Our Gospel story for today is a salvation story. A salvation story. It’s right there in the text, near the end, in the words that Jesus pronounces: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Now, salvation is one of those words that can be a trigger for us in the liberal church. It’s part of that whole set of “churchy” language that we started moving away from fifty years ago because we thought it had too much baggage, too many negative associations. Words like sin, and atonement, sacrifice, and conversion.
These are words that we have largely purged from our vocabulary; but of course we know that other Christians have retained these words in their vocabulary, with the result that the meaning of these words has become more narrowly defined.
We’ve abandoned these words to others, and let others fix their meaning. But all of these words belong to a much broader, deeper, and richer Christian tradition: two thousand years in the making, and expressed in a multitude of languages and cultural traditions. Perhaps we have been too hasty in abandoning this language, this particular language of the church, because after all it contains so much that is essential about the Christian message, and about the Christian life.
Take this word “salvation” for example. Other Christians have defined it in terms of a moment, a particular action or decision, or a declaration made: they can point to the moment in their life story in which they were “saved,” or the moment at which they invited Jesus into their hearts, or accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.
Now, as we’ll see when we look at this story of Zacchaeus, that is an element of salvation: this moment, this encounter with Jesus that is transformative, this decision to change one’s life. That’s the personal side of it; but salvation also has wider dimensions: there’s a whole social side to it.
So, let’s look more closely at this story.
To begin with, we are told that Zacchaeus was “a chief tax collector and was rich.” In the context of the story that Luke tells, this means that Zacchaeus was kind of an arch-villain. Being a tax collector was bad enough—it meant that you were involved in fleecing your neighbors and sending the proceeds to Rome—but Zacchaeus is the head honcho in this operation. He’s the exploiter-in-chief.
You might use your imagination to think of folks who might fit that description today: someone accused of exploiting workers or other vulnerable people; someone whose business practices are questionable; someone wealthy and powerful, and widely despised. A certain U.S. presidential candidate perhaps?
In Luke’s story, tax collectors make regular appearances, and they’re usually included as part of a group, “tax collectors and sinners,” a group generally considered disreputable, the kind of people that good people would not associate with. The trouble is that Jesus does associate with them repeatedly.
Jesus’ decision to keep showing up alongside the sinners and tax collectors, frequently having dinner with them, stirs up the resentment of the good religious people, the Pharisees and the scribes.
In chapter five of Luke’s gospel, they complain about Jesus’ behavior and ask, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus is saying, I’m going where I’m most needed.
Again, in chapter fifteen, the Pharisees and scribes complain as the tax collectors and sinners draw close to Jesus, grumbling “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Time and again, the good, observant religious people resent Jesus’ efforts at reaching out to those whom they don’t like, or approve of, those they feel are undeserving of Jesus’ attention or of their attention. In the pages just before our story, there’s a little story of people bringing infants to be blessed by Jesus.
This time it’s the disciples—those closest to Jesus—who try to shoo the parents and their infants away, thinking them unworthy of Jesus’ attention. Perhaps the babies are fussing and crying, and becoming too much of a potential distraction. But Jesus admonishes them: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Little children, like tax collectors and sinners, were discounted in that society, seen as less than, or seen as a problem, a nuisance.
A little after that, there’s a story that is remarkably similar to the story of Zacchaeus. It occurs right before our story, just as Jesus is entering the town of Jericho. There’s another man by the roadside as Jesus comes by. This man is a blind beggar, and he shouts out from the confines of his dark world, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And the crowd—the good, observant Jesus followers who are celebrating his arrival—try to shush the blind man. They don’t want him upsetting their calm and well-ordered time with Jesus. They don’t want all this disruption. The yelling blind man, like the squirming infants, is not welcome, he’s seen as a problem, by the good religious folks around Jesus.
That brings us back to our story, where the deeply despised tax collector Zacchaeus climbs up a tree to see Jesus, because he was short; but also, I suspect, because he was so despised that nobody would make a space for him by the roadside. He was up a tree, out on a limb, because he was a social pariah.
But then what happens? Like the blind man who shouted, Zacchaeus has found a means to put himself in Jesus’ way, to get around the crowd that tried to keep him out. Jesus sees him, calls out to him, and then welcomes him down out of his tree.
He says to Zacchaeus, loud enough for everyone to hear, “I must stay at your house today.” Like sharing a meal, staying at someone’s house is a sign in that culture of radical acceptance. Zacchaeus, who had been forced up a tree, is now restored to a place in the fellowship; he’s given the honor of hosting Jesus in his home.
Predictably, based on what we’ve seen so far, the crowd begins to mutter and grumble: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Once more, Jesus comes in for sharp criticism for going out to the wrong kinds of people. Why can’t Jesus just hang out with us, the good people?
But Jesus is on a mission. He has gone to the one who needed salvation, just as he welcomed the unwelcome children, just as he reached out to the blind man, shouting out in desperate longing to be healed. Just as he had said earlier, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus is going where he is most needed.
And Jesus’ call does result in Zacchaeus’ repentance, his turning around. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” That’s Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus entering his life: in that moment, he is saved, and transformed. He turns from behaviors that hurt the fabric of community to behaviors that heal and nurture community.
Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus too is one of us. He is our kin. He belongs among us. No longer up a tree, no longer out on a limb, no longer despised; but restored, and brought into right relationship with his neighbors. No longer exploiting them, on his way to becoming perhaps the first honest tax collector in the empire.
Zacchaeus was lost, but has been found.
Salvation, then, comes to have this social meaning, as tax collectors and sinners, children, those who are blind, and the despised rich—all these are brought into community along with us good, observant, religious people; those committed Jesus followers who form the core of the community.
There’s an obvious lesson for us in the church in this story. There’s a suggestion that we—the good, observant, religious people, the folks who gather around Jesus—that if we’re not careful, we might actually get in the way of Jesus’ mission.
That in our desire to commune with Jesus in our way, on our terms, we might actually hinder what Jesus is trying to do, where Jesus is trying to go, who Jesus is trying to reach; and of course, where Jesus wants us to go, who Jesus wants us to reach.
The story suggests that there might be limits to our hospitality; limits to the reach of our concern, to our sense of who is worthy of salvation, in this broad communal sense. Limits to our sense of who is worthy of inclusion.
Take a moment to think about that. Are there people you can think of who you don’t want to include, people you don’t want to see here? You don’t have to say it out loud, but think about it. Some modern day versions of sinners, tax collectors, folks begging on the streets, children, nasty rich people? A certain U.S. presidential candidate perhaps?
Squalling children and disruptive desperate people, and others too, may not fit within the parameters of our congregational life; but this story asks us to wonder about that.
What would have to happen for us to become the kind of community that Jesus invites us to be in this story?
Maybe we all need the kind of experience that Zacchaeus had, where Jesus shows up in our lives, invites himself into our homes and to our tables, and gives us some work to do in the world. Maybe that’s how we can think about our salvation, our being saved: something that heals and transforms us and the community of which we are a part.
Maybe for that to happen we need to go out on a limb or climb a tree; maybe we need to recover a childlike exuberance that sometimes doesn’t observe prudent limits; maybe we need to get in touch with the audacity and desperate longing of the blind man. All of these people seem to know something about Jesus that we regularly observant religious people often seem to miss.
Or maybe we just need to pay attention. For today, Jesus has shown up with his invitation, in the reading Alice read for us and here again in the sermon. Listen for his invitation:
“[Insert your name here], hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
May we hear our names being called today, and may salvation come to our hearts, our homes, and our community. Amen.
Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.