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The sermon for week October 30, 2016

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An Unlikely Saint

Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV)

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When 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.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”8Zacchaeus 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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Note: An early church historian in the late 2nd century recorded that Zaccheaus was given a surname of Matthias and that he became the apostle chosen to take the place of Judas after the death of Jesus, and that he became a bishop in the early church.

Today as we celebrate All Saints Day, a day we remember those who have gone before us. Just a couple of weeks ago, I attended the memorial service for a colleague, a friend, but more importantly to me a mentor. Bob’s death became an occasion for me to reflect on all that I learned from him. One thing that I cherish from his mentoring was that one of Bob’s gifts was that he could see gifts in others and in me that they and I did not always see. He used this gift of his to encourage us to live into our gifts.

In today’s text, the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus is doing something similar. He is using his own gifts to mentor Zacchaeus, to encourage this “small” man to stand tall as a child of God. But he doesn’t stop with Zacchaeus. He has much more to say to the gathered crowd. He has much more to say to us. What he has to say to us has more often than not been lost or ignored. Let me explain.

Ever since I was a child, I was taught that this story of Zacchaeus is a story of grace and repentance. Zacchaeus receives grace from Jesus, in response to that gift of grace, he turns from his former way of life and proudly proclaims that “half of his possessions, he will give to the poor; and if he has defrauded anyone of anything, he will pay back four times as much.” Wow. Talk about being generous. He is going to give 50% of his earnings away. That is way more than a tithe. The standard tithe for the common person was 10%. For Rabbi’s, the tithe was 20%.

Zacchaeus is going way beyond what was even expected from the most generous folk, the Rabbi’s. And when it came to defrauding someone, the standard practice was to give back just shy of 1 and a half times what was taken.

Again Zacchaeus is going way beyond what was expected practice. That is some turn around. That is some response to grace. That is worthy of a sermon, because that is how special God’s grace is. God’s grace transforms lives.

But there is a slight problem. That sermon, although worthy of giving for it is true that God’s grace is transformative, that sermon is based upon a misreading of the original text. In the original Greek, the word that is translated here in the future tense, “will give,” is not written as future tense. In the Greek, it is written in the present tense, “I give,” as in I am giving this now, already, it is my normal practice. We have become so biased toward reading this story as a repentance story that this bias has caused us to change the facts. Now when one reads this in the NRSV, there is a footnote suggesting that there is an alternate reading. We have relegated the factual to a footnote and substituted the facts with what we want to hear. Of course this is human nature. We do this on a personal level when we ignore the facts the doctor is telling us because we don’t want to change our lifestyle. We also do this at a national level when we ignore the facts of what climate scientists present so that we do not have to change our way of living.

This is exactly what is happening in the text. If the verb is truly in the present tense, and it is, then the real subject of the story is not Zacchaeus but it is the gathered crowd. Jesus is not speaking to Zacchaeus to get Zacchaeus to repent. He is speaking to the crowd to get them to repent. Zacchaeus needs no repentance. He is already living a generous life. His generosity far exceeds any expectation in that society. What Zacchaeus needed to hear was that he was loved by God. That is why Jesus proclaimed to him that salvation has come to his house. Notice that Jesus did not say this to the crowd. What he said to the crowd was that he, Zacchaeus, that he too was a son of Abraham. Clearly the people were treating Zacchaeus as less than. He was being treated as other. This becomes one more story in a long line of stories that breaks down barriers and tears down walls that have been erected to divide people.

When it came to women, Jesus tore down the barrier that had been erected by men, a barrier that barred women from being treated as equals of men and allowed them to treat woman as objects. That barrier was gone.

When it came to children, he tore down the barrier that had been erected to treated children as property. That barrier was gone.

When it came to foreigners, in his case Samaritans, he tore down the barrier that nationalists had built that proclaimed that these foreigners were less than us and do not deserve the same rights. That barrier was gone.

When it came to the poor, he tore down the barrier that the rich had built, the barrier that proclaimed the poor were outside of God’s favor. That barrier was gone.

Now he was tearing down one more barrier that the people had built to justify their ill treatment of Zacchaeus. He was saying more boldly than ever that in God’s beloved community, there is no place in this community for barriers that divide one from another, for all people are special in God’s sight. By declaring salvation had come to Zacchaeus, a person the people despised more than anyone in that society, Jesus was challenging the people to open their hearts to extend love to the unlovable. He was challenging them to open their minds, to move beyond their tribal nature and to see that all people are welcome and will be treated with respect in the beloved community of the people of God.

Now we have a choice. We can choose the easy reading of the story of Zacchaeus, the one that celebrates when another turns toward God. Or we can choose to read the much harder story, the factual story, the story that puts a burden on us to tear down walls that divide. If we take this story to heart in this time and place, wherever and whenever someone is treated as other we have a burden to act.

If we take this story to heart, we have a burden to stand with our gay, lesbian, and transgender sisters and brothers when they are being treated as other, we have a burden to stand up again and again and say to men that you do not have the right to touch woman without their consent and to treat them as objects, we have a burden to stand with people of color when they are being persecuted because of the color of their skin, we have and a burden to stand with our (foreign) Syrian, Mexican and Muslim sisters and brothers and say that in this community you are welcome here.

The burden is ours to bear.

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