Up a Tree, or Giving That Changes Lives
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On November 3rd, 2013
Our passage for this morning is from the Gospel of Luke, the 19th chapter, beginning with the first verse. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he’s passing through Jericho—a stop on the ancient trade route—a good place for a tax collector employed by the Roman authorities to live. Listen for just how this tax collector, named Zacchaeus, is changed in his interaction with Jesus.
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 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, ‘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.’
There is a wonderful old All Saints’ Day joke about the two brothers who lied, cheated, and stole from people in the little town in which they lived. They both became very wealthy. When one of the brothers died, the other brother went to the local preacher and said, “I want my brother to have a nice funeral. I want you to deliver the eulogy, and I want to tell people that he was a saint. If you do that, if you’ll just say that he was a saint, I’ll donate a large sum of money to the church in his name. But if you don’t, you can kiss that money goodbye.”
The minister struggled with that request, wanting to maintain her integrity, but very much aware of what good the money could do. The day of the funeral the minister began her eulogy this way: “Mr. Smith, was a liar, he was a cheat, he was a thief, and he was a fraud. But compared to his brother, he was a real saint.”
All Saints’ Sunday has a way of making us think about what it is that merits someone being called a saint, in this life or the next. Once we get past the saints with a big S (Peter, Paul, and Mary), often we think of saints as people whose way of living models or modeled for us what it means to be faithful, to live a life of integrity, kindness, generosity, and grace. The brothers in the joke wouldn’t qualify.
Nor, probably, would Zacchaeus, at least not until that day Jesus saw that short little tax collector in a tree. If you asked the people in his neighborhood, Zacchaeus would be the least likely candidate for sainthood.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone that people in the environs of Jericho would have despised more than someone like Zacchaeus. After all, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which meant that he made a living by collaborating with the Roman Empire and taking his cut, and more than his cut, from the people he taxed. Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, Luke says, but a chief tax collector, (that term, chief tax collector, is only found once in all of Greek literature, the Bible or elsewhere, and it refers to Zacchaeus). He was a chief tax collector, which Fred Craddock says, “would have implicated him more deeply in the corrupt tax system of the Roman government. Because the loftier one’s position in a corrupt system, the greater one’s degree of complicity in it.”[i]
No wonder the people grumbled when Jesus called Zacchaeus by name and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Why would Luke’s Gospel show Jesus picking somebody like him?
Well part of it might have been to make a point to the crowd. A point Jesus made in his the sermon in Nazareth that launched his ministry.[ii] When he mentioned that there were many widows in Israel when there was a drought during the time of the prophet Elijah, but Elijah went only to a widow of Zarephath in foreign Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet but Elijah healed only the Syrian general Naaman. People loved hearing those stories from Jesus so much that they tried to throw him off a cliff.
Jesus was always reaching out to the unexpected ones. The ones who were outside the circle: Making a Samaritan, and not the religious authorities the hero of his parable about compassion. Speaking of how the prodigal, wasteful younger brother who squandered his father’s resources would be welcomed home with a party. And now Jesus was eating with tax collectors, for God’s sake.
Here’s a question. Who would the people lined up on the streets of Jericho have despised more? A Syrian general, a spendthrift son, a Samaritan half-breed, or a chief tax collector like Zacchaeus? It’s a tough question. But, I think the answer might be Zacchaeus. Because he’s sort of an insider, right? He’s part of them, but he takes advantage of them. Which makes it a pretty difficult psychological leap for us to identify with Zacchaeus.
Until we remember that this is the way at least a portion of the larger world regards each and every one of us here today —as beneficiaries of a system tilted in our favor. (I know we don’t want to hear that, but that’s the way we’re regarded. It might not be right, but that’s the way we’re regarded.)
Until we bear in mind that the story doesn’t end with Zacchaeus as a villain, but as something more like a saint. The Patron saint, if you will, of tax collectors.
Until we think about what led Zacchaeus up that sycamore tree on the day Jesus passed through Jericho and how Zacchaeus must have felt when Jesus called his name and invited himself into Zacchaeus’ life.
What actually brought Zacchaeus out into the street and sent him up that tree to begin with? Who knows for sure? Maybe it was just curiosity about what all the fuss was about. Like the person who goes to church for the first time just to see what the attraction is for others. Or the person who comes on the Sunday before Stewardship Sunday and thinks I wonder what the pastor is going to do with that? Perhaps some fellow tax-collectors in his firm had talked up the fact that here was a man who welcomed and ate with their kind or it could be there was a series of things that had happened in his life that left him feeling vaguely dissatisfied, sensing that there had to be something more.
Whatever it was, Zacchaeus was there. The story says that he was short, and Luke assumes that because he’s short, that is why he climbed the tree—to get a better view, to not jostle in front of the crowd, to just get up there a little higher so that he could see Jesus.
But I wonder if the reason Zacchaeus climbed the tree wasn’t, in part, an effort not to be seen. It makes me think of the person who comes in late and leaves early. The one who sits in the back row or up in the corner of the balcony. The ones who somehow, wherever they sit, deal with a sense of shame and guilt day in and day out. The person who wonders to himself if he can ever be forgiven for what he’s done.
Oh, I don’t know, perhaps Zacchaeus didn’t care whether he was seen or not. He was just hungry for something larger than the same old same old of his life, the same old divisions and fear and mistrust and self-involvement. He wanted to be in touch with something that really, really, mattered. That longing, I think, was the seed of sainthood in him.
Whether he meant to hide or not, Zacchaeus was seen. He was seen and called by name by the One whose life is meant to show us God’s priorities, God’s presence, God’s power— a power greater than what divides us, greater than what isolates us, greater than what keeps us stuck in the past, a power that brings us together for good and makes the circle wider and wider and wider. It is the power to change lives. And you see it at work whenever we are led out of ourselves in love and hospitality, in generosity of spirit and generosity of financial resources.
You see it in Zacchaeus after he is welcomed by Jesus and gives away half of his wealth to the poor and pays back with interest all those he defrauded. Zacchaeus’ life is changed. And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, for this man, too, is a son of Abraham,” which is a way I think of saying “This man, too, has the capacity to be faithful.”
But I think it’s more than that. When Jesus says this man is a son of Abraham he is recalling Genesis 12, where Abraham hears the promise from God that he has been blessed in order to be a blessing.
You might have seen this story on CBS News “On the Road.”[iii] It is the story of something that happened in a middle school football game in Michigan. The football players of Olivet Middle School designed a play, really two plays, for Keith Orr, a learning disabled kid in their class to feel a part of the team. They drove the ball down near the goal line and then the ball carrier took a knee right before going into the end zone.
Then, Keith came in, and unbeknownst to their coach, who was a little frustrated that they hadn’t just gone in for the score, the other players lined up, handed the ball to Keith and they let the learning disabled kid in for a touchdown.
As one of the players said, “You don’t know how great you can feel, until you’ve scored your first touchdown.” And Keith, this learning disabled kid who never quite fit in, had an opportunity to do that.
Keith’s mother told CBS News this moment showed her that “somebody’s always going to have his back.”
CBS’ Steve Hartman said, “She’s right. When the football team decides you’re cool, pretty much everyone follows suit.” “Now [the other players] eat lunch with him,” Keith’s’ coach Tim Jungel told the local affiliate WILX-TV. “Now they talk to him in the halls. Keith has discovered there are things he can accomplish he didn’t know he was capable of.”
But guess what? Keith is not the Zacchaeus in this story. The real Zacchaeus is one of the stars of the football team, a young African American named Justice Miller.
He shared in the segment how being part of that moment had changed him. He shared about Keith Orr that “…he’s never been cool or popular. He went from being pretty much a nobody,” the wide receiver said, “to making everyone’s day. Once I saw him go in nothing could wipe that smile off my face.”
Miller goes on to say, “It wouldn’t have been my idea to do that. I would have not really thought about that. It never crossed my mind to give Keith any glory. But since that day, I kind of went from somebody who mostly cared about myself and my friends to caring about everyone, and trying to make everyone’s day and everyone’s life.”
Now that is a story of transformation. It’s a story of some giving that changed a life. And as we think about our own response to God, the way we share our financial resources, we can think about that call, and the truth that we too, like Keith Orr, like Justice Miller, like Zacchaeus, we too are children of Abraham, blessed to be a blessing.
[i] Fred Craddock,” Luke,” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1990).
[ii] Luke 4:16-30
[iii] You can watch the segment here. Some of what follows is drawn from a summary of the article published in The Blaze, which was passed on to me by a friend. www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/10/31/football-team-rallies-to-give-an-unpopular-kid-a-touchdown-but-hes-not-the-one-that-will-make-you-cry-that-comes-at-230-in-the-video/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=story&utm_campaign=ShareButtons. You can see the original CBS News On the Road segment here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ejh_hb15Fc