"Zaccaeus come down!" - a sermon preached at the Anglican Centre in Rome - November 17th, 2020

A Sermon preached
November 17th, 2020 
at the Anglican Centre in Rome

Luke 19:1-10

So, who are you in this story of Zacchaeus up a tree?  Do you find that an odd question? 
The characters are all here on a page, after all, and you, well you are sitting in the chapel here in person.  These events and conversations took place a long time ago and you are a contemporary person in Anno Domini 2020.  But….one of the ways to study a passage together is to ask yourself at the outset who you identify with. 

Are you Jesus, making peace in a situation where folks imagined no peace was possible.  Do you have some relevant experience of this in your families or in your workplaces?  Or do you identify with the crowd looking on, first with loathing upon a man they hated, and then with some sort of outrage when the hated man isn’t equally despised by Jesus?  Do you, yourselves, have some gripe with somebody who was “let off the hook” when they should have received both barrels from the boss, from the parents, from the courts, from the parish priest or the bishop?  It wasn’t just, you say, they deserved more punishment than they got.  Or are you Zacchaeus up his tree looking longingly at something you believe you have no right to share in?  

Who are you in the story of Zacchaeus up his tree?

We pass on what we receive and any number of parents find themselves horrified that they have become the very men and women who raised them – that they make the same mistakes – they find themselves using the same words and even adages that their mums and dads used.  People who have been bullied over the years often turn out to be bullies and abusers themselves one day.  The Gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector” and here we need to read “professional bully”. 

What does the old adage say?  The polite version is that you should not get into a tussle with a skunk.  You’ll end up covered with smelly stuff and the skunk will enjoy himself.  Best to keep your head down.  Best to practice active avoidance.

It was a part of Zacchaeus’ job description to tolerate – maybe even enjoy - being feared and disliked by his own neighbours.   Luke is here describing a nasty man in nasty employment.  “Tax farming” was standard practice in Jesus’ time.  While the taxes – or most of them – ended up in the hands of the Emperor, the job of collecting those taxes was outsourced to men who were thugs or who, at least, had a few handy thugs in their retinue.   Of course, they added a percentage for themselves.  They were opportunists and bullies in the pay of oppressive powers (be it the Romans in Judea or the Herodians in the Galilee). 

It might come as no surprise then, given my opening statement, that St Luke further describes Zacchaeus as being “short in stature” - “a wee little man” as the children’s song goes.  You might use your imagination.  One could editorialize the whole episode and see a lifetime’s worth of payback against his own community - the slow working out of a well-developed grudge.  Short no longer.  Little no longer.  No longer wee.  He remains an outsider but now a powerful and dangerous outsider.  

The story hinges around Jesus’ shouted command to Zacchaeus up a Sycamore tree, where he listens to the sermon from a safe but privileged vantage point.  “Zacchaeus!”, Jesus shouts.  “Come down!”.  The community’s (and perhaps the reader’s) expectation is that Jesus will now confront and damn the unlovable traitor and exploiter of the people.  Charismatic leaders do that with bullies - they confront them.  Win or lose they will not leave them unchallenged.   

Jumping to the end of the story, one finds the onlookers robbed of a bloody confrontation and a satisfying denouement.  Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a form of confrontation but one which leaves the hated man unbloodied.  There has been no fatal blow.   The “righteous” expectations of the community are unsatisfied.   

Back to the question I began with.  Who are you in this story?  I think it is clear that the Gospel writer sees us in the crowd – having our minds changed about God.  Generations of pious religious folks have seen the dividing of the world into dark and light, good and bad as one of the traditional roles of the rabbi, the priest, the guru and the prophet.  Tell us who is in and who is out – we ask.  Show us how to be in – we mean.  Give us a clear example of who is out – we really mean.

 What does it mean to be confronted by love, convicted by kindness, bowled over by unbidden opportunity or bashed over the head by a second chance?    Any other response on Jesus’ part would merely have confirmed Zacchaeus in his distance from God.  The crowd would have applauded.  But Jesus appears to be more interested in change more than he is in damnation.  The crowd would have given this last sentence their assent.  Yes – of course God is interested in change – we hope he is because we could do with some changes and we hope that the door to that will be open to us, and that God will work with us in this life to change and that someday he might put to the side the things which might otherwise have damned or excluded us. 

 Jesus here sharpens what we think we already know.  He makes an application of it to somebody that we hate.  If God can do this for us, he can do this for Zacchaeus too.  You cannot have one without the other.  It is this interest in the “lot of sinners” which is the tax collector’s only hope and his ascent up the trunk of the sycamore tree to its higher branches is what stands as his act of faith – this impulse to see and to hear for himself what he never imagined he would be worthy of receiving. 

 What Luke the Evangelist – drawing on the special material proper only to him in his Gospel - wants us to understand is that Jesus’ engagement with Zacchaeus is the only hope of the gathered onlookers in this story – the ones gathered with Jesus under the sycamore tree and the ones gathered here in the chapel of the Anglican Centre in Rome   It is the only hope of the contemporary hearers of my imperfect retelling of this story. 

Our interest in the perfect justice of God might be ideological or even theological. 

Our interest in his blessed mercy is intensely personal.


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