You should read all of Luke 18 and 19 up to 19:11
Have you ever noticed that Luke seems to be obsessed with tax collectors and sinners – They are all over the place:
Jesus eats with them constantly
Jesus calls a tax collector to be a disciple
He uses them as examples in parables – in fact just a few verses before this story of Zaccheaus in chapter 19 we have the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee – do you remember that?
2 men go up to the Temple to pray – one (a Pharisee) prays – “I thank you Lord that my life is great, that I am a very religious person and that I am not like any of those loosers, like, for example, that tax collector over there… And then standing afar off a tax collector cannot even raise his head and he prays, “dear Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!” And who do you think left the temple with their sins forgiven? The tax collector and not the Pharisee!
And here we have this story of Jesus encountering yet another Tax Collector, and not just any tax collector – a chief tax collector! So what is the deal with Tax Collectors? Why is Luke so focused on Tax Collectors?
To be clear, we are not talking about IRS agents here. These are not public servants in the way we think of them today. In Jesus’ time tax collectors were collaborators with the occupiers. The Romans designated locals to assess and collect taxes for them. And if needed the Romans would provide the muscle needed to extract these taxes. So it worked this way – the designated tax collector would go to his neighbors and inform them that they owed a certain amount to the Romans – for the privilege of being occupied of course. Now the amount assessed was determined by the Tax Collector himself. He could collect whatever he could and then after Rome got its fair share then the Tax Collector got to keep the rest. This is why someone like Zach is described as being very wealthy (in a context when most people lived in poverty, btw). He was very good at collecting large amounts and he got to keep the excess. As you might imagine tax collectors were not very popular, in fact they were despised. But not for Luke – Luke seems to have a soft place in his heart for them. Maybe he understands the pressures they are under. How for them they saw no other option – so rather than living in poverty they chose to sell out their neighbors. But it must have been a painful and lonely existence. They would have been cut off from the Temple and, as the text constantly reminds us, they are counted as sinners, which meant they were shunned, since, after all they were unredeemable sinners.
But not for Jesus – and this is the point that Jesus makes over and over again in Luke: No one is unredeemable – No One! Not even the Pharisees – but what distinguishes the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the parable is the inability or the unwillingness of the Pharisee to see the sinner in himself. The Pharisee is just as much of a sinner as the anyone else, but they can’t see it. They are thus guilty of perhaps the most destructive sin of all: the inability to see themselves honesty, or to see themselves as sinners and consequently to recognize their need for God’s grace and forgiveness. “I thank you that I am not like that looser over there – I am so pure and holy and right – thank you God for making me such a great and righteous person!”
This is the key to understanding these texts. There is no inner or intrinsic righteousness about any of these folks. It is not that the Tax Collectors and Sinners were basically better people than the Pharisees – not at all. But rather the Pharisees had closed themselves off while the Tax Collectors and Sinners were honest about themselves: “be merciful to me, a sinner” says the one in the parable. And this openness is what enables transformation and grace. The key is sight. And guess what healing story takes place right before this story of Zaccheaus? Jesus heals a blind man on the side of the road. And then a few verses later we read that this great sinner – the chief tax collector – wants to see Jesus. This is not accidental. The key to this entire section is seeing. And it begs the question? Can you see? Do you want to see Jesus? Or maybe not, because it can be uncomfortable and it might even change your life.
When we read this story in English we get the distinct impression that Jesus is being so genial and kind - "hurry and come down Zaccheaus, for I must dine at your house today!" We can just hear the laughter in Jesus' voice. But in Greek there is a different feel to it. There is no geniality or laughter in the voice. The children’s song we did a bit ago actually captures the Greek feel pretty well. Jesus looks up in the tree and sees Zach and commands him to come down, in no uncertain terms! “Zacchaeus get down here right this minute.” It is a harsh imperative command. And Jesus is coming to his house – whoa! That is intense! No one is going to like that - the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – no one! They are all going to grumble and complain and criticize and condemn. And it is going to be uncomfortable for Zach as well.
But you see Zach has something to tell Jesus: “I have decided to restore the money that I have gotten by cheating my neighbors.” The verb tense indicates that this has been brewing for a while. In other words Zach didn’t make this as a spur of the moment decision, inspired by having Jesus as his guest. No, he has been moving in this direction for a while and struggling with it. This is what prompted his desire to SEE Jesus in the first place! Ultimately Zach determined that life that is all about accumulation of money and stuff is hollow – and that a life lived alone, separated from community is very life denying. Jesus’ statement that “salvation has come to this house today” is an interesting statement when you consider that the Greek word which is translated as “salvation” can also be translated as “healing.” So Jesus tells the community that “Healing has come for Zaccheaus – and healing means salvation for healing in this case means a refocusing on others and on community. Healing means that the blind can now see!
Maybe you all are getting tired of hearing me preach about the importance and centrality of community all the time. But I simply can’t avoid it – because it is embedded and intewoven in the Gospel text. This story as well as everything that went before and everything that comes after is all about community and relationship; it is about the importance of community and how we experience God’s love and grace through community and how community is to be at the center of the life of faith. But we sure get a different view in the general culture: “go for all the gusto you can get” – it’s all about me, me, me – and even the talking religious heads repeat over and over about how faith is about personal this and personal that. Except – it’s not! You have to ignore the Gospel and pull out your favorite selfish verses out of context to get that impression. The Gospel is about being a part of community and not letting anything – anything get in the way! In this story in chapter 19 Zach has come to a point in his life where he began to see the truth of this and then made the effort to seek out Jesus as a result; and he was healed/saved in the seeing and seeking!
What about us? Are you the Pharisee or the Tax Collector in the parable? “I thank you Lord I am not like that person, I am not like that looser?” Do we think that, I mean deep down do we think that? Do we focus exclusively on ourselves? Do we care about others? Especially others who are really different than us? Others who live different lives and have different traditions and different situations and different lifestyles and priorities and different politics than us? Do we care about any of those others? What about others in other parts of the world who are really removed from us – Haiti, Syria…? Do we care? Can we see their suffering? Do we think about them? Or… do we subconsciously pray “I thank you Lord that I am not like them….”
The key to Christian faith and life is relationship and community! And not just our little community here in Southern Illinois – we are, by virtue of our baptism – in community and in relationship with all the world and we are responsible for them; we need to care about them; we need to listen to those who are hurting and scared and suffering and we need to be ready to do something about it. Can you SEE? Like Zach, are you willing to climb up the highest tree just to be able to see – so that healing and salvation will come your way?
These are hard questions – but hard questions are appropriate for stewardship weekend, because stewardship is ultimately about seeing and responding to the call to work to restore community and relationship. Stewardship is about seeing and hearing and caring and loving and giving…
Let me conclude with the words of Jesus:
Jesus said to the blind man, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
Then Jesus said to Zaccheaus, “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.”