2 Thessalonians 1: 1-3, 11-12, Psalm 119 past 6, Luke 19: 1-10
Luke has taken us deeply to the heart of the message that Jesus repeatedly taught -that God’s love and redemption is meant for all kinds of people – the poor, the blind, the lame, men, women and children, lawyers and fisher folks and even those who may have earned their wealth through corruption. Everyone can be redeemed or saved. Jesus also knows that the disciples and his followers didn’t always get or appreciate his message which led to some loud grumbling. Negativity and complaining wasn’t invented by the developers of social media or election campaigns but has long been part of the human repertoire of emotions, first heard so loudly by God during the Israelite’s time wandering in the wilderness.
As Jesus draws closer to Jerusalem, bringing his public ministry closer to its end and as we move towards the end of the Christian year at the end of November, there are some clear teachings found in this simple story of Zacchaeus climbing up in the sycamore tree, whether we are the person clinging on to a tree branch for dear life, or whether we are one of the disciples or the crowd who are annoyed with Jesus’ choice of friends. The story identifies Zacchaeus right away as the chief tax collector who was rich – and unpopular!
As the chief tax collector, the crowd would know that he was very rich and that his wealth was earned off of their backs in order to pay the Roman Empire and not only that, they would know that he would have been skimming off the top for years, taking a hefty ‘commission’ for his efforts. He was not just the owner of a small franchise of “Pay Day Loans” but he was the owner of the whole company!
I am certain that you can imagine any number of wealthy individuals in our society that have earned their wealth through corrupt practices, for some paving the way into politics and powerful elites, while others use their privilege to amass ridiculous amounts of wealth. It’s good to remind ourselves however that Jesus is not against wealth or money, but how it is shared and used to further the goals of God’s kingdom, justice and peace. He would likely wonder ‘does that wealth benefit the whole community or just satisfy the greed of the individual?’
So you can understand why there is an extreme bias against Zacchaeus and why the crowd is upset with Jesus for noticing him way up in the tree and calling him down, even inviting himself to his house. “So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” Hospitality is another important theme throughout Luke’s gospel, the way in which Jesus makes new friends and builds relationships and not just with people he already knows and likes, like his disciples and his friends, but people he doesn’t even know and that might be unpopular or even social outcasts and sinners.
We can recall how Jesus invited himself to the home of the two people that walked with him to Emmaus on Easter morning, Cleopas and another person, accepting the invitation to stay in their home and breaking bread with them. In that moment of breaking bread, they suddenly understood in their hearts and minds who Jesus was and what Jesus had live and died for. In the breaking of bread they understood what the purpose of his whole ministry had been.
It is good to keep that in mind when you find your mind drifting towards anger, dislike or even hatred for certain people, or groups of people. We are invited and called even to see the world through the lens of Jesus’ vision if we are going to progress as human societies where peace, understanding and cooperation can grow. It’s an especially good practice in these very divided days where political ideologies are moving people against each other and instead to try to discover common ground and visions that will improve life, reduce suffering and maybe even save our entire planet.
While the disciples and the crowd are grumbling, we hear how Zacchaeus is actually a pretty decent guy, unlike the rich young ruler that Jesus had previously encountered, a story found in Chapter 18, who was unable to part with any of his wealth to further God’s kingdom. In the Jewish religion, it is not enough just to say you know the laws, what God requires, but that you act on those beliefs – values that are carried over into Christianity – “actions speak louder than words” you mother may have taught you. Zacchaeus knew that he had too much wealth that was not earned by honest means and so he intends to give away even more than the law would require – “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.” Where the law would require him to pay back what he owed, maybe twice would be sufficient, but he declares his intention to pay back four times as much!” He is well on his way towards salvation, towards being welcomed to God’s kingdom, finding his seat at the holy banquet.
Economic justice is another key theme in Luke’s gospel which is introduced early on by John the Baptist in Luke, ch 3, when John describes how a person can prepare themselves to be welcomed into God’s kingdom by Jesus, to be called a child of Abraham. The repentance required was not just spiritual, a turning of the heart toward God, but it would require a change in behaviour, a generous sharing of the wealth and possessions that you do have. Transformation of hearts and lives was another important theme for Luke.
To those who were coming to John to be baptized in the river Jordan he explained the expectations of repentance explicitly: “And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. “Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do? “He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Luke 3:10-13
Were the generous intentions of Zacchaeus a sign of the depth of his guilt at that point in time? Had he heard the teachings of John the Baptist previously? Did he long to get off the treadmill of his corrupt practices and try to live an honest life? Did seeing Jesus in his hometown offer him a deeper vision of who he could be, claiming his own tradition and values? Was he desperately lonely, hoping to be seen for who he truly was as a child of God? Clearly, something happened to him as Jesus first reached out to him, inviting himself to his home to share a meal.
When I think of the extremely wealthy in our society, it is hard not to think of Bill Gates, the creator and founder of Microsoft who is worth 106.6 Billion dollars, yet in 2000 he left that work in the hands of others and began a renewed purpose for his life through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their foundation is the largest venture philanthropic organization in the world and has the following stated values and goals:
Vision – ALL LIVES HAVE EQUAL VALUE
Ensure more children and young people survive and thrive
We believe the path our of poverty begins when the next generation can access quality healthcare and a great education.
Empower the poorest, especially women and girls, to transform their lives
We believe that by giving people the tools to lead healthy, productive lives, we can help them lift themselves out of poverty.
Combat infectious diseases that particularly affect the poorest
We believe we can save lives by delivering the latest in science and technology to those with the greatest needs.
INSPIRE PEOPLE TO TAKE ACTION TO CHANGE THE WORLD
There is an interesting documentary of Netflix called Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, Sept 20th, that tells the story of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and tries to paint an understanding of what motivated Bill to do this work and how he has engaged with partners throughout the world to help achieve some of these goals. From what I have seen so far, this change was not described as a religious conversion per se but does reveal the depth of one man’s commitment and vision to utilize his wealth for positive humanitarian causes.
So I know it might be easy to feel a bit cynical about the change of heart with someone as wealthy as Bill Gates, and we might hope for a similar change of heart for social media giant, Mark Zukerberg, for with that amount of wealth and resources at our disposal we might think it is a lot easier to make a difference in the world.
However, the gospel of Luke brings these grandiose visions down to earth, lifting up the difference that even the poorest, or smallest person can make. The chapter previous to our story about the wealthy and entitled Zacchaeus lifts up the importance of other kinds of people in God’s plan, almost anti-heroes – the parable of the widow and the unjust judge who pestered the judge for justice night and day until he lamented; the parable of the self-righteous pharisee and the self-deprecating tax collector whose humility before God was affirmed; the children that Jesus blessed when the disciples would have sent them away because they were of no value in that society; affirming the disciples who had left homes and jobs to follow him – all of these were examples that Jesus gave of people whose faithful attitudes and actions would bring God’s kingdom to fruition, people who were deeply loved and valued.
So today’s gospel story shows us that even a mistrusted and disliked person – such as Zacchaeus, can be raised up to become a child of Abraham. We are all invited to create lives aligned with the values of God’s justice and kingdom, and I think that would include non-believers who may prefer to live by humanitarian values that would seek to improve our world.
What I love about the gospels, is that they tell the stories of how Jesus personally reaches out to the lost -sinners- those excluded from social circles by judgement and condemnation, challenging the grumblers and naysayers to grow friendships and see the possibilities in these people.
Jesus’ powerful empathetic love and presence initiates that cycle of change and growth. He calls us all to live transformed lives shaped by generosity and compassion for others. He still calls today, no matter who we are, rich or poor, privileged or humble, young or old, saint or sinner, to embrace the vision that God has for our lives. This kingdom of God will come more quickly when you take your part.
Can he come to your house? Come down out of the tree or whatever is your safe perch that keeps life at a distance and listen closely, for it all begins when he calls you by your name “…..hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today!”
Hymn: MV I have Called you by your name