The Mystery of Grace

Sunday 31 October Pentecost 23
Gospel: 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 sycomore 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.’

I remember as a teenage boy being very clear that there was something wrong with the world. I was sure there was an answer that had something to do with Jesus, but could not see it. I was desperate to understand, and to see what the answer was.  I felt so close to finding some meaning, so close to understanding, but could not see. Jesus, and the meaning of the world, and my future, remained a mystery.

This is the agony of three people we meet in Luke. They are the rich young ruler (18:18-30, a blind beggar so poor he is never even named (18:35-43), and Zacchaeus, a tax collector.(19:1-10). Each of these three have a problem, and each inform the others’ stories. We miss something if we take each story alone.

It begins with the ruler. He is seriously seeking to "inherit the kingdom." When he realises the cost, in verse 23, he is sad. This is not someone seeking to justify themselves, this is someone who truly wants to see.

Jesus makes very clear that the key problem for him, is his money. “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24) Essentially it is not possible without the intervention of God. (18:26)

In a hammering home of the cost, and taking cost beyond riches, Jesus then tells his disciples the ultimate cost of everything being "accomplished." (18:32) Riches are the problem for this young man, but in the end, following Jesus will be costing not less than everything. (Eliot, Little Gidding)

The story moves on. Another man who literally cannot see, is sitting by the road.  NRSV translates the Greek hodon as road. It is often translated as the Way. The blind beggar is sitting by the Way, unable to make progress because he cannot see.  He is not rich or powerful. In fact, he lives at the opposite end of the social spectrum. But he persists in calling out to Jesus, despite the people calling him to be quiet, and Jesus responds

Is it significant that the rich man wanted to inherit eternal life ?  Was his inheritance one more thing he was going to "own?" By contrast, the beggar asked only that he might see, and this was given to him.  This seeing, his being saved had nothing to do with riches. He did nothing but desire to see. It was given to him.

As soon as he was able to see, he "followed him."

And so we come to Zacchaeus. Like the ruler Zacchaeus is rich and powerful, but he is not righteous in his keeping of the law (I have kept all these since my youth.) He is a sinner, exploiting his people cruelly. Yet even he was trying to see who Jesus was...

[After publishing this page, I came across a piece of bible trivia, via a colleague called Fred Kane. So I've rewritten some lines:]

This is a symbol, a careful choice of words. He was not simply short. It does not say he could not see Jesus. He could not see who Jesus was.

Both Zacchaeus and the blind beggar knew they did not know, and could not see. The rich man came to Jesus not knowing he did not know. "Good Teacher," he said, assuming he knew who, and what,  Jesus was. Riches blind us. Even the blind man, who cried out "Jesus, Son of David," had seen more of Jesus than the rich an man.

Something in Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus meant he was not bound by his riches. He was able to give them up. He did what the rich man was asked to do and could not. Somehow, he saw.

Update: And Zacchaeus also could not see Jesus. He was blind, too. Yet he was trying to see who Jesus was... just like the blind man wanted to see Jesus. Or was he?

There are a couple of things to say here. One is bible trivia. It says Zacchaeus could not see Jesus in the crowd because he was short in stature. We always take this to mean Zacchaeus was short. Was he? Maybe Jesus was very short, so Zacchaeus could not see him... and that's why he climbed the tree! But regardless of who was the short one, it does not change the meaning of what is said.

There is a symbol and another ambiguity here which are designed to make us think. We have already decided being blind and seeing are symbols. But note also what else is said in this careful choice of words by Luke. Zacchaeus, or Jesus was not simply short. It does not say he could not see Jesus. It says he could not see who Jesus was.

What might this mean? Does it mean Zacchaeus knew about Jesus, knew he had something to say, but could not properly see what Jesus was on about? On this reading, he didn't understand who Jesus really was; that is Son of David, God's anointed one, the one bringing news of the Kingdom of God. And on this reading, as soon as he sees fully, or clearly, he repents and changes his ways, and gives up his riches. That fits with the traditional understanding I've always had.

Or does it mean there was a big crowd making a fuss about something, and Zacchaeus had no idea what was going on; either because he was too short to see, or Jesus was so short he was hidden by the crowd. On this reading, Zacchaeus is just a busybody, as well as a tax collector. “Who's this? Is this someone I can get money out of,” he wondered. So he climbed up a tree to find out what was happening.

And when Jesus came past, he looked up and saw a grubby rich man, not the least bit interested in God, just interested in money. And invited himself to lunch. So Zacchaeus was even more blind than the beggar. He was so blind he didn't even know it. And yet God came, and God gave.

And Zacchaeus, in complete contrast to that other rich and righteous man, gave up his wealth.

As an aside, my colleague Bill Loader says he hoped that Zacchaeus had never overcharged by much more that 12%... because that meant he would pretty soon be broke paying back all that money four times over!

[Back to the original text] In Luke's telling of story, Jesus does not need to lecture Zacchaeus about what he must do. Zacchaeus is different to the rich man, who needs to ask. He comes down from the tree, happy to welcome Jesus.  He says, as a result of Jesus accepting him, that he will give half his possessions to the poor, and pay back four times over what he had defrauded. Like the blind beggar, he has seen, and responded.

This series of stories might be called the Mystery of Grace.  The one who had power, and who kept the law, and appeared to be of God, could not see.  Those who were beggars, obvious sinners in the eyes of the people, saw.

My own eventual seeing was undeserved. It was not my work. It was given to me.

After my commitment to God, I went and worked in another culture; essentially as a missionary.  One night in a bible study, a group of anglo people were talking about the things the Pitjantjatjara people with whom we worked needed to give up, to fully embrace Christianity. Thick as I am, this still struck me as presumptuous on our part!  I thought to myself, as people chatted, "Yeah, and I wonder what we're supposed to give up?" A voice in my head, so clear that it sounded like my ears had heard, so startling I almost jumped, replied "What you need to give up Andrew, is your intellect." It was rather akin to the rich man being asked to give up his riches!

That voice, and what it meant, bothered me for years.  It was a clear statement that I could not reason my way to seeing God, but I did not know, and could not see, what that might mean. I could not, and cannot, ignore my intellect and what it tells me.

I went through theological college constantly surprised, and sometimes irritated, that I would study and struggle, and yet so much of what I learned seemed to be stuff across which I stumbled “happenstance,” almost despite my study; books and articles found by accident; realizations that seemed to have little to do with the subject at hand. I had no riches. I was a beggar and a sinner.  God simply gave.

All I had was a desire to see who Jesus was. And perhaps like Zacchaeus on his less worthy days, there were many times I could not be bothered climbing the tree, and trying to see one more time, who Jesus was.  There were times I was tempted to let Jesus walk by on the other side of the road, unseen and unchallenging.  And like the rich young ruler, there were times I simply wished to keep what I had, instead of constantly giving up, and being changed.  In all this, God gave. I was looking for God, I thought, but God came looking for me.  In my current position, I have been shaken and challenged and changed.  Yet I did not apply for this job.  It was never expected. It was just given, and the work came unplanned.

Who knows how God works? For me there only are two things to do. One is to keep trying to see.  The other is to pray I might be like Zacchaeus and the beggar, able to respond.  May I not fall in love with my own petty riches!

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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