A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 30, 2016
Texts: Luke 19:1-10
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.” That ditty ranks among the top Sunday School hits of modern times. Alan and I spontaneously broke into a rendition at Bible study on Tuesday. My, admittedly impaired, memory is that we sang about Jesus coming to his house “for tea.” Unless the song has British origins, I don’t know why we would sing about “tea,” except, of course that “tea” rhymes with “tree.”
All that aside, this story from Luke’s gospel still has something to teach us. It never hurts to be reminded of the transformative power of Jesus’ presence. Zacchaeus has heard about Jesus. He’s determined to see him. Jesus actually speaks to him, calls him by name, and his life is never the same again. Salvation comes to him and his household with the blessing of Jesus, the Christ.
This morning I want to compare and contrast three figures from these closing chapters of Luke’s gospel. Each in his own way is concerned with salvation, in particular his own salvation. As with most human beings, their quests are ego driven. Remember how we talked last week about the way in which “it’s me” can become the focus of our song when the real emphasis ought to be our common experience of “standing in the need of prayer.” The question comes, if it’s all about, or just about, me, can it really be salvation? Or does saving grace always open us to the hopes and fears, the needs and desires of the world around us?
As we noted last week, the self -righteous Pharisee, who raises arms and eyes and voice to heaven in prayer, seems to be concerned only with himself. In fact, he sounds like a cousin of the unjust judge who has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone” (Luke 18:4). He’s not actually asking for salvation. He seems to have no need of it. He’s already got things all worked out and he makes sure God knows it. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11-12). He already counts himself a “son of Abraham.” He is sure he is one of the elect. He’s standing before you, proclaiming loudly his virtues, his purity, his reserved place near the head of God’s table.
The irony is he doesn’t grasp the significance of salvation at all. He thinks it’s something he merits by virtue of his family tree and his self-serving righteousness. Remember earlier in Luke’s gospel when Jesus encounters another tax collector, Levi, sitting in his collection booth? He calls him to follow and, like the fishermen from Lake Galilee, he “got up, left everything, and followed him.” When Levi threw a banquet for Jesus and his followers to celebrate the transformation of his life, “The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” Jesus’ answer tells us something important about the nature and meaning of salvation. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (See Luke 5:27-32).
I love this interaction. Again, there is delicious irony here. In a sense, Jesus is speaking directly to the self-righteous Pharisee and any who think they have things all figured out. Obviously, these people have no need of what Jesus offers, no use for God’s forgiveness, no place for the embrace of the Beloved Community. Here’s that tricky business of sin again. Of course, we’re not sinners like those tax collectors, prostitutes, and other riff-raff with whom Jesus chose to hang out. “God I thank you that I am not like other people.” But, as we noted last week, that self-satisfaction, in and of itself, is sin. It simply separates us from God and the promise of God’s Beloved Community, which Jesus came to bring alive on earth as it is alive in heaven. Of course, the self-righteous have need of the physician. They just don’t see it. It makes you think of those times when you were too stubborn to go to the doctor because you refused to admit you had a need. The self-righteous Pharisee saw no need of rising to the occasion. He was already there – or so he thought.
Before we get to Zacchaeus let’s look at another figure concerned with salvation. Luke tells us that a “certain ruler,” commonly referred to as “the Rich Young Ruler,” comes to Jesus and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Unlike the self-righteous Pharisee, this man is sincerely seeking something more in his life. “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” It’s both surprising and significant to hear Jesus say that no one is good, at least not in an ideal sense, not even Jesus. Only God is truly good. See, it really is all of us “standing in the need of prayer,” each of us in need of the physician’s healing touch. Even Jesus, in his humanity, needed God in his life.
The ruler replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” He’s spent his whole life striving to be the “best little boy in the world” and, like the self-righteous Pharisee, he seems to be pretty good at it. Unlike his counterpart, though, he’s not satisfied. He realizes that what he has and what he has done is not enough. “What else, Jesus? What keeps getting in between me and God? What blocks my way to wholeness, my entry into God’s Beloved Community?” Mark says at this point Jesus looked at him lovingly. He recognized the ruler’s internal struggle and was drawn to his desire to be more, to really find salvation. “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
The ruler gasped, his heart rising into his throat. It was his wealth, his accumulation of goods, his stuff that got between him and God. He recognized the truth of what Jesus said and it made him sad. Mark writes, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He was very rich and this was more than he could handle. At least that is what he believed. Jesus was simply asking too much. Sometimes the cure feels more painful than the illness and we opt to continue in the pain that is familiar rather than endure the cure. The Rich Young Ruler was not ready to rise to the occasion (See Luke 18:18-30 and Mark 10:17-27).
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.” Luke doesn’t say he was struggling the way the ruler was but he is out there with the crowd, trying catch a glimpse of Jesus. Like the ruler, he is looking for something. It seems he is after more than a glance at a passing celebrity. Something is missing in his life, too. We can infer his discontent, though. You see he’s too short to see over the crowd and no one is making a way for him to move to the front. Zacchaeus is a rich and powerful man. He could have his people clear a path or he could just turn around and go home, preserving his dignity. But he’s so determined to see Jesus that he does what he used to do when he was boy, he climbs a tree.
Imagine! the chief tax collector for the whole Jericho district shinnying up a tree and unceremoniously straddling a branch just to watch the parade? Have you ever wanted something so badly you were willing to swallow your pride and engage in childish behavior to get it? Then there was Jesus, at the base of that very tree, looking up and calling him by name, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Like the Rich Young Ruler, Zacchaeus gasped, his heart in his throat. He almost tumbled out of the tree in his haste to descend.
The crowd was not pleased. They began to grumble. Wasn’t it bad enough that Zacchaeus had grown wealthy at their expense. Though hated, he was still among the most powerful people in town. Now he had commandeered the people’s hero, spoiled their parade, stolen their holiday. Like the coming crowd at Jesus’ trial, they turn on him. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Where have we heard this before? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…even…this tax collector.” Careful folks. Your judgmental tendencies are showing. Remember that the physician has come for those in need and that does not apply exclusively to you or me and those like us.
Richard Rohr, in a recent blog, writes of Jesus’ mission, “Religion normally begins by making a distinction between the pure and the impure, the good and the bad. Yet Jesus does the opposite: he finds God among the impure instead of among the pure! He entertains the lost sheep instead of comforting those who think they are not lost.” Jesus sees in Zacchaeus a deep need; Zacchaeus sees in Jesus his salvation – and he does something about it. Unlike the self-righteous Pharisee, he recognizes that he is just like other people, capable of good and bad, longing for communion, seeking, at some level, his home in God’s Beloved Community. “Welcome to my house and my heart, dear Jesus, Christ. Heal me and make me whole.”
And unlike the Rich Young Ruler, he’s ready to rise to the occasion. He wants to do something about what he has found in his house and heart this day. “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.” Talk about putting your money where your mouth is! It probably wouldn’t get him elected President of the USA or even mayor of Jericho. In fact, this sort of action is very likely to leave him as poor as the peasants in the crowd trailing after Jesus. Can a camel thread the eye of a needle? Can someone rich enter God’s Beloved Community? “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” What wholeness you can’t achieve of your own volition may still be possible in the healing hands of the Great Physician. “Today salvation has come to this house.”
So, today’s little song sings, “Now Zacchaeus was small of stature, but he could show that [one] who is stout of heart can grow and grow.” Zacchaeus showed he could rise to the occasion, and, with hearts open to the coming of the Christ, so can we. Amen.