May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
The scene for our story today is Jericho.
A city with an ancient and interesting history.
We first hear of Jericho when the people of Israel come to the Promised land after their journey through the wilderness. It is the last obstacle they meet before they can enter the Promised Land. An impenetrable fortress inhabited by a hostile population.
Two spies send out to scout the city by Joshua only get out alive because of Rahab, a prostitute, who helps them escape. After the Israelites bring down the walls of Jericho by walking round the city seven times, she the only one who is saved and whose house is left standing.
In the book of Kings we hear two children were sacrificed to lay it foundations, a very old pagan custom deeply offensive to Israels God.
In Jesus day Jericho was a wealthy border town with a lot of through going traffic. For the roman occupying forces it was a good and easy money spinner: At every gate they had put a toll boot and levied taxes on all goods that went in or out. People resented those taxes with passion, but if you wanted to go anywhere it wasnt easy to go round Jericho, so people could do little else than pay. Zacchaeus was the head of the tax collectors of the town. Working for the Romans and entitled to his share of the bounty.
The meaning of his name comes as a bit of a surprise: Zacchaeus means untainted or righteous one, someone without blemish.
This is puzzling because Biblical names are full of intentional and often revealing meaning. Has the story teller perhaps got it wrong in this case? It is hard to imagine that somebody who is rich, a tax collector and a collaborator would be untainted and without blemish. Or is the writer perhaps getting ahead of himself here and will things be put to rights later?
Not only does Zacchaeus have a puzzling name, he also has a puzzling stature for a man of means and authority. He is exceptionally small. Of childlike stature says the Greek. And he cant see on account of the crowd.
Zacchaeus finds a wall of people between himself and Jesus. A wall that seems impossible to penetrate or bring down.
And one can just imagine how prepared the crowd was to open up and let him through to the front so he could see.
We all know what tax collectors are!
To go off on a tangent just for a moment: What would Zacchaeus have been if the story had been told today do you think? Tax collectors are held in reasonably high esteem today, although wealth is still suspect to many people. Would it be somebody selling weapons to terrorists for profit? Or do we exclude people on much lesser suspicions than that?
Who would we definitely and without hesitation turn our backs on as a group? Who would we definitely not accept as part of our community? Where is it we feel we have to put up a wall, a boundary to what we feel is acceptable in a person?
In the minds of the people of Jesus day a tax collector was synonymous with bad, untouchable, not one of us, somebody youd never want to associate yourself with.
And yet .
Zacchaeus desire to see Jesus seems to be deeper than anyone else in the story, so deep in fact that he runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to catch a glance of the saviour.
The icon on the front of our order of service shows Zacchaeus in the tree, a childlike figure still moving up the tree when Jesus arrives underneath it.
Its funny that, to picture him as still moving, but perhaps it makes sense: By going looking for Jesus, by doing such an undignified thing as climbing a sycamore tree Zacchaeus is showing himself as somebody hungry for the good news of the gospel, and is, in a way, already on his way to heaven. Up he goes, until he is stopped in his tracks by Jesus calling him by his name.
Untainted one, unblemished one, hurry and come down; for I must stay in your house today.
If you listen carefully you can hear the crowd draw in their breath at this point. Talking to somebody is one thing, but inviting yourself to their house and to a meal quite another.
As has happened on other occasions in the gospel where Jesus connected with people of dubious backgrounds.
Zacchaeus is brought down from his heavenward movement by Him in whom heaven and earth meet. There is still some unfinished business that needs attending.
The traditional interpretation of this story is clear on what that business is: Zacchaeus in the business of taxcollecting has taken what was not his and defrauded others of what was rightfully theirs. He turns his life around on his meeting with Jesus and gives half of his possessions to the poor, and 400% pay back to those who he has disadvantaged. Much, much more than Mosaic law asks.
And then we can all go home happy: A sinner has been converted, justice is being done, Zacchaeus brought back into the fold of decent, respectable people, finally honouring the name that was given to him at birth.
Old scrooge comes to repent and shares his ill gotten gains with those who are most unfortunate around him.
However: although the story can indeed be read in that way, there is another, far more unsettling interpretation possible.
One can read the Greek differently you see and where the translation gives the future tense will give read a present past tense giving and been giving for a while, and translate the future will pay back with the present past pay back as has been happening all along.
In that case Zacchaeus says: I have always given half of my possessions to the poor and still do. I have always paid back four fold of what I may have taken too much, and I will continue to do so. This would mean that this little man was untainted and unblemished all along, but pushed out of the community on the prejudice of others.
It is quite possible that Luke on purpose built in this double layer of meaning in his story by using an ambiguous tense.
It is an interesting notion, because if we read the story it changes its meaning considerably. We come to see the crowd in a different light: Coming between Zacchaeus and Jesus with their prejudice. It shows them to be sinners, more than Zacchaeus, them as the ones who are hostile to Jesus. Their grumbling a clear sign of their hostility and failure to open themselves up to the saving grace of the Lord.
This fits in with other stories Luke tells, where a similar surprising turn is taken and those who considered themselves to be righteous are exposed as the very ones who obstruct the way to the Messiah for others.
With the prostitute who anoints Jesus feet it is the respectable crowd of onlookers who end up as the real sinners. With the prodigal son it is not the squandering son who ends up being lost, but the other one, the respectable and responsible one that loses out.
Zacchaeus receives Jesus with happiness in his house.
Is that because he has suddenly seen the light? Converted from a big bad bully into a pious and pleasurable person? Or is it because Jesus has seen him and acknowledged him as a person on his own, difficult journey to heaven, who has called him by the name that is rightfully his, ignoring and denouncing all prejudice by accepting him as a man worth knowing?
If we think back to that first and very famous story about Jericho, about Joshua wanting to bring down the walls of the city and being helped by the unlikely person of Rahab the prostitute one may detect a parallel here: In a city that isnt very receptive to the chosen and turns hostile when Gods servants come to her, whose very foundations are build on the sacrifice of children, there is only one house that is saved, and it is the house of the very last person one would expect to show courage and righteousness in the situation: Rahab the prostitute.
In Luke once again Gods chosen comes to this city. The walls that block his way this time, human, but nevertheless difficult to penetrate. Again salvation comes to the house of an unlikely candidate, a tax collector this time. And once again the truly righteous proofs to be a rather unexpected kind of person.
Ive always felt fairly comfortable and confident around Zacchaeus and his story. Jesus changes the baddies into goodies, so all is well, there is hope that people like Zacchaeus will change their ways under the pious glance of Jesus. Putting Zacchaeus at a safe, rather comfortable distance. I may be a sinner, but I am not half as bad as Zacchaeus was so I can rest assured that if God saved him He will save me too.
But with this other possible interpretation things arent quite so easy. If we read the story in the way suggested it wasnt Zacchaeus that needed conversion. It was the crowd who were the sinners, the bystanders who would have welcomed conversion in Zacchaeus but could not see through Jesus eyes of unprejudiced acceptance and love. It were those who thought they knew right from wrong, who felt they had every right to block Zacchaeus way, who were appalled by Jesus move, that were left outside while Jesus spreads the communion table with someone that was definitely considered to be out of bounds.
The unfinished business Zacchaeus has to attend to in that case not justice in arrears, but the demonstration that things, that people are not necessarily what they seem to be and that in Jesus book there is a whole lot more room then in ours.
We ask our God to make you worthy of the life he has called you to live writes Paul to the Thessalonians.
The surprise in the story of Zacchaeus is not that somebody converts to Jesus and becomes worthy of his love, but that all along this untainted one is worthy of this love and that those who thought themselves safe and above suspicion are being unmasked as the ones who keep little ones from their Lord.
The quirky twist of the story not that a person of authority, a tax collector climbs a tree to see Jesus, but that he is cut short on his way to heaven by a Messiah who calls him back to earth and presents him to the world as a righteous one: sharing and repaying more than is asked for by Mosaic law.
The happy end not that Zacchaeus is welcomed into the community of the children of Abraham as they are standing outside fuming about Jesus disregard for what is right and proper, but that God in Jesus Christ accepts those as children of Abraham who others will not even consider as part of their community.
Zacchaeus life is changed but may be in a different way than we thought at first. He, in the end, proves to be the righteous one seeking Jesus with intent and determination, overcoming obstacles put in his way by well meaning but narrow minded others. Let us follow in his footsteps and climb the tree of faith and welcome Jesus in our lives with happiness and joy.
As a Church we have to acknowledge that sometimes we are like the crowd: more like a barrier than a help for those who seek to meet Jesus. That we are, too often, an inward looking group that is hard to penetrate. That we, far too often, are led by generalities and prejudice rather than by love and the generous and openhearted acceptance Jesus showed to those whom he met.
Let us try and turn around to come alongside Jesus, looking out for the unexpected, inviting the unlikely and unaccustomed into our life, opening our hearts to love and grace in abundance. Let us leave the safety of the familiar, the comfort of like mindedness and let us be converted to generosity and an abundance of grace and mercy in our lives. Amen.