When sinners like Zacchaeus are ostracized by the crowd, Jesus asks us to see them and widen our circle of inclusion.
Vicar Kelly Sandin
The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 31 C
Text: Luke 19:1-10
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
A friend once told me that people aren’t all bad. Yet, we want to categorize other humans into neat packages of good or bad. It justifies our position. It allows us to continue our hate or mistrust or dislike. If we ever do see good in what is perceived as a bad person, we find it hard to believe. We don’t want it to be true because it’s much less confounding that way. It messes with our easy system of good versus bad so we dismiss the possibility.
If you remember the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, he had a scale for the golden goose egg. It determined whether it was good or bad. There was nothing in-between. If it was bad, down the chute the egg goes. If it was good, well then it was a wonderful chocolate Easter treat! Even Veruca, one of the main characters in Willy Wonka, ended up down the bad egg chute for singing a Wonka treat coveting song. If you were like me, you rather enjoyed seeing the scale judge her in such a way.
The problem is how quickly we want to write each other off with any perceived notion of a character flaw, a mistake, an infraction of what would be deemed socially unacceptable, or simply because the person rubbed us wrong that from that point on we’ll have nothing to do with them. We don’t want to see them. They’re bad eggs. Down the chute they go.
Zacchaeus’ life was like this. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. The text makes sure to include this description – chief tax collector and rich. He was deemed a bad egg and rightly so. Being a chief tax collector meant you were an entrepreneur. To collect taxes in a certain territory you’d pay a select amount of money in advance to the Roman government to work that area. It was kind of like leasing property. Then, as chief tax collector, you’d get a team of people to work for you who actually collected the taxes. They did the dirty work. The point in all this was to make a profit. All the middle men needed to get paid while still paying the Roman government the taxes that were owed. So, of course, the system was oppressive with excessive taxes. The common folk were being robbed by their own people, Jewish tax collectors, who were traitors working for the Roman Empire.
This, apparently, was the life of Zacchaeus. But, was he all bad?
What if he was just trying to make a living? He could have had a family to care for. Children to feed. We don’t know. It’s probable. We might do this job if it meant providing food for our family. We have no idea what Zacchaeus went through. People get desperate. But, given the business he was in the crowd would choose not to see him. They wouldn’t care to know his story. He was a bad egg and that’s all there was to it. He made a living in an unacceptable way and therefore was an outcast living on the margins of society, even as a rich man. No one wanted anything to do with him. Until Jesus came along.
What had Zacchaeus heard about Jesus that made him so eager to see him? Had he already met him? Was Zacchaeus among the large crowd of tax collectors in Luke 5 who ate with Jesus at Levi the tax collector’s house? The tax collector whom Jesus saw sitting at his tax booth and simply said, “Follow me” and immediately Levi left everything and followed. Where also in this same scene Jesus responded to the complaining Pharisees and their scribes with “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Had this possible first encounter with Jesus planted seeds of reform in Zacchaeus? Were there other stories circulating that had Zacchaeus willing to run ahead of Jesus and the crowd, a grown man, and then climb a tree to get a better view? He was certainly putting himself out there for ridicule. Apparently, though, none of that mattered. He got to see Jesus and in turn Jesus saw him.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” It sure seemed like Jesus and Zacchaeus were old friends. And if Zacchaeus had been at Levi’s dinner party, then perhaps they were. Since Jesus was in the business of seeing tax collectors and joining them for a meal, he called Zacchaeus to make haste and come down. There was urgency in his voice.
Zacchaeus was needed.
One minute Zacchaeus is perched on a limb above the marching crowd to get a better glimpse and the next minute Jesus publically calls his name and invites himself over! He was taken out of the limb and given solid ground.
Not only is he seen by Jesus, he’s pulled out of the margins so the crowd is forced to see him, too. And in front of all those grumbling, Zacchaeus is given opportunity to tell his story. “Half 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.”
Through an encounter with Jesus who sees Zacchaeus and offers new life, Zacchaeus is now able to truly see his neighbors and love.
He is transformed.
Will his new way of being impact the other tax collectors who worked for Zacchaeus? Will they change their ways? Perhaps they were also at Levi’s banquet with Jesus and the seeds had already been sown. Is it possible, with this being Jesus’ last stop before Jerusalem, that the other tax collectors would also see who they were oppressing, their own people, and reform could have come upon Jericho? Setting the crowd free, to love and see?
In today’s polarized political climate, we are guilty of wanting to point out how horrible others are because of the views they hold. We can’t seem to see the good in anyone if they behave or believe in a way that’s different from our own. In fact, we often dismiss any possibility of good or refuse to give the benefit of the doubt as a fuel to keep our animosity burning. Of course there’s legitimate evil in this world, but in our day to day life people get misunderstood or labeled for all kinds of reasons and their stories don’t get told because we don’t want to give them the time of day. We’d rather send them down the bad egg chute.
However, God models a different way, more difficult, yes, but one that doesn’t allow us to write each other off so easily.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus and welcomed him into the circle, even as a chief tax collector. And while the crowd might have booed at first, Zacchaeus was provided a platform to speak. And on that day salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house.
Until God breaks in to help us see. Until we truly hear another’s story. Until we are able to see the personhood in the other, it’s hard to reconcile. We want to keep the scale of good or bad as our only options. But, hearing one another’s story opens the door for healing, of the other and ourselves.
In life we have opportunities where God nudges us to see the other and widen our circle of inclusion. To extend the life-giving love of Christ. To see as God sees everyone, neither all good nor bad, but loved, like Zacchaeus hanging on the limb of a Sycamore tree.