Deuteronomy 26.26-29

Luke 19.1-10

The M Word

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

I had a colleague once, an Episcopal priest, whose pastoral visitation methods were a bit, shall we say, out of the ordinary.  Standard practice, which is to say the courteous practice, is to call first and set up a mutually agreed-on time to stop by for a visit.  Byron didn’t bother with that – he just showed up when it suited him.  And he didn’t just show up randomly – if the door was unlocked he would just wander in unannounced.  I heard one story, which he admitted himself, where a parishioner was at the sink washing dishes, turned around, and there he was standing in the middle of the kitchen.  It was rather startling, to say the least. 

Early, early in my ministry, I paid a visit to a parishioner – I did call first to make the appointment, but apparently not everyone in the household got the memo.  I rang the doorbell, a family member opened the door and gasped, “Oh my God, it’s the minister!”   And it caught me up so short that I quickly spun around and almost said, “Where?”  Until I remembered it was me – like I said, it was still early, early in my ministry.  We were both startled.

I am quite certain Jesus startled Zacchaeus.  It’s a cute story, after a fashion:  a vertically challenged tax collector came into a rather large crowd that had gathered, couldn’t quite make out what the commotion was all about, and climbed a tree for a better view.  A popular Sunday School ditty tells the story: 

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree and he said,

‘Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today!’  For I’m going to your house today!

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, but a happy man was he,

For he had seen the Lord that day, and a happy man was he; and a very happy man was he.

Now, I’m not sure it is exactly politically correct to call someone “a wee little man,” but we get the idea, and it is meant to be a fun children’s song.  But focusing on Zacchaeus’ stature and on the sycamore, which is what most folks take away from the story, misses the forest for the tree.  I’d like to shift that focus a little this morning by looking at some key words in Luke’s story – a few that are there and one that is not - and see where they take us.

The first is the word Jesus used to startle Zacchaeus:  his name.  Jesus called Zacchaeus by name.  How did he know?  Did he know him by word of mouth?  Was he the shortest tax collector in all of Jericho?  Was he a tree-climber by reputation?  I was driving home from a Conference meeting one afternoon a number of years ago, stopped at a convenience store for I don’t remember what, and the salesperson said to me, “That’ll be $1.75, Alan.”  He knew my name.  And I’m wracking my brain, How does this person know me?  Did we go to school together?  Had they come to church?   It caught me so off guard that I didn’t even think to ask them how they knew me, until I got home and discovered I still had the nametag from my Conference meeting stuck to my shirt.  Zacchaeus was startled:  How does he know my name?

And if Zacchaeus was startled by that, the crowd was equally startled by what Jesus said next:  “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today!...  [And] everyone who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’”  Now remember, the first sentence of the story tells us Zacchaeus was a tax-collector, and this story comes right after last week’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector – the tax collector who was grouped with thieves, rogues and adulterers in the Pharisee’s estimation, and who himself prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” But Zacchaeus wasn’t just any tax-collector – Luke tells us he was a chief tax collector; so if a tax collector is a sinner, perhaps Zacchaeus is, as the apostle Paul once put it, the chief of sinners.  That’s what most people thought, anyway.  “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today!

There’s another word that captures our attention:  today.  It occurs twice in Zacchaeus’ story – here, and later when Jesus says “Today salvation has come to [Zacchaeus’] house, because he too is a child of Abraham.”  The word also occurs three times in the passage from Deuteronomy Diane read, “Today the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances… today  you have obtained the Lord’s agreement… today the Lord has obtained your agreement:  to be God’s treasured people.”  There is a sense of urgency in that today.  Today you are God’s treasured people; today I must stay at your house; today salvation has come.  It is important that this is happening now.

What I’m about to say next is I think the most important point in the story, but first I have to confess that it will make me sound like a broken record.  Which is to say, the way the church has traditionally read the story of Zacchaeus is not necessarily the most accurate.   You’ll remember two weeks ago, when we first began looking at the Luke passages for our Stewardship series, the story of the annoying widow knocking on the judge’s door, is not about God capitulating to the prayers of the persistent, but rather it is about God knocking on the door of our own hearts to be let in.  In last week’s parable we saw that the Pharisee was right to note the sin of the tax collector because the tax collector himself admitted as much.  Which brings us to Zacchaeus, also a tax collector.  When we hear the story, most of us hear it as a story of repentance, with good reason.  Nearly every version of the Bible reads like what we heard today:  Zacchaeus said, “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.”  And we read into this that, because Jesus called Zacchaeus by name and went into his home, Zacchaeus became a changed man and repented his underhanded tax collecting ways.

David Lose, a writer I’ve quoted before, served for a number of years as President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and is currently pastor at Mt Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.  Lose writes about this traditional way of reading the Zacchaeus story by saying, “In such cases I am generally suspicious of the more convenient reading, believing that the more difficult one is not only the more likely one historically but is also more likely to yield an interesting sermon!”  He goes on to say,

“Notice that Zacchaeus neither confesses his sin [like the tax-collector in the earlier parable] nor repents.  Nor does Jesus commend Zacchaeus’ penitence, or his faith, or his change of heart.  He merely pronounces blessing, blessing based not on anything Zacchaeus has done, but simply because he, like those grumbling around him is a [child] of Abraham.”

For all the words we have been focusing on in this morning’s story – the name Zacchaeus, the urgency of today, the title of chief tax collector – there is one word, repeated twice in this story that does not belong.  The Greek text does not read, “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.”  It actually reads, “Half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I defraud anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”  In other words, Zacchaeus already does these things as tax collector; he is not promising to do them as a sign of repentance.  He already gives to the poor; he already makes fourfold restitution where necessary; he is already just; he is already righteous; he is already a child of Abraham, he is already a beloved child of God.  It is not a story of repentance because of fiduciary malfeasance, it is a story of blessing because of financial generosity.  “I give half my possessions to the poor, if I have made any mistakes I repay them four-fold.”  Lord, this is what I do.

When I first started working on these three passages from Luke – the persistent widow, the Pharisee and the tax collector, Zacchaeus – three weeks ago, I wondered why in the world the UCC chose these particular passages for Stewardship.  What can an aggrieved woman, a snooty Pharisee and a pair of tax collectors teach us about the importance of abundance and generosity in supporting our church, its mission and ministry?

I think it hinges on yet one more word, a word that does not appear in any of our stories, a word the church is too often loathe to say, because the received wisdom is that we talk about it all the time, when the reality is that we don’t talk about it nearly enough.  That word is “money.”  The aggrieved woman banged on the door of the unjust judge because she wanted justice for her estate; she was owed either a sum of money or a piece of property and she demanded it be returned to her.  The Pharisee gave away a tenth of his income, his money.  The first tax collector admitted skimming money off the top and the second tax collector gave half his money to the poor.  And each of these stories brings the most light when we can get past the received wisdom, the traditional way of reading them, and read them for ourselves.  After all, you and I are quite familiar with the received wisdom about the church and money:  “All they ever talk about is money.”  Right?  You’ve heard it; I’ve heard it.  And we all know it isn’t true.  We do not talk about money all the time; in fact most churches avoid it like the plague.  But perhaps we should ignore the received wisdom here as well.  If we spoke more about money, if we pay more attention to the persistent widow and the presumptuous Pharisee and the pair of tax collectors, then come stewardship time we can focus more on justice and equality and compassion and community and faithfulness, and our generosity would flow naturally from these things.

Next Sunday you and I will dedicate our pledges of support for our church’s mission and ministry for the coming year.  There are a lot of ways we support our church – our money is just one of them.  So many of us also contribute our time, our energy, our creativity, our good ideas, our love, our compassion, our care for each other, for community, for creation… and yes, we contribute our money as well.  This is an indispensable piece of our commitment – yet still just a piece along with all those other expressions of support.  We are blessed to be able to do this from a place of abundance and generosity.  Like Zacchaeus did.  “Today,” Jesus said.  “Today salvation lives in this house because this too is a child of Abraham.”  Today blessing lives in this church because we too are beloved children of God.

Amen.

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