Sunday, November 3, 2019
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26)
In your Son you seek out and save the lost, O God, and invite us to the banquet of your eternal home. Visit your people with the joy of salvation that we may rejoice in the riches of your forgiveness and reach out in welcome to share with others the feast of your love. Amen.
He 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 sycomore 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, “Zacchaeus, 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 it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of 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.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 with Psalm 119:137-144 or
Isaiah 1:10-18 with Psalm 32:1-7 and
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 and
1. Why do you think Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so much that he sacrificed his dignity?
2. Does giving your money away bring joy, or anxiety, or regret, or something else?
3. What sort of experience would inspire enough trust to offer half of our possessions to the poor?
4. What would it require for you to be “independent” of your money?
5. What does “binding the world together” look like in your life and community?
by Kate Matthews
One last “outcast” on the way to Jerusalem: Zacchaeus, whose name means “clean” or “innocent,” is, surprisingly, “unclean” and “a sinner.” (But aren’t we used to such reversals by now in the Gospel of Luke?)
This little story strikes many familiar notes, especially from the previous chapter: we read of Zacchaeus trying to “see” Jesus, and remember the blind man Jesus just healed (despite obstacles, both seem to have a sense of who Jesus is); we hear that Zacchaeus is rich, and remember the rich ruler who was sad because he couldn’t part with his wealth; we hear that Zacchaeus is small and blocked by the crowd, and remember the children kept back by the disciples but recognized and drawn in by Jesus; we hear that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and remember the tax collector praying humbly in the Temple in Jesus’ parable; we read of Zacchaeus’ persistence in seeing Jesus and hear him press his own case against the crowd, and remember the widow who wouldn’t give up pleading her case; we read that finding “the lost” like Zacchaeus is what the Son of Man (The Chosen One) came to do, and remember the twelve who failed to “grasp what was said” when Jesus tried to tell them what lay ahead for him.
No wonder he’s hated
Indeed, Jesus is really the main character in this story about Zacchaeus. While the tax collector is scrambling to see him (surely it took more than curiosity to make this grown man sacrifice his dignity by running and climbing a tree), Jesus is seeking Zacchaeus, this “non-person” shunned and hated by the crowd.
The people have good reason for their hatred, since tax collectors are traitors, instruments of Rome’s oppression, and this is a “chief” tax collector. (We may all be sinners, but this one is a really, really bad sinner.) He’s also rich, so he has presumably extracted his wealth from his own people.
The lost are precious
A few chapters back, though, we learned how dear to the heart of God “the lost” are, in stories of lost sheep, lost coins, a lost son, all worth going after and looking for because they are so greatly valued by the seeker. “Not simply clever or perplexing stories,” these accounts “live at the heart of God’s purpose of salvation,” Sharon Ringe writes.
Zacchaeus may be hated by the crowd, but he is loved and valued by Jesus, who has come to find him. Perhaps Jesus asks around to find out the name of that fellow up in the tree. It’s “who Jesus is” to seek the lost, including us: it is his mission. You could say that seeking the lost is the point of it all.
A story of generosity and joy
This is also a story about joy, a theme that runs through the Gospel of Luke just as much as the theme of reversals. Zacchaeus isn’t afraid, he’s happy to welcome Jesus into his home. It’s a new day for the tax collector, who feels God’s mercy and love reaching him through the love and acceptance of Jesus.
The gospel is certainly “good news” for him: nothing less than salvation–healing and wholeness and restoration–has come this very day not just personally to him but to his entire household (another theme in Luke). Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes Jesus, in contrast to the rich ruler who walked away from him, sad, because he couldn’t let go of his possessions even to know joy and peace.
A certain kind of trust
It requires the grace of God for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, we recall, nothing less than a miracle: “Zacchaeus, then, represents the miracle,” and he gives away extravagantly more than what is required, “symbolizing his independence from his money,” writes Charles Cousar.
What kind of trust is necessary to offer half of our possessions to the poor? What sort of experience would inspire that kind of trust?
“Binding the world together”
We might wonder many things about this story: why does Zacchaeus first want to see Jesus so badly? Do his people accept this “son of Abraham” after Jesus leaves? (I love to think about what happened to people after they appear in Gospel stories.)
A most interesting question concerns the conversion of Zacchaeus. Some scholars think that it’s Jesus’ visit, and the grace of God, that move him to promise to give away half of his money to the poor and to make lavish restitution where needed. They translate his verbs in the future tense. Others claim that a present tense is appropriate, and that Zacchaeus is legitimately claiming to be an observant Jew.
Separation and exclusion
For example, Richard Swanson presses this case persuasively, writing about the ritual of separation and exclusion necessary to mark off a faithful Israel; the ritual of hospitality that makes it an honor for Jesus to visit; and the ritual of caring for the poor, which is really “binding the world together.” (These four words are a good theme for this passage.)
The surprise in this story is that the outcast is the observant one. “This is a scene of revelation, not of redemption,” writes Swanson.
Yes, it’s the grace of God at work, but perhaps God has been working on Zacchaeus for quite a while. John Pilch also believes Zacchaeus is describing his “repeated, customary practice,” not something he’s going to start doing now: Zacchaeus “converted earlier and was misjudged by the grumbling Pharisees. Even in antiquity the only exercise some people got was jumping to conclusions.”
How will we respond?
Then there is the question of our own response to this text and the questions it provokes in our lives. During stewardship season, we read a passage like this one through the lens of giving to the church so that we might participate in transforming the world, so that we might “bind the world together” through the ministry of our local congregation and the whole United Church of Christ.
The words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes (in the quotes below) remind me of a beautiful New York Times op-ed by David Brooks, “The Power of a Dinner Table” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/the-power-of-a-dinner-table.html); while Brooks does a wonderful job of describing the practice of his friends who welcome young people in need of safe space into their home, his own daughter’s words do even better: “Each meal we demonstrate our commitment to care for one another. I took my daughter once and on the way out she said, ‘That’s the warmest place I can ever imagine.'”
Perhaps that is what Zacchaeus tried to do, in “binding the world together,” and what our churches are called to do, and why we gather at the table to remind ourselves of who and whose we are, and what we are called to do in our everyday lives. We are called to make our churches “the warmest places we can ever imagine.”
Letting go of our money
Many, many passages in the Gospels (and the whole Bible) are about money and possessions, the poor and justice, abundance and generosity. Jesus, for one, isn’t afraid to talk about money. He uses it metaphorically but also addresses it concretely: he tells the rich ruler to give it away, and rejoices when Zacchaeus shares the story of his own giving (an early “witnessing steward”).
When we reflect on the sadness of the rich ruler who held on to his money, and the joy of Zacchaeus, who gives it away, do we hunger for that kind of joy and that depth of trust? Would we, too, like to be “independent” of our money: a somewhat different connotation to the phrase, “independently wealthy”?
Not caught in the system after all
There is, finally, the uncomfortable question of our role in the suffering of others because of economic injustice, our failure to share freely, like Zacchaeus. One could make a case that Zacchaeus is stuck in such a system and sincerely wants to make reparation for his gain from it. He understands that he can’t just enjoy the benefits of a bad system and not do something about those who suffer from his enjoyment.
Perhaps the most difficult reality is that we who live and participate in and benefit from an unjust and hurtful system (as Zacchaeus did) are not able to claim personal holiness if we turn away from seeing our complicity in such a system. “The fact is,” Fred Craddock writes, that “one is not privately righteous while participating in a corrupt system that robs and crushes other persons.”
One answer to the question about Zacchaeus is that he responded wholeheartedly to God’s radical grace in his life, just as we’re invited to respond to our encounter with Jesus and to God’s grace in our lives with free, abundant generosity, and in so doing, to experience our own lives, and the life of the world, transformed. Like Zacchaeus, we will find that nothing is the same any more.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Ruth Reichl, 21st century
“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”
Albert Camus, 20th century
“You are forgiven for your happiness and your successes only if you generously consent to share them.”
Basil the Great, 4th century
“When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century
“You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving.”
Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor’s Handbook, 2nd century
“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.”
Simone Weil, 20th century
“All the goods of this world…are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire that perpetually burns within us for an infinite and perfect good.”
Michael W. Smith, 21st century
“I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn’t have anyone sleeping on the streets.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 20th century
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner, 20th century
“When you carry out acts of kindness you get a wonderful feeling inside. It is as though something inside your body responds and says, yes, this is how I ought to feel.”
Verna J. Dozier, 20th century
“The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”
Weekly Seeds is a source for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
You’re welcome to reprint this resource and use in your congregation’s Bible-study groups.
Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.