Issa and all of her family!
Are we just as anxious to catch a glimpse of Jesus? Will we fling the door open so that Jesus might walk in?
A colleague talks about having had a Zacchaeus in his congregation for awhile.
He wasn’t a tax collector, but he was a high-roller in real-estate who knew how to make enormous amounts of money by exploiting other people’s vulnerabilities. He was very personable and gregarious.
This “Zacchaeus” didn’t like the prayer of confession. “I don’t know why we have to say that,” he’d complain. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t broken any laws and I haven’t told any lies and I haven’t sliced anybody up. Why do we have to keep confessing this stuff.”
He was right in a way. Our confessions often get to be pretty perfunctory and meaningless and self-serving. This man didn’t see what he was doing as wrong. And he wasn’t doing wrong, in a technical sense.
My colleague had a few conversations with him about this and other things. And one day he got involved in a study group. Gradually, ever so gradually, he began to see the difference between legality and morality. This “Zacchaeus” began to see that it is perfectly legal to sell people a house that’s more expensive than they can afford, but it isn’t moral. He began to realize that morality is not so much what you don’t do, but more what you do. This slowly translated into a genuine caring for the people he encountered in his work. There was a note of personal triumph in his voice when he told his minister how he talked a couple out of buying a house, even though that lost him several thousand dollars in commission.
This Zacchaeus climbed down from his high-rolling financial tree and turned his real-estate business into a real-estate ministry. He serves people, not financial statements. He has a lot more to confess now, but he’s a stronger, happier man.
He can sit down and enjoy his lunch with Jesus.
As I prepared for this message, I encountered an interesting suggestion. What if the statements which Zacchaeus makes – “I give half of my income to the poor” and “if I have defrauded anyone, I restore it fourfold” – are not promises about future conduct but indignant claims about his present behaviour? What if Zacchaeus has been given a “bum rap” and unfairly ostracized? What if, according to this reading of the text, he has all along been one of the most conscientious and generous of the citizens of Jericho, though anonymously? Then this encounter with Jesus is the moment of his vindication!
Such an understanding is quite possible as first century listeners would have known that being a chief tax collector on the main trade route would have been quite lucrative. Zacchaeus would have known Mosaic Law and realized that Leviticus 6:5 called for adding a 20% penalty to the amount as part of a guilt offering was required. But Zacchaeus went overboard. He promises to give half of what he owns to the poor and, if he has cheated anyone, to restore 4 fold – far, far more than the amount required by Law. I like to think that Zacchaeus was a generous man by nature and knowing Jesus, he was even more liberal with his offerings. What a story of generosity!
The story of Zacchaeus redeems all the kids that were bullied on the playground because of their size. Thank You Zacchaeus! And thank you, Jesus of Nazareth, for extending such grace to this scrappy little guy who kept on trying until he got what he wanted and needed – an audience with true greatness. Not the kind of greatness that requires muscle and height, but the kind that requires gentleness, compassion, and acceptance.
May each of us be generous in our giving, compassionate in our encounters with the living Christ, and accepting of all – for we might just find Zacchaeus up a tree or Jesus passing by. May it be so. Amen.