(Luke 19: 1-10)
You get the feeling this sort of thing happened to Jesus a lot, don’t you? This scripture has Jesus “just passing through” Jericho when he meets Zacchaeus. Just passing through. You know, I doubt Jesus kept a calendar; I’m pretty sure he didn’t start the day with a “To Do” list. You read the gospels and get the feeling that the vast majority of things Jesus did were not things he intentionally set out to do. For the most part, they all kind of came to him.
I wish I could live life that, you know? I wish I could live as if I were always right where God wanted me to be. Instead, I find myself more often than not bound by the almighty schedule, zigging and zagging back and forth between this appointment and that conference call; this hospital visit and that errand. So much of life seems to be the antithesis of “just passing through.
But it wasn’t that way for Jesus. Jesus stumbled upon the woman at the well. Jesus happened to find himself surrounded by thousands of hungry people out in the desert. I doubt Jesus went into the temple that day intending to overturn tables. And Jesus just happened to run into Zacchaeus as he was “passing through” Jericho.
This is the first thing Luke tells us in this story about Jesus and Zacchaeus. The very next thing he says is that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich. And if you and I had been in Luke’s audience, I imagine our reaction to this bit of information would’ve been more than a little conflicted. We would’ve been forced to acknowledge our own privilege as members of Luke’s particular audience – wealthy Gentile Christians in late first century Palestine, people Luke was trying to convince to reach out and care for the oppressed and marginalized.
We would’ve held that in tension with the recognition that, in Jesus’ day and time, tax collectors came in dead last in the popularity contest – not only because they over-collected taxes from the poorer Jews, but because they were Jews themselves. The worst kind of traitor – employed by and aligned with the Roman empire to further that empire on the backs of their very own people – and getting rich themselves in the process.
And while it’s true that we don’t know a lot about Zacchaeus himself, it’s not a stretch to fill in the blanks a bit. Not a stretch to extrapolate that Zacchaeus was probably very good at his job. He knew his community well. He knew when a family gained some extra livestock and was there in an instant to claim Rome’s share. He had no qualms about squeezing the highest tax rate out of his fellow citizens; and if one resisted or begged for leniency, Zacchaeus very well might’ve been the kind of guy who’d increase the percentage just to make a point.
Zacchaeus probably dressed extravagantly, not only because he could afford it, but because he wanted everyone else to know he could. And at the end of the day, after delivering Rome’s share and keeping his sizeable own, Zacchaeus probably headed home to lavish living quarters, furnished with the most exquisite items, all purchased with money taken out of the pockets of his fellow Jews.
Now it is true that none of this is found in our passage. But it is not hard to imagine this – because this is the world that Jesus and his first-century Palestinian sisters and brothers were living in; a world of imbalance and inequity where wealth and power, and the privileges that came with it, were skewed toward one segment of society at the expense of the other. A world where people like tax collectors had it all.
Which begs the question: why this particular tax collector wanted to see Jesus. Why a man of status and influence would so willingly throw his reputation out the proverbial window by hiking up a sycamore tree in public so he could get a better view of the man. Why Zacchaeus would even care in the first place what some run-of-the-mill preacher and teacher had to say.
Maybe he was incessantly curious. Maybe he was perpetually bored. Or maybe, along with all the things that made up Zacchaeus’ life, and in some ways because of them, maybe there was one other thing he was: and that was lonely. Utterly and painfully lonely. There’s no mention of family in this story; no word of friends or acquaintances. For all we know, that extravagant home Zacchaeus returned to every night might have been an empty one.
Maybe Zacchaeus climbed the tree that day because he did not fit in anywhere; and was hoping that, with Jesus, he just might.
So when Jesus does pass by, when he looks up into the branches of that sycamore tree and sees the rich tax collector staring down at him, what is most surprising about this scene is not that Jesus calls this man he’s never met before by name: Zacchaeus. We’re kind of used to Jesus doing that; seeming to know more about us than we think he should, or want him to; the way he perceives and senses not only who we are but what lies in the depths of our hearts. After eighteen previous chapters of Jesus doing amazing things, calling a man he’s never met before by name does not strike us as being terribly out of the norm.
What does surprise us, though; what surprises Zacchaeus and everyone around him that day, is what he says to him: Zacchaeus, come down; I must stay at your house today.
Not, “I’d like to go by your house,” which would be odd enough – why would Jesus want to go to a tax collector’s house in the first place – but “I must stay at your house.” And today. Right now. And he’s not really asking, is he? Think about that: out of all the people who’ve lined the streets of Jericho that day, out of all the other places Jesus could’ve invited himself to, Jesus wants to be with the local hated richer-than-rich tax collector at his home – the home that no one else goes to. Right now.
What do you make of the urgency here? Why was visiting this man in his home so important to Jesus, so necessary a thing for someone who was, again, “just passing through?” We’ve already wondered what Zacchaeus might want from Jesus – but perhaps the bigger question is what Jesus might want from him.
Well, what do you think?
One of my favorite random cable movies that pops up every now and then is Steve Martin’s Cheaper By The Dozen. You seen this? It’s about a husband and wife who are parents to twelve kids ranging from kindergarten through high school. The opening scene sort of captures the chaotic but caring lifestyle of this family as they’re getting ready for their day. Everyone is huddled shoulder-to-shoulder around the breakfast table, diving into eggs and toast and juice. Everyone, that is, except Mark – the eighth kid if I remember. Mark’s not at the breakfast table because he’s looking for his lost frog named Beans. He’s asked everyone all morning if they’d seen Beans, but no one has time to answer because everyone’s in such a hurry.
And as the family is sitting around the table downing their breakfast, Mark finally spots Beans – who happens to be reclining above them in the light fixture over the breakfast table! He has this net and he’s extending it up to try and catch Beans. Which no one at the table notices, because breakfast. Until Mark’s father looks up and sees the accident before it happens. It’s too late! Beans jumps away from the net and lands squarely in the big bowl of eggs. Total chaos ensues! Everyone trying to grab the frog; eggs and toast and juice flying everywhere and landing on clothes and in hair. Plates and glasses shattered. And when all finally calms down, there Mark stands with Beans in his net, as the rest of his family glares at him in disgust. One of his sisters blurts out, “Nice move, Fed Ex.”
Now we’re outside the house and everyone’s leaving, piling into cars and hopping on bikes, heading off to school. Mom is at the bottom of the porch steps barking out last-minute orders and sharing well-wishes. A dejected Mark mopes down the stairs. His mother asks what’s wrong. Mark looks up at her and says with sad eyes, “Everybody says the Fed Ex guy dropped me off because I don’t fit in with this family.”
And without pause, Mom pulls Mark into her in a deep affectionate hug; she cradles his head in her arms; and says, “You fit, Mark. You fit right here.”
You know why I think Zacchaeus climbed the tree that day? You know why I think Jesus told him he just had to stay to his house? Because I believe both of them knew that Zacchaeus wanted so much to fit in; needed to fit in, somewhere, with someone; so he would not be imprisoned one moment longer to the life he’d made for himself. And I think Jesus wanted Zacchaeus to know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that he fit right there – right in his embrace, his amazing grace, his everlasting love.
And it’s amazing, isn’t it, what happens to Zacchaeus after this? I mean, Jesus didn’t have to say a thing to him about changing his ways. He didn’t have to give a stern lecture about returning all the money and things he’d taken unfairly and turning over a new leaf in his life. He didn’t have to suggest that he see a counselor or meet with a life coach or spend some time making a priority list. Zacchaeus did it anyway – immediately.
Which really shouldn’t surprise us, should it? Because when we find out where we fit in – right in Jesus’ embrace – when we come to that realization, we cannot help but want our lives to reflect that. We cannot help but toss aside all the things that hold us back from that embrace; all the things that keep us from experiencing that amazing grace and everlasting love.
And so on this morning, my friends, as we gather inside these four walls amidst a world where partisan divides are deep and pronounced, where we are often judged by what’s on the outside instead of the inside, where powers and principalities seek to define us by who we are not rather than who we are, perhaps it is of paramount importance that each and every one of us hear what Jesus had to say to Zacchaeus, what Jesus has to say to us:
You fit right here.
Right here in this space.
Right here with one other.
And on this All Saints Day, you fit with those who have gone before you, those whose names will be read and lives remembered and given thanks for. You fit with them, and they with you, because death does not have the last word. Even in death, they still fit right here.
And it is this that is the antidote for what ails the world, – the divides that keep us separated, the imbalance of power and privilege, the nagging feeling we spend so much energy suppressing that tries to convince us that we are not enough, that we do not matter, that we are alone. It is this “fitting” that truly saves us from ourselves, and saves the world:
So let us hear the voice of Jesus, speaking to each one of us:
This is where you belong, people of God.
This is where you have always belonged.
You are loved.
You are more than enough.
You fit right here.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.