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.’
When I was eight, or maybe ten, I had a moment of insight I've never forgotten. It was Christmas Day, and we were eating a huge Christmas Dinner. I was on my way back to the sideboard in the dining room to get a third serve of my Mum's jellied peaches. Something stopped my. Mum found me standing there, staring into the peaches. And when she asked what was wrong, all I could say was, “I thought Christmas would be more than this.”
I couldn't explain it any more than that. I know now it was like my first sighting of all the absurdity of the world- all the things that don't add up and leave us wondering what on earth it was all about. That problem never fully goes away.
I remember, at 15, 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 remember a speaker at a church rally coming up to me later; he had seen me paying more attention than anyone of a hundred other people. I felt so close to finding some meaning, so close to understanding, but couldn't see...
Is 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. Each of their stories shines a light on the other's stories. We miss something if we take each story alone.
It begins with the ruler. He is seriously seeking to "inherit the kingdom." A lot of people came up to Jesus asking questions to trap him, or maybe just find out how well he knew his stuff. The rich young ruler is absolutely genuine in his question. He's serious about God. He's been keeping all the law for years. He told Jesus, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ 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 the answers to life, or inherit the kingdom as he puts it... but then finds the cost is more than they are prepared to pay.
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!” he says to the disciples. (18:24) People thought at the time that being rich was a sign of God's blessing, so this was a real surprise to them. ‘Then who can be saved?’ they asked. Jesus says, essentially, that it is not possible for the rich to be saved without the intervention of God. (18:26)
Then there is a little break in the stories. We get reminded that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and that has a cost too! He hammers home the cost of following him. Cost goes beyond mere money. The ultimate cost of everything God has planned being "accomplished" is life itself. (18:32) Riches are the problem for this particular young man, but in the end, following will be costing not less than everything. (TS Eliot)
Then our three stories move on. The rich young ruler could not see how to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He was blinded by his riches, we might say.
Another man who literally cannot see, is sitting by the road side. NRSV translates the Greek word hodon as road. In other parts of the New Testament hodon clearly means Way... with a capital W. The Way; that is, Jesus' way. The blind beggar is unable to make progress along the Way to life, because he cannot see. He is not rich or powerful. In fact, he lives at the opposite end of the social spectrum; he is a beggar. He is unclean and should stay away from a holy man like Jesus. But he persists in calling out to Jesus, despite the people calling him to be quiet.
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,” says Luke. Do you understand how blind and seeing are metaphors? They are symbols for understanding who Jesus is- or not. The story of the blind man might imply that we have only really seen Jesus if we follow him.
And so we come to Zacchaeus. The previous two stories have prepared us for the story of Zaccheus. Because... Zacchaeus is also rich and powerful.
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 traditionally take this to mean Zacchaeus was short. Was he? Maybe Jesus was very short, so Zacchaeus could not see him over the crowd... 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, unrighteous 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!
Something in Zacchaeus 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. Somehow, he saw. In Luke's telling of this story, Jesus does not need to lecture Zacchaeus about what he must do. Zacchaeus is different to the rich man, who needs to ask. Zacchaeus 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, could not see. Those who were beggars saw. God even came, on one reading, to someone who was not the least bit interested.
What about me, though? What happened to me with all my longing to see and understand that I began this sermon with?
I couldn't see. But I could see enough to think that if this God and Jesus stuff was true, then I was going the wrong way. I could not understand it all, but I “got” that much.
Then I had a strange experience.
I was working in another culture; essentially as a missionary. And one night, in a bible study, the white missionaries began talking about the things the Pitjantjatjara people with whom we worked, needed to give up to fully embrace Christianity.
Something about this got to me. “This kind of implies we've got it all right,” I thought. “I don't think we have. Our culture gets in the way of following Jesus too.” And I asked myself, “I wonder what we're supposed to give up?"
I heard a clear voice reply in my head, not just a thought, but a real voice so clear that it sounded like my ears had heard it- although I knew they hadn't. It was so startling I almost jumped. It replied "What you need to do Andrew, is give up 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. I could not understand what that meant. I could not, and and I cannot, ignore my intellect, and what it tells me. To ignore my intellect would be to reject the gift of God.
Then I went through theological college. I was still trying to see, and to understand. Another strange thing happened. 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. I'd find books and articles found by accident. I'd have insights that had little or nothing to do with what I was reading.
I remember grumbling that it seemed like I was hardly making any progress, and what progress I was making was almost despite college, or at least had not much to do with the work they gave.
I had no riches. I was a blind beggar and a sinner. I was often looking in the wrong place, and yet God simply gave.
I think I've learned a lesson... or maybe I should say an insight has been given to me! The thing that's blinding me is not my money so much, it's my brain and pride. I don't have to stop thinking. But I do have to stop thinking that I'm going to work it all out. Just like for Zacchaeus and the blind beggar, God will give me what I need to see.
And like Zacchaeus and the blind beggar, I can accept what I am given, and follow Jesus. Or... I can be like the rich young ruler. I can refuse to give up my riches. I can insist that my fairly clever brain is going to work it all out, without God. I am not going to trust. I'm going to work out the answers to life myself. I've begun to see, that like the rich young ruler, that will make me very sad.
What are you holding on to? What do you really treasure?
Think about that. Then think about what you long for. In your best moments, and in your innermost self, what do you really want? Is it worth your riches?
Andrew Prior Oct 28 2010
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!
Would you like to comment?
Click to add feedback