27. August 2017

Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus

Service Type:

‘...Zacchaeus, make haste and come down…’ (Luke 19, 5b)

Zacchaeus, no doubt along with many other occupants of Jericho, was intrigued by the prospect of Jesus of Nazareth passing through his home town. The previous chapter in Luke’s Gospel tells us that on the road leading towards the town Jesus had restored the sight of a blind man, Bartimaeus and no doubt news of the miracle had preceded his arrival. Everybody wanted to see Jesus. Zacchaeus, a resourceful man, gets himself to a place where he can see Him. But now, because he can see Jesus, he himself can be seen by Jesus.

The story hinges on the fact that whilst Zacchaeus, for whatever reason, wanted to see Jesus, it was Jesus who was determined to see Zacchaeus. And for Jesus it wasn’t enough to see Zacchaeus, to recognise him for who he was, to have his curiosity satisfied; having seen him He was determined to get to know Him, to impose Himself upon his hospitality; a prospect that was greeted with great joy. Given who he was, his reputation, his life style choice, it’s likely that Zacchaeus lived a lonely life; is it too fanciful to suggest that Jesus was his first house guest? Whatever, Jesus’ decision to stay with Zacchaeus immediately alienated Him from the rest of the town’s population who imposed upon Jesus the same judgement they had already imposed upon Zacchaeus. In their eyes Zacchaeus was a ‘sinner’ and if Zacchaeus was a sinner’ then anyone who associated themselves with him were themselves, ‘sinners’; a classic case of ‘guilt by association’.

This was Jesus’ way: and by associating Himself with those whom others judged to be ‘sinners’ He was exposing the essential hypocrisy that lay at the hearty of the so called ‘religious’ way of life. This is just but one example of a series of encounters described for us in the Gospels when Jesus went out of His to shame the ‘establishment’ by deliberately courting the company of those whom the ‘establishment’ had already sought to shame in the eyes of others. For Jesus there was no greater ‘sin’ than the ‘sin’ of hypocrisy and He never missed an opportunity to confront it.

One of the most powerful injunctions attributed to Jesus is, ‘Judge not that we might ourselves be judged’. In our judging of others we are always inviting judgement of ourselves; ‘Hence let the one who is without sin cast the first stone’. We should always be wary of judging others because we, just by being who we are, are ourselves under judgement. ‘We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. In the light of which, a very different approach to the judgement of others began to emerge from within the early Christian community, encapsulated in Paul’s Letter to the Romans

‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for by doing you will heap burning coals upon his head” Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.’ (Romans 12, 19 – 20).

Anyway, now the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus is open for all to hear and Zacchaeus makes the response he no doubt imagined that Jesus wanted to hear; a gesture of extravagant charity – half of all his worldly goods he would give to the poor – seemingly a very generous offer, but one that no doubt Zacchaeus could afford. His profession was one that brought great rewards and no doubt he had amassed a considerable fortune over the years; To give away half of what he was worth would still leave him a wealthy man. It would cost him, but it would not be that costly. Would Jesus have been impressed – hardly. This was the same Jesus who had instructed a rich young man that if he wished to enter the Kingdom of God he should sell all that he had and give away the proceeds.

The Jesus who demands our all is not likely to be satisfied with just some, however much some might be. But then Zacchaeus suggests something different; rather than what he feels he should do he now offers what he ought to have done – to repay those whom he has defrauded – to give back that which was never his in the first place and to do so in such a way that not only restores the status quo but also recompenses those from whom he has stolen to the tune of four times over; a realisation that ‘an eye for an eye’, ‘pound for pound’ or whatever is never sufficient to compensate someone for the losses inflicted upon them.

This is true tangibly but also intangibly – the loss of dignity, of reputation, of respect, of loyalty, of trust, of friendship – all so easily snatched away from somebody with no thought as to whether or not what is being claimed is true or not.

But there is a caveat that has to be inserted here. Traditionally, Zacchaeus has been thought of as a rogue, a crook, a fraudster, a cheat but we should take note of the little word ‘if’ – ‘If I have’ – the temptation to rush to judgement is one we all give in to so easily; the court of public opinion sits 24 hours a day, hands down instant verdicts and with no prospect of appeal. We will never know how many, if any, were in line to receive their money from Zacchaeus but if we are honest we have already imagined it was a very long queue. The truth is, all of us have to be grateful to God that as far as our relationship with God is concerned there is never a sense of God having rushed to judgement in respect of the wrongdoing which continually bedevils our lives. The Psalmist had it right when he described God as One who was ‘slow to anger, abounding in love’ – the patience of God is an aspect of the Divine Character that we rarely appreciate mainly because we are so impatient…but with God there really is, no rush!