TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
When I worked in my last job, I remember listening to one of my staff telling me he had converted to Christianity and made the decision to follow Jesus in his late teens. He is one of the few people I know who on hearing the good news, and being baptised, gave up everything, his life of crime and delinquency and that day, volunteered and left to go to Africa. He literally did not go home again. He gave his life to Jesus and found a new home in God’s kingdom. And he has continued to this day, more than 30 years on, listening to God and following in God’s footsteps. It is quite remarkable.
The story of Zacchaeus reminds me of this man’s story. It contains a number of ideas for us to reflect upon and perhaps apply to ourselves.
Luke identifies Zacchaeus as a chief publican and rich. In the Greek text, Zacchaeus is described as a ‘tax farmer’, in Latin, the word is ‘publicanus’, which we translate as a ‘publican’. Under the Roman republic which existed before Jesus’ birth, private businessmen, called ‘publicans’ bid on public contracts for various government jobs, including tax collection. To handle the vast sums, publicans formed associations something like the modern corporation, each headed by a lead bidder and a few officers backed by many investors.
Having bid to deliver to Rome a specified amount from a province, they worked with local officials who collected within their own districts. Taxes on agriculture and import customs were subject to unpredictable fluctuations, so getting the numbers right was a tricky business.
Publicans were also money lenders, speculators and contractors supplying materiel for the Roman army. Such enterprises, offered any number of opportunities to cook the books, speculate on commodities, side deals, graft and extortion to defraud Rome, local officials, fellow investors and of course, the average citizen. They were not popular.
Years later, in the Roman Empire, the provincial governors were now collecting agriculture taxes and poll taxes rather than through private contractors but also while overseas took the opportunity to top up their own private wealth, act as middlemen in contracts and rort the system. However, publicans were still contracted to collect customs on imports, which might explain why we find them in border towns, such as Jericho and ports like Caesarea.
Zaccheaus then was a Jewish businessman involved in large contracts with Roman businessmen. Many would have viewed him as collaborating with the foreign occupation and profiting from the misery of other Jews, which is why ‘publicans and sinners’ are frequently lumped together.
The people described as ‘tax collectors and sinners’ have over time, become a symbol for all outsiders to the official family of faith to whom Jesus comes, among whom he eats, and for whom he continues his journey towards Jerusalem.
So let me pause here and think about what I have described. We might think about which jobs we lump into such a category today….
And there’s something about sinners who do things we despise and hold in utter contempt…not just feel sorry for, ‘poor soul, he doesn’t know any better’ as opposed to ‘how could he or she do such a thing when they know it’s wrong. In its all-encompassing description and the bundling up of all we despise, this generalised despising allows hatred, vilification, scapegoating and rejection. It leads to violence, murder and terror. It enables bullying, abuse, humiliation and disrespect to be normalised as the ‘sinner’ becomes the ‘other’, dehumanised, objectified and invisible.
I’ve talked frequently about how easy it is to follow the directions of the world, and how we resist the temptation to change our ways and follow Jesus.
When I reflect upon who might be on my ‘tax collectors and sinner’s list, I suppose there are particular politicians for example who I truly struggle with, their views being abhorrent to me on issues of justice and compassion; perhaps I might include those whose wealth is so obscene, as its pulled off low wages, poor employment practices and a disregard for the environment, local communities and the tax laws – or whatever list I can come up with.
Whatever your particular passion is I suspect we each have a Zacchaeus sitting in the middle of that list. We would be in that crowd…we’d be with the disciples pulling Jesus aside and saying: “Lord are you really sure about this? What about your followers? He’s got a dreadful reputation. You’re sure to be trolled and branded in the media. Just think about the press”
The response from the crowd is predictable and I think Luke has written it quite politely, given the manners that we have today:
All who saw it began to grumble and said, “he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (Luke 18:7).
And it’s a response that all of us make. I think it has echoes of the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother who wasn’t appeased at his father’s response to his younger brother’s behaviour; the story of the workers in the vineyard who were outraged at those arriving late, being given the same wages as those who had started in the morning; the Pharisees and synagogue elders outraged at Jesus healing on the Sabbath; his sharing meals with prostitutes and other people outside the normal social rules. His overturning of the money tables in the temple – there’s a long list of things Jesus does that our society and culture would not approve.
Instead, Jesus doesn’t rush to judgement and he hears and sees what others miss.
The rich ruler we heard about last week, the epitome of what we aspire to become, finds himself unable to give away his possessions and wealth, things that separate him from trusting God and rather than in himself and his own value and worth to enter into the kingdom of God.
The grumbling of the crowd symbolises the difficulty we have today still, to see that God always is moving beyond the boundaries of the official family of faith.
The God Incarnate, God made human, the one we love, trust and follow, lives with, eats and talks with, and loves the outcasts and those who do not follow our comfortable, well-worn social and moral rules.
Jesus reminds us in Zacchaeus that God has friends in the world outside of our accepted and known tribe. Jesus reminds us that justice and righteousness may be practiced outside of our known religious and ethical universe. And, praise God, when they are, some more scattered sheep are gathered in.
Like the children we heard about last week and how the kingdom of God is open to them because of their openness and joy, Zacchaeus receives Jesus and the kingdom joyfully, without reservation. He was just waiting to be asked.
Zacchaeus is a new repentant disciple, and we can see again that salvation entails not just personal and private virtue, (which is what the rich ruler embodies in the story last week) but also economic and public practice.
It has to do with economic restitution for those who have been cheated and concrete provision for those who are destitute.
Salvation encompasses more than an inward and spiritual grace leading to a heavenly place, it also involves outward manifestations that make a practical and observable difference to the conditions and needs of the people here and now. Jesus doesn’t wait for Zacchaeus to change before he acknowledges him, recognises him, and includes him in his invitation. So, let’s be clear, Jesus invites him.
So, the answer to the question we’ve been asking along with the disciples, over the last few weeks to, ‘who receives and is able to enter into the kingdom?’ – and it is: ‘those who are invited by Jesus.’
That includes everyone, blind beggars, dissolute young men, prostitutes, and corrupt tax collectors. I suspect it includes people seeking asylum and refuge, aliens, widows and orphans, children; it will include people who are LGBTI, people who are gamblers and addicts and I imagine the list of invitees created by Jesus will be much longer than those whom we might initially consider worthy and have on our list.
Jesus reminds us over and over again, this acceptance and hospitality, this openness and trust is not something we can do on our own. This is the miracle of God’s Grace. How can we begin to think we can do this on our own, somehow able to make ourselves worthy for God? It is only because of God that we are able to accept Jesus’ invitation as our hearts desire. God is there for each of us, tax collectors, sinners, all.
The Lord be with you.