Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon for October 31st: Luke 19:1-10

Lost and Found

Many years ago when we were living in the Western Arctic I had the experience of getting lost in the Mackenzie Delta. It was late summer, and I had gone over to Inuvik from Aklavik by boat with my friend Bessie (which was about a sixty-mile trip); I had to take a couple of outboard motors to Inuvik to be repaired, and Bessie wanted to do some grocery shopping. It was late afternoon when we started out on our return journey to Aklavik. Bessie wanted to do some duck hunting on the way home, and so for a while I steered the boat while she shot at ducks. In the excitement of the chase we missed our turn. The Mackenzie Delta is a huge maze of channels, and once we were lost, we were thoroughly lost! Eventually we found a cabin Bessie recognised, and then we realised that we were thirty miles further north than we thought, and had very little gas left in our fuel tank.

We slept for a few hours, then the next morning found some gas behind the cabin, which was enough to get us to a fishing camp about six miles north of Aklavik. There we were able to borrow some more gas, and thus we came home, about eighteen hours later than we had planned! The police had just begun an aerial search for us; we had been looking for Aklavik for a long time, but Aklavik had just started looking for us!

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (v.10). Just as we can be physically lost, as Bessie and I were, so it is also possible for us to be lost in a spiritual sense. We can lose our way in life; we can be travelling a road through life that won’t help us reach the destination we were designed for. Jesus came to search for people who are lost like this, and to help them get back on the right road. In today’s Gospel, he does this for Zacchaeus.

What do we know about Zacchaeus? Luke tells us three things about him: First, he was ‘a chief tax collector’ (v.2) or, as another translation puts it, he was ‘superintendant of taxes’ (REB). In the Roman Empire, taxation was private enterprise; the Romans contracted with local entrepreneurs to collect the various taxes, tolls, tariffs and customs fees in a given geographical area. The entrepreneurs – the ‘chief tax collectors’, that is – were required to pay the contract up front – in other words, to pay the Romans the entire tax bill before they had collected a cent themselves. They would then employ others to collect the taxes, charging their own cut on top of the prescribed amount so that they could turn a profit. Obviously the system was open to abuse, and Jews who collected taxes for the Romans were assumed to be dishonest and were hated by their fellow-Jews because they were seen as collaborating with the Gentile oppressors.

Second, he was ‘rich’, says our NRSV, or ‘very rich’ as the REB puts it. Tom Wright says,

Wherever money changes hands, whether across a grubby table in a tin shack in a dusty small town or across a sparkling computer screen in a shiny office on the ninety-ninth floor of a Wall Street skyscraper, the hands all too easily get dirty. Whenever money starts to talk, it shouts louder than the claims of honesty, respect, and human dignity. One can only imagine the reaction of neighbours, and even friends and relatives, as Zacchaeus’ house became more lavishly decorated, as more slaves ran about at his bidding, as his clothes became finer and his food richer. Everyone knew that this was their money and that he had no right to it; everyone knew that there was nothing they could do about it.

Interestingly enough, the rich have not fared very well so far in the Gospel of Luke. More than any of the other gospel writers, Luke is alive to Jesus’ care for the poor and needy and to his call for justice and compassion. In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:24). Jesus calls a rich farmer a fool, and tells a story of a rich man who goes to hell while poor Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham (12:20, 16:19-31), and he tells his disciples that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (18:25). So in describing Zacchaeus as ‘rich’, Luke is setting up the expectation for us that this is someone who Jesus is going to condemn.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and he was rich; thirdly, he was ‘trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature’ (v.3). So because of this situation, Zacchaeus does two things that would have been considered very strange and counter-cultural in his day. A respected man in the community would never run anywhere; that would not be dignified. Nor would he climb a tree like a child playing a game. But this is exactly what Zacchaeus did: ‘He ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see (Jesus), because he was going to pass that way’. Luke is underlining for us how serious Zacchaeus was about wanting to see Jesus, and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to get closer to him. This wasn’t just a whim; this was something that was important to Zacchaeus.

It would be interesting to speculate about Zacchaeus’ motivation; given the fact that he had undoubtedly received his fair share of condemnation from the religious establishment in Jericho, why did he want to put himself in the line of fire from yet another rabbi – and a rabbi who had a reputation for siding with the poor? Or had he perhaps heard that Jesus also had a soft spot for people on the margins – Roman centurions and prostitutes and, yes, even other tax collectors? Had he, perhaps, heard that there was even a former tax collector named Matthew or Levi in the disciple group that followed Jesus around? Did he wonder if this rabbi, at last, might be someone he could talk to, someone who would give him a sympathetic hearing and answer his questions over a glass of single-malt Scotch? Was Zacchaeus, in fact, aware of a hunger for God inside, and was he looking for someone who could help him find his way back to God?

It’s speculation, of course; we don’t know the answers to these questions, because Luke doesn’t give them to us. What’s really striking, though, is that Jesus describes Zacchaeus in verse 10 as having been ‘lost’: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost”.

Now I suspect that of all the words that the people of Jericho had thrown at Zacchaeus over the years, ‘lost’ did not figure very highly on the list! I suspect that if you’d talked to the ordinary people of Jericho and suggested to them that Zacchaeus might be lost, they would probably have laughed in your face. “Lost? Zacchaeus? You’ve got to be kidding! Do you know where he went for his last vacation? He went all the way to Corinth, wherever that is! Have you seen some of the furniture in that house of his? And they say he’s got a summer home down at Joppa, too. No, Zacchaeus isn’t lost! He’s not suffering! He knows which side his bread’s buttered on!”

Things don’t change all that much. It’s easy for us to look at an AIDS orphan in Africa or a street person in Boyle/Macauley and think of them as ‘lost’, but we somehow don’t think of someone who drives a BMW and works in a plush office tower downtown as being in the same category. It makes sense for us that God has a heart for the poor and needy and wants us to care for the victims of oppression and injustice; it’s not so easy to remember that God also loves the perpetrators of oppression and injustice and wants them also to come home to him. And when we in this church think about outreach and mission, it’s tempting to think only of those whose bodily needs are obvious – the homeless, the unemployed, those who live on the street. It’s easy to forget that every human being also needs to connect with God, and that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again in order for that to happen – that Jesus called people everywhere to turn to him in faith and find the answer to their spiritual hunger, and that this hunger exists in the rich and the powerful as well as in the poor and the powerless.

So Jesus confounded the expectations of everyone in Jericho. Instead of spending time with the religious leaders, or with the poor and needy, he chose to invite himself to the plush mansion on Saskatchewan Drive where the superintendant of taxes lived. Pretty well everyone was annoyed with Jesus about this. Luke says, ‘All who saw it began to grumble and said. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner”’ (v.7). By the way, the word for ‘grumble’ in the original language is one of my favourite New Testament Greek words: ‘gonguzo’! Pretty graphic, isn’t it? But the contrast with how Zacchaeus felt could hardly be stronger; verse 6 tells us that ‘He hurried down (from the tree, that is) and was happy to welcome (Jesus)’. At least, that’s what the NRSV says; the actual Greek is a lot stronger – it says ‘He welcomed him with joy’. Luke is reminding his readers of the story of the lost sheep, which concluded with Jesus saying “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Just like the shepherd going out to find the lost sheep, so Jesus has gone out to find Zacchaeus; he’s now brought him home, and the result is joy.

Let’s close by reflecting on the gospel, the good news, and what this story tells us about it.

Firstly, the gospel truly is about unconditional love. Jesus didn’t require that Zacchaeus change his life before he would go to visit him in his house; he went to him as he was, sins and all. As we’ll see in a moment, that doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t care how Zacchaeus lived; he did care very much, and he knew that Zacchaeus would never find what he was looking for until he was willing to change his way of living. But Jesus knew that condemnation wasn’t going to make that happen. If judgement and condemnation could have changed Zacchaeus, then it surely would have happened before Jesus came on the scene! I would imagine that every rabbi in Jericho had had a go at Zacchaeus at one time or another, thundering God’s judgement on him for collaborating with the pagan Romans and feathering his own nest in their service. But none of that changed Zacchaeus. What changed him was when Jesus showed him the unconditional love of God by going to him as he was, accepting his hospitality, and showing him that he, too, was special to God.

And in case you haven’t heard that often enough here at St. Margaret’s church, let me announce it one more time. The Christian message is not that if we just try harder at loving our neighbours we might possibly succeed in persuading God that we’re not so bad after all. That doesn’t sound very much like good news! The Christian message is that Jesus came to save the lost, that he came to save sinners (“of whom I am the chief”, says Paul), that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, that as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. With God there is forgiveness and a fresh start: that’s what the gospel tells us.

What’s that fresh start like? That’s the second thing we see in Zacchaeus’ story. When he accepts the love of God, it can’t help but have a transformational effect on his life. In Leviticus the law of God says that if you defraud someone you are to pay them back the principal amount and add one-fifth to it (Leviticus 6:5), but Zacchaeus went much further than that; he says, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (verse 8) (I love that little word ‘if’ – as if there were any doubt about it! But Zacchaeus is still human, isn’t he?!). And when he’s finished making amends to those he has wronged, he’s not going to stop there: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor”. That’s got to have cut into his standard of living!

This is what happens to us rich people when the love of God comes into our lives. First, we look carefully at the way we have been doing business to see if we’ve harmed anyone along the way, and if we have, we make amends to them. Second, we learn to give as generously to others as God has given to us. We learn that the one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win, he just dies, but the one who responds to the love of God by giving extravagantly might just have found the secret of life after all.

Thirdly and lastly, this story tells us that this gospel needs to be taken to the rich as well as the poor. Christian mission isn’t just feeding the hungry, it’s also helping the rich and powerful and the smug and self-satisfied to find the answer to their spiritual hunger too. Many of our neighbours, like Zacchaeus, look outwardly prosperous and satisfied, but inside they are aware that something is missing. St. Augustine said to God, ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. Many of our neighbours are aware of that restlessness.

So the call to us as members of St. Margaret’s is to do as Jesus did: to live out the love of God to our neighbours, to help them understand and experience the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that they can find the answer to their spiritual hunger and thirst and so that their lives can be transformed as Zacchaeus’ life was transformed. Have you experienced the transforming power of the gospel in your own life? Then surely you want others to meet Christ and experience it too. Just imagine what could happen if all the Zacchaeuses we know met Christ and were transformed as Zacchaeus, the superintendant of taxes in Jericho, was transformed! Imagine the joy in the presence of the angels of God! And with the help of God, the gospel of Jesus, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, it can happen, and you and I can be a part of it!

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