Sermon for Sunday, February 5: Sunday of Zacchaeus
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:1-10).
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To my mind, last week’s Gospel and today’s Gospel belong together, as two views of the same topic.
Last Sunday we had the blind man who followed after Christ, shouting “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” and incidentally giving us the Jesus Prayer (Luke 18:35-43). Today Zacchaeus the tax collector makes a scene by climbing a tree like a child to see Jesus pass by. And in both accounts I see examples of humility.
They both grabbed attention by what they did – how is that humility? I’ll get to that in a moment.
Normally when we think of pride, we think of seeking attention. When we are driven to seek attention or praise, when we’re entitled and superior and think highly of ourselves, we label that whole category Pride. When we come to confession and we’ve made room in our hearts for thoughts of superiority, judgment, knowing what’s best for everybody else, feeling conceited and satisfied by whatever good we’ve done – we confess it and call it pride.
But pride, at the heart of it, is excessive attention on ourselves. The opposite of love, which flows out like a river of living water, is self-attention which directs everything towards us. It can take the form of vainglory and self-exaltation – but it can also look like what our culture calls “low self-esteem.” Our meditation starts to sound like: “My sins and corruption are so big I don’t see how God can forgive me. If people really knew me they’d turn away from me in disgust. Everything that’s happened to me has been my fault. I’m ugly and stupid and I’m going to hell and I deserve it.” There’s a lot of “I” in that kind of talk.
And I don’t mean to add to the burden of someone who’s already carrying that load of pain by saying, “Also, you’re sinning by being proud.” The Lord looks at us when we are orbiting that kind of black hole, and instead, he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
Here in America the topic of coming to Jesus has become a hammer, weaponized through the fear of hell: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a classic of American preaching. And that message has its place from time to time; Christ and the apostles warn us plenty of times what we can become through negligence and hypocrisy, and where that path ends. But in my experience, a person who comes to Christ out of fear of hell needs a reason to stay Christian; that moment of fear is going to pass, and our soul is still hungry.
As witnesses of the God who is good and loves mankind, instead of calling for repentance through guilt and condemnation, we can testify to hope and welcome and healing and freedom. These are things we have at least begun to possess, and things we have tasted and seen in the God whom we are learning to trust. Because repentance is not defined by weeping and prostrations and long prayer rules; the Greek word means “turning the heart.” And it’s specifically a turning toward the One who calls us to himself; the one who knows our secrets and shame, and still wants us. The saints who grieve for their sins don’t weep alone in despair, but in the presence of a Love that’s pure and transforms and makes saints out of sinners.
That’s why the Church gives us the prayer of the blind man. It’s tempting to try to improve our record by swearing never to sin again, by resisting compulsions with white knuckles and strength of will. I think we’ve all proved to ourselves that repressing and fleeing from our passions is a road to defeat.
Instead, with the blind man, we pray, “Lord Jesus Christ —” turning toward the light. Remember your baptism? Facing away: Do you renounce Satan? I renounce him. Now turn toward the East: Do you unite yourself to Christ? I unite myself. I have united myself.
Have you ever walked across a beach or a snowy field, then turned and looked at your footprints? It felt like you were walking in a straight line, but footprints don’t lie; you were all over the place! You looked at the tree or fencepost or whatever you were walking toward, and you walked straight toward it. You looked down, looked up, enjoyed the beauty around you, and then back at that tree, and now you were walking straight toward it again. You effortlessly aimed at the thing you were looking at; whatever direction you were walking, your steps became straight as you kept turning toward your goal.
Repentance from sin is necessary. “Do you renounce Satan?” Zacchaeus says, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Anybody can say “Today I’m going to stop drinking, I’m going to quit arguing on social media, I’m never going back to a website that pollutes my soul. I’m going to deal with the anger that’s hurting my family.” We mean well when we decide to turn from our sins, but “he who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:12). It’s when Grace – the effective, personal action of God – is present, that we are able to turn not only from sins but to the Lord. We turn toward him and he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
In the Eighty-third Psalm, we read, “Blessed is the man whose help is from thee; he hath made ascents in his heart, in the vale of weeping, in the place which he hath appointed.” (Ps 83:6 lxx). Now sometimes the old-fashioned language in our Psalter is lovely and poetic, and sometimes it’s a little… opaque. Here’s that passage in a modern translation: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs; the early rains cover it with pools” (Ps 84:5-6 mt).
What an image… They have set their hearts on pilgrimage. They are going up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. They have determined to turn and keep on turning toward the Lord their hope. And their way leads through the valley of weeping, or “valley of Bakhá” in some Bibles. Bakhá means weeping but it’s also the name of a literal place: A barren, dry valley, full of thorns. And as the ones whose hearts are set on turning to God pass through the dry, exhausting Valley of Weeping, they turn it into a place of springs and early rains. Doesn’t that remind you of the verse in Hosea? “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His coming forth is as certain as the dawn. And he will come to us like the rain, like the spring rains watering the earth” (Hosea 6:3).
If you’ve ever worked a graveyard shift, you know this kind of hope. It’s not a wish, like “I hope the store will be open when we get there.” “I hope I’ll pass my exam.” The word hope in scripture refers to confident expectation. I’ve been a midnight security guard and a midnight janitor. About 3 or 4:00 in the morning is the darkest part of the night. Your strength is gone, you can’t think very clearly, and you just want the shift to end. But you know the sun will rise. You don’t wonder or fear it won’t – you take comfort in one reliable fact: no matter how bad you feel right now, the sun is coming. The night will end. “Those who sow in tears will reap with a song of joy. The one who goes forth weeping, carrying precious seed, will return again with rejoicing, carrying sheaves of grain” (Psalm 125:5-6mt/125:6-8lxx).
Repentance is an expression of hope. Confident expectation in the welcome of the Lord who calls us to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 33:8lxx).
Today Zacchaeus is a model of repentance. He’s a tax collector, which means his job is to collect the taxes the Romans demand plus some extra for himself. And, as St Luke reminds us, he is rich; he’s done well profiting off the people he fleeced. Now he says, I’m giving it away. He went out to see Jesus, his heart was moved, and he turned toward the Lord. And “Today salvation has come to this house. For the Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.”
Zacchaeus is also a model of humility. Outside the church we’ve all seen our kids climb that crabapple tree. Kids do that. It’s fun and natural, and it makes grownups make the funniest faces. You don’t see a lot of adults climbing trees for fun. Especially in a Semitic culture like first-century Judea, a grownup acts with some degree of propriety – and he does not climb trees like a child. Your cassock rides up, everybody can see your legs… Well, Zacchaeus doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He’s the tax man, everybody hates him anyway. So he shinnies right up a tree to see Jesus pass by without a thought for his own dignity. He’s not seeking attention – in fact he’s oblivious to what a spectacle he’s making and how many people are pointing at him. His heart is starting to turn toward the Lord.
Last week, the blind man heard Jesus was passing by and shouted out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Son of David means Messiah or Christ, the king whom God promised to send on the throne of King David. He’s literally praying the Jesus Prayer. But not under his breath, with a wee little prayer rope in his pocket. Jesus is passing by, this man is blind, and he wants Jesus to do something about it.
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” Oh hush, behave yourself, you’re making a scene. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” He won’t be satisfied till he’s heard by the Lord. Like Zacchaeus, he’s attracting attention, but not through pride. He has not a single thought for his reputation or for what anyone thinks. He’s not thinking about himself at all. He has something to ask the Lord. And when he turns toward the Lord, he hears “Receive your sight! Your faith has made you whole.”
You know, when the Lord says to one person “Your faith has saved you,” and to another “Your faith has healed you,” it’s the same sentence in Greek. Salvation is wholeness, reconciliation, rescue, protection, release from bonds. If our contemporary popular religion has reduced the word salvation to Not Going To Hell When You Die, well, that’s a shame, but it’s not the Faith.
When a criminal is pardoned, he’s still a criminal. He’s still guilty of a crime – he’s just not going to be punished and his name is officially cleared. He’s guilty but has escaped punishment. That’s not how the Lord forgives and saves us. Like the king who forgave his servant’s debt by simply saying “Your debt is forgiven, you don’t owe me anything” (paraphrasing Matthew 18:21-35), God forgives because it’s what he wants to do and nobody can prevent him. And he doesn’t stop there, but he unites our nature to his own nature in the Person of Christ; and in Christ he seats humanity with himself on the throne of the universe; he takes us who are dead in sins and makes us alive together with himself (Ephesians 2:1-7), and commits himself with a holy covenant (Hebrews 8:7-12) to conform us to the image of his own holiness and beauty and perfect freedom and love.
So he calls us to repent – to turn toward him who calls us upward (Philippians 3:12-14) – because the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 4:17). Christ already reigns in heaven and we pray every day, “Let thy kingdom come, let thy will be done” (Matthew 6:9-13) here in me and my family, in my choices and my thoughts, every minute and every hour.
Now we’re about to enter into the season leading up to Lent, and we often preach, “Imitate the repentance of Zacchaeus.” But today I want to call all of us to imitate the humility of Zacchaeus and of the blind man, who did not combat pride by thinking lowly thoughts about themselves. Instead they turned toward the Lord, invited him home, received sight and salvation, because they let heaven fill their thoughts.
To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.