Yr C ~ Pentecost 24 ~ Luke 19:1-10
The story of Zacchaeus is one of my absolute favourites in the bible because it challenges a very popular but problematic theological view in what I think is a very helpful way. But before I get to that I’d like to walk us through the story and lift up some things that I think are really important. The story is actually completely bonkers with all sorts of tidbits that are designed to bake your brain.
Most of us here probably have fairly traditional sounding names that may have a deep meaning but generally we just hear it as a name. But names in Hebrew are more directly related to actual attributes of a person. They had names like “laughter” (Isaac) or “earth/ground” (Adam). So, if you spoke Hebrew and you heard the name Zacchaeus you would hear “pure and innocent” – well, actually you’d hear Zakkay in Hebrew – Zacchaeus is the Greek version, but the point stands. So right off the top we have a story about a no-good-dirty-rotten tax collector – the chief tax collector at that, suggesting he’s probably even worse than usual – whose name means pure and innocent. You just know the story is gonna be weird!
Then we learn that he is short in stature so he can’t see through the crowd and has to run ahead and climb a tree to get a view of Jesus passing through. But the word translated as short here is the same word used elsewhere to speak of children. So, is it about stature or status? Well, this rich tax man who is an innocent child can’t see so like a child he runs and climbs a tree. Except that a mature Jewish man wouldn’t be caught dead running and climbing trees! It would have been utterly undignified and humiliating.
So the story has us perplexed again. The chief tax collector acting like a kid.
And the word for his wanting to see Jesus is better translated as striving to see – and “see” should have air-quotes on it to suggest that it’s not just a visual seeing but that he’s passionately, desperately, enthusiastically yearning to “see”, to understand, to encounter Jesus – which is exactly what every one of us is supposed to be about.
He wasn’t up a tree to get a better selfie for his Facebook page – he was up there to seek out the one who teaches us how to live in God’s presence.
Zacchaeus’ presence in the tree catches Jesus’ attention and Jesus looks up and addresses him by name. Is that a parlour trick? How did Jesus know this guy’s name? Is it a sign that Jesus knows everything?
Maybe it’s just as simple as Jesus looking up into this strangers eyes and seeing his heart and describing what he sees: pure and innocent – Zakkay.
Moved by this encounter – and I mean that Jesus is moved by it! – Jesus pretty much invites himself for dinner! (Oh, and by the way, I’ll be bringing my dozen or so friends too!) So Zacchaeus scrambles down (again, undignified) and he “was happy to welcome Jesus” – but the Greek word is actually not just happy but rejoiced, which means to delight in God’s grace. Zacchaeus, upon having an encounter with Jesus whom he so passionately sought, rejoices and delights in God’s undeserved favour (that’s what grace is).
It’s an astounding story! No-good-dirty-rotten chief tax collectors are not supposed to do any of this stuff – not seek Jesus, not climb trees, not be undignified, not be called pure and innocent, and certainly not receive God’s grace. But this one did! It’s scandalous!
And, as expected, when people see someone who we might judge to be a bad person apparently basking in the glow of God’s grace we start to grumble about it. “That’s not fair! He’s not a good guy! God is unjust!”
And it also offended their cultural sensibilities because Jesus was emerging as a religious leader but he was willing to associate with “those” kinds of people.
Grace tends to offend us – well, at least when it happens to others!
Then we get to the really nutty part!
Zacchaeus falls to his knees, makes his confession, begs for forgiveness, and Jesus lays hands on him and absolves him of his past and pronounces him blessed.
Except none of that happens in this story.
What does happen is Zacchaeus, with his heart overflowing with love, looks into Jesus’ eyes and declares that he’s going to give away half of his possessions and make restitution to those he’s cheated.
The law required repayment plus 20% if you defrauded someone. Zacchaeus is offering 400%!
It is mind-boggling!
It is an expression of absolute extravagance flowing from a person whose life is clearly utterly changed.
Is your brain baked yet? How about this?
Other than saying Zack’s name and inviting himself for dinner, what has Jesus said or done in this story to generate any of Zacchaeus’ actions? Jesus simply declares that, “Today salvation has come to this house!” Salvation.
Salvation is a word that I suspect most of us associate with what happens after Jesus dies on the cross. That’s probably the dominant or most popular understanding of salvation.
And yet here we have a story long before we get near the cross where Jesus doesn’t seem to directly affect salvation but recognizes it and names it. What did Jesus actually DO to bring about salvation here? Not much really. Does that mean Zacchaeus brought about his own salvation and Jesus didn’t matter? No! The seeking of Jesus and his Way, that passionate desire, the openness to the encounter with the Presence of God – that stuff all suggests he’s already a disciple of Jesus – even though they’d not yet met in person.
Salvation is about being delivered from something that was harming you. Salvation is not something we can do ourselves but it does require something crucial from us before we can receive it. What do we have to do?
Just a few verses before Zack’s story we get the story of the Rich Young Ruler who claimed to have always followed all the commandments and wanted to know what more he had to do to get salvation. He was told by Jesus to sell ALL of his stuff. Zacchaeus only gave away HALF!
Why the difference? Was it because Jesus liked Zacchaeus better than the Rich Young Dude so he made the fee lower? Absolutely not. You have to read the stories more thoughtfully to see the answer. It’s what we were reminded of last week – that it isn’t about your actions so much, it’s about your heart.
The tax collector from last week laid bare his heart and he was made righteous in God’s eyes.
The Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus with an attitude saying he’d done everything right and wondering why he wasn’t blessed yet. Jesus saw that his self-reliant heart was still enthralled with possessions, with wealth, with material things at the centre of his attention, so Jesus said “You’ve got to sell it all, ’cause in your case that’s what’s blocking your heart.”
Zacchaeus came to Jesus with a heart full of gratitude already, utterly humiliating himself by running and climbing a tree like a little kid (and not caring), and voluntarily blurting out that he would give away half of everything – not because it would EARN him Jesus points but because it was already a reflection of his changing heart.
Zacchaeus’ heart had broken open.
The Rich Young Ruler’s heart was still closed. It wasn’t about the amount of money, it was the hold money held on his being. Unlike Zacchaeus, his path, or worldview, or orientation had not changed.
The Greek word for this is metanoia. Met-a-noy-ah. It means to have a change of mind, a new orientation – literally to go beyond the mind you currently have in favour of a new way to see the world – God’s way. One textbook described metanoia as “a fundamental change in thinking that leads to a fundamental change in behavior and/or way of living.”
That word, metanoia, got translated into English as repentance, and over time it accumulated a boat load of baggage. When I say repentance, or suggest that you may need to repent, you probably get a mental picture of some wild-eyed southern fundamentalist preacher screaming at you that you are a worthless sinner and your only choice is “to accept Ja-eez-us-ah” and to “turn or burn!”
Another possible translation is conversion, but that’s not much better in terms of abusive baggage.
The correct meaning of metanoia though means to come to see the world differently. There’s still a turning, there’s still a conversion – absolutely. But it isn’t so much about avoiding an eternity of sulphur and hellfire as it is about turning away from a path, or a worldview, or an understanding about how you think things are, that was harming you.
Repentance brings salvation – seeing things differently with a new or renewed mind (metanoia) brings deliverance from that which harms us.
Jesus recognized that Zacchaeus had been delivered from the way of life that was bringing him harm. Whether Jesus directly caused that to happen in some way or indirectly affected it through Zacchaeus’ striving to “see” the way that Jesus was inviting people into doesn’t really matter.
The Way of Jesus, the spirituality of Jesus, the presence-drawn life that Jesus embodied and invites us into brought salvation to Zacchaeus – even if Jesus didn’t zap him with a magic wand the encounter with Jesus still brought salvation.
Ok, here’s the thing. Metanoia, repentance, having your mind’s orientation changed, requires a very hard thing from us. In order to make the turn you have to die to the direction you were going in.
You have to die to the possessions, die to the bad habit, die to the thing that is preventing you from grasping the new life Jesus leads us to in God’s overflowing love.
That is exactly what Zacchaeus did. His running and tree climbing and restitution-making were all just outflow from his dying to what was and being renewed or reborn into his new way.
That’s what came to Zacchaeus’ house that day.
The Rich Young Ruler wanted to stay on his current trajectory and not let go of anything.
But God’s gifts require open hands.
The tax collector from last week got that. Zacchaeus up the tree got that.
I want to clear something up before I finish. It’s possible you may have misunderstood what I said about salvation and Jesus dying on the cross. Let me be clear.
Salvation absolutely requires a cross and a death.
And that’s precisely what we have in this story of Zacchaeus.
We’ll never know exactly at what point Zacchaeus experienced his metanoia – maybe it was climbing up the tree, maybe it was when Jesus acknowledged him and accepted his hospitality, or maybe it happened days earlier in prayer as he was contemplating things he had heard about Jesus and his teachings – and we know that he knew about Jesus because he was ardently seeking him that day.
At some point Zacchaeus, the no-good-dirty-rotten chief tax man who defrauded people regularly and got very rich doing so, had a massive and dramatic change of orientation. He died on the cross of his wicked ways and was reborn a new man with a new worldview.
You can’t have salvation without a cross.
You can’t have new life without dying to the old life.
That is a profound theological truth.
How this applies to you and I will be different for each and every one of us, and it’ll probably take a lot of hard-wrought prayer time to figure out. We tend to have a hard time seeing the things that are our own stumbling blocks – like that Rich Young Ruler did.
But that’s one of the reasons we come here – to work on lowering our guard and allowing God’s light to shine in our dark corners and show us the things we need to die to, in order to live. We come to work on our new orientation – our metanoia – and to support one another while we do it.
And as we do we come to the realization that it’s never just one thing but a series of things, perhaps never ending, always being revealed to us – things that we couldn’t see until we got deeper – things that we need to experience a metanoia about.
And when we do, and we get our new deeper mind, the process starts again.
Because more light reveals more stuff.
It is a lifelong rhythm of dying and rising and deepening that brings us closer and closer and closer to the heart of God.
This is why I love this story so much.
It takes us to the cross without the baggage of the cross that some people struggle with.
It shows us the meaning of repentance without the pointing finger of guilt.
Metanoia – to go beyond the mind you have and receive the mind of Christ.
If we can open our hand and receive this, then today salvation will surely come to this house.