Seeking and Finding – Nov. 10, 2019

Seeking and Finding

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Luke 19:1-10

November 10, 2019

Main Idea: Jesus seeks us

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen

It is impossible to read this text without hearing “Zacchaeus was a wee little man”.  So as a way of entering into today’s text we are going to sing the song, with the hand motions.  Ready?

Zacchaeus was a wee little man…

So, what does this song tells us?  What is its meaning?  Is it just a cute little story?  Children like this song because they know what it’s like to be small and they like to climb trees and they would be tickled pink to welcome Jesus into their home.  (They wouldn’t worry if the house was messy or if they had other plans or if they really deserved a visit.)  They would just be happy. Is that all this story is about?

The story of Zacchaeus is about this and so much more.  It is a story about seeking and finding, about appearances and assumptions.  It is a story about generosity and joy.  It is a story about our search for Jesus and the mind blowing truth that Jesus seeks us.  Let that sink in. Jesus seeks us.

First thing we learn in today’s Scripture text is that Jesus entered Jericho.  Jericho was notorious as a dangerous place. In the Old Testament book of Joshua, “Joshua cursed Jericho and anyone who tried to rebuild it and Rahab the [the woman of ill repute] was rescued from Jericho prior to its destruction.” (Mark Davis, The parable of the Good Samaritan is set on the dangerous road to Jericho.  The setting of this story leads us to believe that we are about to meet some unsavory characters.

Next we are introduced to a man named Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus means pure or righteous but we think “yeah right” because the next thing we learn is that he was a chief tax collector, a person who made his living collecting Roman taxes.  Oh, and by the way, he was rich.  Of course, he was.  Tax collectors had to pay the taxes upfront and then collect as much as possible from the people, usually pocketing all the surplus.  As a category, tax collectors were despised.  Chief tax collector? that much more.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus had lots to say about the rich, such as “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”,  and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”(18:25)  The story leads us to believe that Zacchaeus is a bad guy.

Now this tax collector Zacchaeus had a few unusual characteristics.  He wanted to see Jesus, exactly why we are not told, but we do learn that he was very determined.  We are told that he was short and unable to see around the crowd who had gathered.  So this short, rich man came up with plan. He ran down the road and climbed a sycamore tree so that he might see Jesus as Jesus passed by.  Let’s really picture this for a moment.  Sycamore trees have large low branches that make it easy to climb. Imagine a prosperous businessman, on the short side, dressed impeccably, [Danny DeVito in a 3 piece suit] running down the road, climbing a tree, and hanging from branches.  Think of how people would have laughed to see such a spectacle.  We smile just to imagine it.

When have we been that excited and determined to see Jesus? When have we taken a chance; overcoming obstacles, and risking foolishness? When have we ignored those who discount us or laughed at us?

At the silly sight of Zacchaeus hanging from a tree branch, Jesus doesn’t laugh. He sees Zacchaeus and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”(19:5b) Right now, not at a mutually convenient time and date, not maybe sometime in the future.  The first words Jesus speaks to Zacchaeus are a call to him, and he calls him by name.  “Come on Zacchaeus!  I’m staying with you today.”  This is the key moment of the story because it is Zacchaeus’ moment of decision.  Will he welcome in Jesus? It is one thing to want to learn more about someone.  It is quite another thing entirely to have that person come and stay at your house. Commentator Debie Thomas writes, “When did I last host Jesus in my own home — allowing him to open closed doors, touch my prized possessions, and explore those grimy corners he deliberately doesn’t give me time to clean up before he visits?” (Debie Thomas,  When have we noticed Jesus and welcomed him into our lives?

Zacchaeus was more than happy to welcome Jesus.  He jumped out of the tree full of joy. Zacchaeus was surprised by Jesus’ attention but he did not let the moment go by.  He brushed the twigs and leaves out of his hair and clothes and said, “Sure Jesus, come on over to my house!

At this point the story turns.  The crowd stops smiling and begins to murmur. No one is laughing anymore.  Instead, the crowd becomes angry and judgmental.  Who does Zacchaeus think he is?  Who does Jesus think he is? By going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus is putting himself on the wrong side of the good people. (not for the first time nor for the last!) How are we like the crowd? What are the assumptions we hold?  How do we judge people?  Obviously, tax collectors and people we don’t like are the bad guys, yes?  No?  In the 18th chapter of Luke, right before this one, Jesus tells the parable of the Religious Man and the Tax Collector in which the tax collector is the much more sympathetic character.  We can get caught in comfortable stereotypes that allow us to judge others without really getting to know them.

In the midst of all this murmuring, Zacchaeus speaks up. Traditionally this story has been read as one of repentance.  Zacchaeus was a horrible person until Jesus singles him out and then he repents of his evil ways, saying “Lord I will give half of my possessions to the poor and repay 4 times the amount of money that I have taken from people.”  This interpretation reinforces the assumptions made by the crowd.

But in the Greek, in verse 8, Zacchaeus speaks in the present tense.  He doesn’t repent and promise to give to the poor in the future.  He declares to Jesus and the crowd that he gives to the poor already!  He gives away half of his income and if he takes too much in taxes from someone, he repays them 4 times as much.  This extravagant generosity is quite unexpected by the crowd. They have assumed that Zacchaeus is a sinner and bad person based on his wealth and occupation but Jesus sees through to Zacchaeus’ innate goodness and worth. Zacchaeus is not a bad guy turned good.  He has been good all along!  It is the crowd who has acted badly.  Zacchaeus gave from his resources because he wanted too, not to burnish his reputation with the crowd. 

At this Jesus smiles. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”(19:9) Jesus was not fooled by Zacchaeus’ appearance. Despite being rich and a tax collector,  Zacchaeus is deemed righteous by Jesus, thus living up to the meaning of his name.

Now the best part of the story is that after all the effort Zacchaeus makes in order to see Jesus; running, climbing, making a fool of himself, it turns out that Jesus was looking for him, calling him by name!   At the end of today’s text, Jesus says “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (v. 10).  Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus just as Jesus seeks each one of us.

So what can we learn from this encounter between Jesus and this wee little man?

1. We can take risks and be creative about how to achieve our goals.  Zacchaeus was not discouraged by the crowds obstructing his view nor by the crowd’s disdain.  He found a way to Jesus.  In our lives obstacles sometimes spring up; illness, stress, lack of resources, lack of time.  These obstacles cannot keep us from Jesus. 

2. We don’t use assumptions to exclude others.  The crowd thought they knew who Zacchaeus was. They were wrong. Zacchaeus thought that Jesus would walk on by.  He was wrong. In our polarized world assumptions keep us divided and unable to hear ideas different from our own. Jesus loves to spend time with outsiders.  Jesus calls us out there.

3. We can give of our resources joyfully and generously.  Zacchaeus shared his wealth quietly and faithfully.  He welcomed Jesus with joy and we can imagine that he shared with others just as joyfully.  In this Stewardship season we are determining our financial pledges for the coming year.   This is a joyous opportunity to share in the ministries of this congregation. Jesus calls us to participate with him in caring for the world.

Finally, we need not worry about a little foolishness. Zacchaeus did not let the laughter of the crowd deter him from running and climbing the tree. Sometimes we are asked to try something that seems silly or out of the ordinary, in order to show God’s love in the world.  It may mean speaking out about important topics.  It may mean spending time with strangers.  It may include climbing trees. 

Most importantly, let us remember that as we seek to serve God in this world, Jesus seeks for us, reaches out to us, and calls us by name. 

Let us pray,

God of tree branches and of joy, we praise you for your constant care for us.  Empower us to seek you with energy and enthusiasm. Open our hearts so that we might hear Jesus’ call to us.  We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.