Zacchaeus is a familiar character to those of us who learned about him in Sunday school. Everyone remembers him as the little guy who had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus. We should also remember that he was a tax collector, therefore hated by his neighbors. Tax collectors were members of the local community who worked for the Roman authorities to collect the extremely repressive taxes that Rome imposed on the people. They turned over the required amount to the Romans but were permitted to keep a percentage for themselves. So tax collectors derived their living from the oppression of their neighbors, which made them far better off financially as well as despised. Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector; he was the chief tax collector. So he received a percentage of the monies collected by all the collectors he supervised, which made him a very rich man.
Zacchaeus was curious about this rabbi Jesus who had come to his hometown of Jericho. But so had many others, Zacchaeus was forced to abandon his dignity and climb a tree like a child would for a better view. Luke says Zacchaeus was “short in stature” – not just his physical shortcomings, but because of what he did for a living, Zacchaeus was also ethically diminished in the eyes of his neighbors. He was short of stature in more ways than one, and would have been shunned by the community, forced to socialize with fellow tax collectors and others who collaborated with the hated Romans. He would not have been on the guest list for respectable social gatherings, nor would any of those people accept an invitation to his house.
But Jesus often does not observe the conformity to religious and social rules that was expected of him. Instead he tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree as fast as he can, because Jesus intends to go to his house for a visit. No advance warning, no chance to prepare, Jesus is coming to his house right now. Of course, those who considered themselves to be obedient to the law complained, seeing this as yet another example of Jesus’ scandalous behavior. He was going to eat at the house of a sinner, the chief tax collector no less. Once again he was breaking the rules.
It seems that scholars are of two minds about what Zacchaeus says to Jesus. Some insist that the verbs are in the present tense, but the NRSV translates them as future. In the present tense Zacchaeus is declaring that he is really not such a bad person because he gives half of what he owns to the poor and restores fourfold anything that is determined to be fraudulent. In our translation he is so grateful for the fact that Jesus has offered to grace his house with his presence that he repents and promises to make those changes in his life.
We can’t be sure what exactly Zacchaeus said, but that is not the central point of the story. The point is that Jesus chooses to bless Zacchaeus in spite of the fact that he is a sinner, someone who would never be categorized as righteous or deserving of God’s grace. Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus points out that with God anything is possible. So this story illustrates the promise that anyone who desires to see Jesus will see him, no matter their shortcomings. More than that, anyone who desires to see Jesus will, in turn, be seen by Jesus and in this way they will be blessed and their joy will be made complete.
This story challenges us to think a little differently about God and justice. We tend to use justice as a way of keeping score and deciding who is in and who is out. But it turns out that the whole biblical story isn’t primarily about justice but about relationship – God’s deep, abiding, tenacious desire to be in relationship with each of us and all of us. We see that in our lesson from Isaiah, when God insists that serving justice by caring for the oppressed, the poor, the widows and orphans, is more important than following the law with ritual sacrifices.
We might wonder what does this has to do with the Reformation that we celebrate today. Healthy relationship is what the Reformation was all about — declaring that God is a lot more like a loving parent than a tyrannical monarch, a lot more interested in relationship with us than being a judge over us. Luther’s great insight into Paul’s letter to the Romans is that Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God” isn’t the righteousness God expects from us and by which God judges us, but rather is the righteousness God gives us freely and unconditionally in Christ. That makes it possible that no matter who we are, no matter how society might judge us – we can see, hear and believe that salvation has come to us through Christ. It is the cornerstone of our faith as defined by Luther – we are justified – that is, being made right with God – by grace, through faith. We don’t have to be someone special or do anything special to receive this unconditional gift of grace from God. We just have to believe in it.
Of course it should not end there. When we are given a gift we respond. We say thank you. And, overwhelmed by such an unexpected and undeserved gift, we want to show our thanks. That is what stewardship is all about, our response to the gift of grace God has given us by doing good works. Good stewardship is the management of things entrusted to our care – our church, our community, the global community, fellow creatures of the world and the environment. It isn’t an easy task, finding the right balance of commitment for our time, our talent and our treasure to all of those things. As someone said at Bible study this week, it is hard to not to feel guilty when we cannot give to every charity that solicits help in the mail. We have to prioritize our giving, but it should not be something that we do just out of duty, it should be done out of our gratitude for the unconditional love and grace that God gives us.
Imagine how surprised Zacchaeus was, that he, a man who although wealthy in material things, was an outcast among his own people, he was the one who Jesus intended to visit and bless with the gift of salvation, freely given. It seems natural that his response to that gift would be to turn his life around, to share his wealth with the poor and offer restitution to those who had been cheated. Over and over God forgives sin and pronounces blessing on us. God’s grace always exceeds our needs and our expectations. What will our response be? Amen.