Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 6/8
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 27th, 2017
I want to say if you were not here last week you might want to go find last week’s sermon on the website. I think it makes sense and it will help today makes sense. Last week we discovered that Zacchaeus is really a study in the power of what fear can do in a life. Zacchaeus saw himself as small and rationalize cheating and lying and grabbing material wealth. He has been ostracized and tolerated in his own community. We noticed last week that Zacchaeus was so alone and how the loneliness and lack of conversation partners had led him to a place of rebellion. I just don’t care what people think about me. I’m going to risk public humiliation and go up that tree. Fear drives destructive behavior, and in this case it is a grown man behaving like a small boy.
Jesus intervenes; comes to find Zacchaeus in the tree; goes with Zacchaeus to his home and he says something to Zacchaeus. We don’t know what it is but it is what Zacchaeus needed and it changed his life. That is a moment for us to ponder and it can only be a moment because we can’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus, but what we can wonder is what would it take for our lives to be changed profoundly? What would Jesus have to say to us for us to go OH and walk a new way? It had to be very profound. But suddenly in that moment for Zacchaeus things make sense in a way they never have before and he is moved to say: I will give half of my wealth to the poor and Lord, if I have overcharged anyone on their taxes I will pay them back four times over. Something for us to respond again to think about ourselves as we ponder the gospel; how do we resolve the fear in our lives?
Well in this case for Zacchaeus it’s worked out the economic inequality in your life. It’s kind of funny because the definition of unrighteousness has to do with hoarding the gifts of the king; thinking that we deserve them while our neighbors have nothing. So something about doing away with the vast disparity and isolation brought about by deception that separates those who have from those who do not. Do away with that. Something about that comes when Jesus says to us what we need to hear. And in that moment for Zacchaeus his soul is whole and his first thought is giving. I think that’s a sign that our soul has become whole; the thought of being generous comes easy to us.
Life stops being me versus you or us versus them and their becomes some urgency about just being us. I would go as far as to say the surest sign of the whole soul is a need to reconcile disparity and the need to give generously. That’s what we learned last week and so far it sounds good but here’s the problem with this story; we don’t know how it ends. Give away half and pay back four times over any money gotten by cheating. That’s a lot of cash. What is Zacchaeus going to do?
There’s been no mention here yet of the family of Zacchaeus, perhaps a wife and some kids who have become accustomed to living high-on-the-hog because Dad is wealthy. A little bit later in the day when Zacchaeus gets back into his corner cubicle at the tax collector’s office and he tries to sit back and that’s not comfortable and he gets over his desk and oh God, how am I going to do this? The bookkeeper in him takes over. How am I going to pull this off? I said half to the poor, do I count all of my land and my business holdings or is this just what’s in the savings account or just my liquid assets. Paying back four times, you know, that’s a lot of people to track down. That’s a lot of scratch and it’s going to be humiliating. What will Zacchaeus do — and more importantly — what must we do?
Jesus did say salvation has come to this home today. What must we do for salvation to come to us? Thank you to the Fundamentalist influence in our cultural church and a poor translation decision made in 1854 and this text has come to mean – well — Zacchaeus is going to write a big enough check and now he is going to heaven. Hurray, get out the horns, shout, sing, dance, andlet’s have a party. The point of thousands of sermons through the years is that Jesus saved Zacchaeus from going to hell by bringing him into a conversion moment through a conversation that they had and the presumption is that Zacchaeus will follow through on his word. That’s what gets him into heaven. There is just one little problem.
Righteousness? Zacchaeus would get himself saved by writing a big enough check. If you’re trying to run a ministry of money that works for you. And if you’re trying to buy an airplane as a pastor that really works for you. Zacchaeus justifies himself by writing a check. If you really want to do that I’m not going to stop you, I suppose. But that’s not the message of this text because that’s not the message of the gospel. We have read a lot of passages through the course of going through Luke that warn against — not subtly, directly — warn against justifying yourself. That is a misread of this text. It does violence to the text and it also leaves out the question that we have to ask. What if Zacchaeus doesn’t pull it off? What if Zacchaeus doesn’t follow through on his word? What if he only gives 49.873% to the poor. And what if he miscalculates the balance of his investment account and there’s been a payoff; you follow me? What if he doesn’t quite get to half? What if he cannot find everyone that he’s cheat? What if he doesn’t find everyone that he’s cheated, will he be out of heaven? To use the images of our cultural church will Saint Peter meet him at the gate and say 48.6%. It’s really a misread of the story and I’d like to rescue this story from Fundamentalism and a poor translation choice.
The Greek word in the text that is the problem is the Greek word that we translate as salvation. Salvation has come to this home today. The Greek word is sótéri or sótéria. A much better translation would be: wellness has come to this home today or healing has come to this home today or wholeness has come to this home today. That’s what happened in Zacchaeus’ home, Zacchaeus was made whole. In Zacchaeus we catch a glimpse of the fruit of what it looks like to be made whole in the presence of Christ. I will give; giving is a sign of wholeness, generosity times four with a mindful thoughts about how our actions affect the good of others. It’s amazing to me that when Zacchaeus’ soul is healed, his first thoughts are: all those people I cheated; I got to put the money back in their hands. What happened is that Zacchaeus in that moment came to a place where he was finally willing to die to what he used to be. Die to accumulating enough so that he could be enough because he was a man of small stature. Because he is freed in dying to what he used to be, to think things he never would’ve thought before when he was trying to protect all that cash he grabbed; Zacchaeus becomes the resurrection. The fact is that Zacchaeus is changed and how he thinks about his money and it will affect his family as it affects his coworkers and the folks he’s cheated and his neighbors and how they see him if he follows through.
So what happens to Zacchaeus; does he follow through? I’ll be honest with you, I can’t quite get to a place where I believe he does. Zacchaeus is a dishonest bookkeeper. Zacchaeus is a wheeler dealer and when he was talking to Jesus he used the protective if: if I have deceived anyone, I will pay. The question that we are really asking here is did Zacchaeus managed to become respectable? The point of the story, a point that a lot of church folk would like to gloss over and gussied up is that God’s wonderful grace cannot come to us through our respectability. Respectability only values life and success in winning and getting and grabbing and having and possessing and measuring up and being deserving of God’s love. It’s a terrible place to be; thinking we are deserving and thinking we have to maintain being deserving and thinking others have to be deserving before they can receive God’s grace. Terrible demands terrible demands that makes us sweat. It makes us sweat trying to think about what we need to do next and we get the to-do list going in our head and it wakes us up in the morning and it keeps us up at night. What we have to do next so we can be respectable people so we can get ourselves into heaven?
Let something go awry; let the market turn and our company downsize; let the management think that they need to go a different route and we get laid off. Let there be an accident and it’s our child that’s injured on the freeway. Let there be an illness in our parents; we can’t reach respectability. What did I do God to bring this on myself? That’s the conversation that comes when we are dealing with respectability. It’s a terrible conversation. It’s the wrong conversation. But we follow a Jesus who refuses to be respectable. Maybe that’s what I should be shouting today. We follow Jesus who declines to be respectable. Remember how the people grumbled against him for being the guest of this notorious sinner. That is not the first time that grumbled against him. He broke the Sabbath and they grumbled; he gave food to people on the holy day and they grumbled; he consorted with lepers and adulterers and tax collectors and people with demons and losers of all kinds. Jesus declines to be respectable.
That is the reason that the forces of respectability got rid of Jesus. Here in this story we can see why Jesus refuses to be respectable. Jesus declines to be respectable so that he could catch people that respectability terrifies and condemns. The story is not really about Zacchaeus we learn a lot; we see ourselves. But the story is really about Jesus and how far he is willing to come to find us and not so that we can clean ourselves up and have our act together and finally stand in the temple, and pray prayers of gratitude and how good we finally become; got our act together; I’m with you, God; I’m on your side; I’m good enough now. No we are not worthy to come to Jesus and tell him much of anything. Jesus comes to us — profound theological point right there — we don’t bring ourselves to Jesus. Jesus comes to us in whatever place of desperation we’ve gotten ourselves up into so that we might know the wideness of God’s mercy; so that we can live lives where we can tell the truth about who we are. We don’t have to lie. We know our need for grace. Or as Jesus said to his disciples: what I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax in the presence of God. Don’t be preoccupied with earning or getting so that you can respond to God’s gift.
People who don’t know God and God’s ways fuss over stuff like getting and earning themselves into the kingdom and they never will. Open yourself to God’s way. What we see in Zacchaeus is actual spiritual transformation. I know there are a lot of people who use the word spiritual and it was the most perfect thing that they communicate so clearly is: they have no idea what they’re talking about. Spirituality is some mystery? No it is not. Spirituality is difficult to understand? No it is really not. In Zacchaeus we get a incredibly clear picture of a spiritual transformation. He is simply someone who woke up, not someone who accomplished anything. The full biblical gospel message is about awakening to what is; not accomplishing something you cannot accomplish. The spiritual journey is realizing that you are loved, not perfecting yourself to be lovable. You cannot get yourself there into the presence of God. You can only be where you are in the presence of God who comes to you. Did you hear that? You cannot get there. You can only be here.
But for some reason the idea that we are already granted access to God as a gift and we are loved by God while we are still screwing up our lives. We don’t have to get ourselves good enough. It’s too hard to believe; it’s too good to be true. Our ego takes over and our bookkeeper in our head that keeps track of good deeds and bad deeds and what we think needs to happen and how to be respectable takes over. Our lives become our theology; our relationship with God on our terms becomes about achievement and attainment. We can’t live up to our own expectations and we can go through half of our life despairing about the equation we put in place. It doesn’t work. In Zacchaeus, we see the beautiful alternative for all of us who like to make grand promises, but it is iffy whether we are going to follow through. Only the humble and the unassuming can receive God’s love and grace because it affirms more about God than it does about us.
We just thought we were going to stop through church today on our way to somewhere else and from a distance hear a few words that Jesus spoke and make us feel better a little bit about our respectable lives. But he found us on the ladder we have been trying to climb and he said: you come down from there, today I’m coming to where you reside. Now we’ve had an encounter with Jesus and he has invited us to die with him. On the other side of that death is not a respectable life where we have our act together with accolades and approval. On the other side of that death is simple reliance on God for everything. Will you die to what you used to be? For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.