This is the sermon I gave back in October during our 4pm Jazz service. You can listen to that sermon here.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zaccheaus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw this began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zaccheaus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I am sure that some of you have heard the story of Zaccheaus the wee little man who climbed the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, maybe you even know the song. What we know about him is that he was a Jew, which is indicated from what Jesus said in verse 9, “…he too is a son of Abraham,” meaning, he’s in the fold. Maybe he was a religious Jew, or maybe only in culture. But because of his role as a tax collector, we know he had an allegiance to Rome. We don’t know yet if he served God as he should or not. But he was interested in seeing Jesus. That’s a good place to start.
If you’ve ever seen the movie the Sandlot, you know about the boy Scotty Smalls, who wanted desperately to play baseball with the other neighborhood boys the summer he moved into town. There is this scene about a fourth of the way through the movie, where Benny, the all-star baseball player who is destined to become one of the great baseball legends, invites Scotty Smalls, to play ball with him and his friends. Benny has seen him lurking around, but he’s shy and not great at making friends and doesn’t have any of his own. He is very curious about the boys that play ball every day and curious about Benny. So when Benny invites him to join their game, the look on Scotty’s face is the look I imagine Zaccheaus had on his face when Jesus told him to come down because Zaccheaus was going to be his host.
As the book of Matthew tells us, you can’t serve two masters; you cannot serve God and wealth (Matt. 6:24). But, this story is the spot where we see Zaccheaus getting tangled up in that. He served Rome, and by all accounts of this story, he was trying to serve Jesus, or again, he was interested. He probably had a very nice home to entertain guests in. But from the reaction of the crowd, I get the feeling, Zaccheaus didn’t get many guests at his home. His wealth came from the fact that he was a collector of the hard earned money of the Jewish people, and scholars accuse him of skimming money off the top for himself as was common, or as one commentator put it, he regularly cheated those whose money he collected. He was a cheater, and the people in the crowd were upset that Jesus would have chosen to spend his time with a traitor than with them. Clearly, they felt they were more deserving of Jesus’ time. Their allegiance was to God, not Rome.
But Zaccheaus was a more than just a cheater or a traitor. He is a much more complex character than many of us have probably known him to be. Most stories of the Jesus and his parables are told in each of the gospels and this gives us a fuller picture of some of the Biblical characters, but this isn’t one of those stories; Zaccheaus is unique to only Luke. We don’t have any real knowledge of Zaccheaus’ life before or beyond this passage and he isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the gospels. So, we have to dig a little harder to figure him out. Now, the fact that he was a tax collector tells us a lot, and the writer of Luke makes a point to let us know that he was a very wealthy tax collector, a descriptive term that is only found here. Tax collectors were reviled by the Jewish people because they were in bed with the Romans, and often levied harsher taxes than the Romans had decreed so that they could make a profit and amass their wealth. And Zaccheaus had apparently amassed a lot of wealth. I can sympathize with Zaccheaus. While he is a unique character in the Bible, we have some things in common with him.
Even though he was a Jew, a child of Abraham, Zaccheaus still had to prove he was worthy of Jesus’ company when he heard the grumblings from the crowd because Jesus was going to hang out with him, a sinner, a cheater, a traitor to his people. Zaccheaus willingly offered to give away half of his possessions and money to the poor to make up for anything he had done to cheat people. And Zaccheaus wanted to make amends.
But, why was he a tax collector? This wasn’t a glamorous job by any means. Did he volunteer or apply for the job? Or was he appointed?
Maybe he had no choice in the matter, maybe he was simply born into the job and the path was already set out for him. Maybe he didn’t have a choice. And there is Jesus, staring him in the face among this crowd that has just booed him. What’s a guy to do?
Zaccheaus became defensive of his actions, I think, because he knew that he served Rome, and while he served Rome, he had to cheat his fellow people; he could not truly serve God because he had to do his job. I think he was probably torn. He wanted to follow Jesus, he wanted to make amends. He didn’t shy away at the chance to spend time with the Savior and to offer up his possessions. Like Scotty Smalls, he was interested and even more excited at the opportunity. He wanted to prove that he’s a good guy as much as Scotty Smalls wanted to prove that he could be a valuable ball player. But how do you do that when you are trying to serve two masters?
See, this, to me, is where Zaccheaus is like us. Zaccheaus worked for Rome, he worked for “the man.” He answered to his bosses. He was part of a system that was set up by Rome, the ruling powers, and that was the world that he was living among, it’s the world he was born into, and you have to have your place and survive, maybe even thrive. Just like us, we live among social systems and governments that we didn’t set up, yet we are a part of and we are responsible to. And even when those systems are corrupt, sometimes, there is no way out of them but to survive and follow the rules that have already been established. In our world today, if you are a person of color or a minority living in an under-served neighborhood, you do what you have to so you can survive and put food on your table. You might be within a system that has been set up to oppress you, but if you try to break out or even speak out, you might just lose everything, maybe even your life.
This past Sunday morning during my time with the senior high youth, we tried to unpack the systems that we live in; systems that have been designed to uplift some and oppress others. Our systems are set up to tell women and girls that they need to be a particular thing, that their bodies are expendable and there to be judged and decided upon. That if you have a black or a brown body, you are made to believe that you are less than. If you are a lesbian or queer or transgendered, you are taught that you are not deserving of the same dignity that those who make the rules are, simply because you are different. But, even if you do fit into one of these categories, you still have to survive, and you still have to make it though. And if you’re lucky, if you’re so lucky, you might get through to help change the system. But it is hard, it is so hard when you are not in control of what you have to work with.
Our systems are set up to cheat one another from our humanity when we allow women to be called derogatory names, when we support policies that black and brown bodies suffer from but the rest of us benefit from, we cheat each other when we accept policies that serve us but punish those who are already underserved. We cheat when those of us with power and voice go along with the status quo and say and do nothing when we know we are cheating each other.
The systems in our world have been set up so that we have to cheat one another to survive. So, when Zaccheaus defended himself for cheating his fellow people, I get it. I get why he became defensive because he was in a system that was set up by Rome and he had no choice but to live and survive in that world, and to do that, he had to cheat others for his own survival. But if Zaccheaus was part of the Roman system, then so were all of those other people in the crowd. The difference is that Zaccheaus knew it because he was in a public role and he had all those grumbling crowd members to remind him. By simply living under the Roman rule, those crowd people were also part of that same system. They could have left, but like Zaccheaus, they stayed because what else were they supposed to do? Just up and leave their lives, their families?
Friday, I was on the treadmill at my physical therapists’ office, one of the regular women I see there said to me as we walked side by said, “it would be so much better to have been born rich and healthy.” Yes. Yes, it would have been so much better to have been born rich and healthy because so many don’t get that kind of head start in life. If you were born a Roman, you would have already gotten a head start because you would have been born into the power that oppressed those who were weaker. You would have already had access to the things that so many others didn’t have. Money and status can’t bring you happiness friends, but they sure can take care of a lot of problems.
So, I don’t blame Zaccheaus when he got defensive, because I get defensive when I think about the people that I have cheated to just live my life. I don’t try to cheat people intentionally, but I can’t help it. I am a part of a system that is bigger than me, that I benefit from, that marginalizes others. I benefit from that oppression, and because of that, I cheat them and I cheat myself. Because when I cheat others I fail to uphold the full humanity of my neighbor because the political or social systems will not let me and then I do not live into my full humanity as a child of God. I don’t mean to; I can’t help it. Like Zacchaeus, we don’t always have a choice.
But here’s where Zaccheaus is our sign of turning it around. He knew he was part of a system where people were cheated and where he benefited from cheating them. He benefited from Rome’s occupation. He knew it and he told Jesus, “…half of my possessions, Lord, I will give up to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much,” That is what he could do within his system. Zaccheaus was atleast making some amends, he was trying to right the wrongs that he had taken part in on Rome’s behalf. Zaccheaus isn’t outside the fold of God’s love, he’s just lost. He became lost in a tangled system that was set up as the law of the land. Jesus came to seek out and save the lost. Friends, we are just like Zaccheaus, we are just lost in systems that are so much bigger than us and that is why we need Jesus to seek us out.
As Christians, we are called to do many things. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what we can do, it’s easy to feel helpless when you’re just one person in this great big world. But let’s use Zaccheaus as our example. Let’s take a cue from him and think about ways we could start to make amends.
Friends, we cannot serve two masters, so we have to find the ways to live in this world, and make things better for ourselves and for our neighbors. We have to help tear down and rebuild systems, so that they are fair and just. That is our responsibility to one another. We can no longer cheat each other. Friends, Jesus is seeking each of us out, he is at our doorstep, and it is time to make our reparations. I know I have many to make, what about you? Amen.