Threading the Needle of Faithfulness

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Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “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.”

Today’s text is the perfect example of how biblical translators can mess with our interpretation by messing with verb tenses. Seriously.

If we accept the translation we just heard from the New Revised Standard Version, this text from Luke 19 is a clean, classic repentance story.

If we accept the NRSV translation, this is a pretty straightforward text.

Rich man meets Jesus.

Rich man is blessed by Jesus.

Rich man repents and goes on to live a generous life.

Can’t get much more straightforward than that. And it would also make a great text for a stewardship sermon, by the way.

Unfortunately, the NRSV translation is most likely incorrect.

If you do a translation from the Greek, and listen to Greek scholars, who are much better at translation than any of us, you will discover that NRSV’s addition of one little word in verse 8 changes everything about this text.

In a more accurate translation, Zacchaeus doesn’t make a promise to Jesus.

He doesn’t promise to give half of what he owns to the poor and repay what he has stolen four times over.

A better translation of the Greek would suggest these are generous actions Zacchaeus is already doing. In the present tense, not the future.

A better translation of verse 8 would be:

8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”

 Not, “I will give.”

Not “I will pay”

By the time Jesus arrives in Jericho, his last stop before he enters into Jerusalem, Zacchaeus is already making donations to the poor.

 What this says to me is that we have another tax collector on our hands this week who isn’t necessarily what he appears to be. This tax collector, Zacchaeus is a complicated human being who doesn’t fit the easy stereotype of the rich man who decides to loosen his purse strings after an encounter with Jesus.

In fact, the tax collector in our story today isn’t even an unnamed, ordinary tax collector like the man we saw praying last week in the temple.

Zacchaeus is the boss man, the chief tax collector.  I know children’s Sunday school songs refer to him as a cute, wee Zacchaeus, but…make no mistake. Zacchaeus is a very big cheese.

The chief tax collectors colluded with the Roman government and routinely took advantage of ordinary citizens.

And it was common practice for the chief tax collector to skim a percentage off the top of the collected cash to line his own pocket.

That was the system. Zacchaeus sat near the top of that system. And the system made him a very wealthy man.

In other words, when we think about Zacchaeus, we need to revise our Sunday school image of the adorable wee man in the tree. Instead, think corrupt subprime mortgage agents on steroids.[1]

The tax collector we saw praying in the temple last week was merely hated. Zacchaeus was very likely the most despised man in his community. We can hear that hatred in the text as the crowd grumbles about Jesus hanging out with the very worst sinner you can imagine.

To be fair, the Gospel of Luke would lead us to believe that the grumbling of the crowd is entirely justified. Luke has very few kind words for rich people like Zacchaeus.

At the very beginning of the gospel, we hear Jesus’ mother Mary singing,

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

Throughout Luke, Jesus blesses the poor but challenges the rich. In chapter 6, Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Jesus talks about the poor man Lazarus who goes to heaven and the rich man languishing in hell.  And right before entering Jericho in chapter 19, Jesus tells a rich man how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God and that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

We remember the rich man walks away from Jesus with sadness in his eyes because he likes being rich and can’t imagine giving it all away. In comparison, today’s rich man, Zacchaeus scrambles up a tree to get closer to Jesus.

So how can Zacchaeus thread that needle of faithfulness while being part of a corrupt and brutal system that has made him very rich?

Impossible, right? Who then can be saved?

Well, as Jesus says, what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.

Let’s think about this.

Luke makes a point of telling us Zacchaeus was a short guy. And I wonder why that detail is included in this story? How does knowing Zacchaeus’ height tell us anything?

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that a younger Zacchaeus was the kind of kid who might have been picked on or bullied by other, taller kids in his community. Centuries come and centuries go, but schoolyard bullies never go away.

In addition to being short, Zacchaeus must have also been pretty intelligent. “He’s so good with numbers!” his parents said.  Skilled at record keeping. And with that kind of flinty, resilient attitude that you often see in the runt of the litter.

So this smart, short, tough kid who was good with numbers grew up to become the chief tax collector. Finally, Zacchaeus could move through life knowing that although everybody hated him, nobody would mess with him. Because now big brawny Roman soldiers had Zacchaeus’ back.

Yet, being a successful chief tax collector meant Zacchaeus’ social standing in his community is as diminished as his physical stature. Despite his significant wealth, he feels small. He may no longer suffer from bullies, but he very likely lives a lonely life.

If we accept the Greek translation of this text, it could be that Zacchaeus’ unlikely generosity to the poor may be in response to his feelings of being less than other people. Zacchaeus may have felt kinship with those who were as marginalized and despised as he. Caught in a corrupt system not of his own making, maybe he used the system to the advantage of those who could not access the privilege he enjoyed. Perhaps he even used his God-given brains to pay back those he was obligated to cheat in such a clever fashion, the Romans never caught on.

The crowd around Jesus and Zacchaeus must have been astonished by the announcement. Nobody could have guessed that the most despised man in town was also the most generous. While the grumbling Pharisees merely tithed, that sinner Zacchaeus gave 5 times that.

Who’d have thunk it? People are not always what they appear to be.

Zacchaeus reminds me of a character from “The Big Short” – a movie about the 2008 financial meltdown. In many ways, it is sort of a depressing movie because it reminds us of what went on before the financial system blew up, and how little has really changed since then.  But many of the characters seem to be beacons of something like goodness even in the midst of complete corruption.

The character who reminds me of Zacchaeus is Mark Baum, played hilariously by Steve Cottrell. Mark Baum works for a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley, but he is also an idealist who is fed up with the corruption in the financial industry. Because he is smart and can see  what everyone else seems to be missing – which is how recklessly bankers are behaving — Baum is able to figure out how to profit from their treachery.

Yet, throughout the movie, you can see how Baum is conflicted about benefiting from the downfall of the economy. Even as Baum made millions of dollars from shorting the housing market, you get the sense from him that money isn’t really the point.

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Steve EIsman was the inspiration for the Mark Baum character in the movie, “The Big Short.”

Baum’s interest is in seeing justice done to the financial institutions who are deliberately bilking homebuyers by giving them mortgages they can’t afford. And from Baum’s perspective, the only way to see justice done is to cause pain to the banks the only place it is possible to hurt them – on their balance sheets.

So Zacchaeus is a highly imperfect man moving within a totally corrupt system. Yet, like Mark Baum, it seems he is able to play that same system to benefit the people it victimizes.

Luke doesn’t really tell us why Zacchaeus showed up this particular day in Jericho to see Jesus.

But one thing is for sure. Jesus recognized Zacchaeus immediately.

Predictably the religious leaders and others in the crowd “grumble” about Jesus passing by all the “holy” people and deciding to have dinner with a “sinner” like Zachaeus instead.

But since this is Jesus we’re talking about, we shouldn’t be at all surprised.

In scripture, over and over again, we hear stories about Jesus recognized all kinds of imperfect people – lost sheep, prodigal sons, the lame, the lepers, a poor man covered with sores, a widow confronting a judge, and over the past two weeks, repugnant tax collectors.  It is as if Jesus is compelling us to take another look at the folks we would likely pass by or avoid entirely.

Yet, Jesus is holding up all these people not as objects for us to save, but as victims of systems that do not correspond to God’s rule of justice and abundance.  Systems that bully, exploit, and kill the soul.

Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus in that tree and sees the heart of a man who has done what he can to be honorable in a system that is anything but.

Jesus looks up and sees the heart of a man that has done his best to hang on, to survive with his humanity intact, despite being despised by his community.

Jesus looks up and recognizes Zacchaeus as one who has managed to be a small, quiet glimmer of light in a dark and despairing world.

Jesus looks up and doesn’t see a short, nerdy kid who somehow survived the humiliation of bullies and grew up to become a rich man.

Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus perched on the branch of a Sycamore, calls Zacchaeus by name, and sees him as he truly is:  a Son of Abraham, a child of God.

And Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ call with joy, the joy that comes from being fully recognized, fully known and fully loved. His response to Jesus’ call is the classic response of faith – the great and glorious YES when we accept God’s gracious invitation to come to the table and be in relationship with all of God’s family.

We don’t know what happens to Zacchaeus after his time with Jesus. There are some traditions that say he became an apostle or a bishop. Perhaps, the healing Zacchaeus receives from Jesus is a restoration of his place in the community.

All we really know is salvation came to Zacchaeus house, because Jesus came to his house. All we can know for certain is Zacchaeus will never be the same.

And Jesus still comes to us.

How can we, who are impossibly rich compared to the rest of world and who are also part of corrupt, unjust and inequitable systems, how can we thread the needle?

Like Zacchaeus, we are all participants in systems that are often life-draining and inhuman. And we have choices about what we are to do with that reality.

Like Zacchaeus, we carry scars of hearing voices tell us we are not enough, we are too small, too insignificant. Jesus sees who we are, treasures our scars, and works even through our brokenness.

Like Zacchaeus we are called by Jesus to move from being distant observers to become faithful disciples.

We’re about to sing one of my favorite hymns, “Will you come and follow me,” which celebrates how Jesus calls us by name so that his life can be grown in us.

It is a call that involves taking up the cross and to “risk the hostile stare” that Zacchaeus knew all too well.

It is a call to love in actions which open our eyes to the hearts of the captive and blind and even the lepers in our midst.

It is a call to have faith in our God-given identity that can conquer our inner fears of climbing down and getting into the work of Jesus.

The hymn ends with a prayer for strength to follow Jesus and ‘never be the same’.

For in responding to Christ’s call to love, we move and live and grow in him and he in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

To listen to: “Will Your Come and Follow Me? (The Summons)

https://youtu.be/o469PRLdbHU

[1] Johnson, Elizabeth E. Feasting on the Word, Volume 4, Year C. 260

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