Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
From Jerusalem, perched 2500 feet above sea level, it is all downhill to Jericho, 850 feet below sea level. That makes for a hot, muggy place, but Jericho is shaded by palm trees and watered by cool springs. Jericho produces the best fruits and veggies you’ll find anywhere. And Jericho has been around for a long time—at least 11,000 years. Jericho is a land flowing with milk and honey.
That’s what the children of Israel thought when they emerged from the wilderness and marched around Jericho’s walls. Mark Antony thought so too. He gave Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra, tossing in Arabia as an afterthought. Cleo leased Jericho out to King Herod, charging him half the yearly profits of all Judea.
And how do you suppose Herod skimmed off enough cash to pay the mortgage? Look no further than one man who had his boney fists wrapped around the throats of every workingman in Jericho—Zacchaeus, the government’s chief tax collector of the area. Zacchaeus, poster boy of the One Percent. Zacchaeus, least popular man in the Jericho Rotary Club.
Zacchaeus and his cronies taxed every orange and grapefruit shipped out of Jericho. Three little words from Luke tell you all you need to know about Zacchaeus: “He was rich!” Reviled and avoided, Zacchaeus had no reputation left to protect and few friends. Then Jesus came to town.
Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard some of Jesus’ stories, like the one Jesus told of two men who went up to the temple to pray…a Pharisee and a tax collector. Maybe he heard about that rich guy who longed to follow Jesus, but who couldn’t give up his wealth. He probably knew that one of his old colleagues at the IRS, Matthew, left the path of legalized robbery to follow Jesus. Whatever the case, Zacchaeus rushed to the street with all his neighbors when the cry went out: “Jesus is coming!”
In a crowd, Zaccheus had to watch out for a flying elbow or a well-thrown orange. And then there was the matter of his height—Zacchaeus wouldn’t stand in a crowd simply to stare at the back of somebody’s head. When he saw one of Jericho’s famous sycamore figs, he threw dignity to the wind, hiked up his designer robes and shinnied up to get a better view as Jesus passed. The crowd came on like a wave and there was Jesus, riding the crest of all that action.
Then, amidst the shouting and singing, Jesus stopped and looked up at the place where Zacchaeus perched like some over-dressed buzzard. He called out “Zacchaeus, get down here at once! I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus almost fell out of the tree. He wasn’t used to people ordering him around, but down the tree he came, robe a-kilter, legs scratched, sandals tucked into his pockets. They hugged like old friends and that shrimp of a tax collector appeared to grow six inches.
The grumbling began at once. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Jesus is going to Zacchaeus’ house? That’s the last place he should go. What a sellout! What self-respecting rabbi would speak, much less break bread with a vulture like Zacchaeus?”
Jesus ignored it all and off they all went to Zacchaeus’s house, with its shaded porch overlooking the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Something big happened at that meal. Before supper was over, that bloated, blood-sucking, money-loving Zacchaeus stood before Jesus and pledged to give away half of his possession to the poor, “AND,” he said, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Something big changed in Zacchaeus, no denying that. One meal with Jesus, and things were different for Zacchaeus. He morphed from being a taker to a giver. He started printing money like the Federal Reserve. He signed up to help more people on Day One than Obamacare. Jesus’ words describe it best: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
This is a story about God—about Jesus, whose eyes are wide open; Jesus, who notices everything that happens; Jesus, who scans the crowd for a lost sheep, for someone who is sick, for one carrying a burden of pain. Jesus had his eye on the disciples before they noticed him. He felt the touch of a sick woman who fought through a crowd and grasped the hem of his garment. He heard the voice of the blind beggar who called out to him from the crowd as he entered Jericho.
God sees you. God knows your need. God stops right where you are and calls your name. God says, “Come on down from that place you’re trying to hide, I must stay at your place today.”
God sees beyond our supposed resources all the way to our deepest need. God loves the poor; God loves the rich. God loves our friends. God loves our enemies. God loves us just as we are, but God also loves us too much to allow us to remain “as we are.”
And this is a story about people, about us. Fred Buechner writes:
He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds (us) of all the others too. There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s…Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time.
And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter…Like Zaccheus, they’re all of them peculiar…and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zaccheus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too. Why are they treasured? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it-that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them at their best to be…”