January 26, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BIGGEST LOSERS: ZACCHAEUS
I suppose we could have called this series, “The Biggest Losers of the Bible: From A to Z”. We could have started with Adam, as we did. And we could have concluded with Zacchaeus, except we’re concluding with Peter next week. If I had planned this right, this could have been a 26-week series. We’d end at the end of June. I think I could have found some loser in the Bible for every letter in the alphabet. And I know we have at least 26 loser stories from the congregation! This morning it’s Brandy Yearous’s turn.
(Brandy Yearous story)
Many of us met Zacchaeus in Sunday school. Our introduction came with a song.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
That’s probably way more than enough of that! Children can relate to Zacchaeus both because he is short, but also because he is an outcast. Children know all too well how that feels, on both counts. In Zacchaeus’s case, to call him an outcast is charitable. He deserved every bit of the scorn he was given. He was a loser not because he was short but because he was big. He was the biggest jerk in town.
Here’s why. They had something going on in Bible times called “tax farming”. The Roman Empire would farm out tax collection to private individuals. The highest bidder would get the job. With the job came the responsibility to collect all the taxes Rome wanted and also the opportunity to collect and pocket a whole lot more. Zacchaeus was the high bidder in Jericho. So he was a traitor. He was in league with the Romans. That was bad enough. But he also lined his own pockets with his dishonesty.
To give an illustration of how someone like Zacchaeus could make a lot of money, I drive a car with 257,000 miles on it. It might be worth $1,000. Maybe. Well, the tax farmer might come along, kick my tires, and say, “That car of yours is easily worth $11,000. So I’ll just take 10% of that which comes to $1,100. And, by the way, I’m going to tell the Romans your car is worth $1,000. That means I’ll only have to send them 10% of that or $100.” So we have $1,100 collected and $100 owed, which means the tax farmer just made $1,000. Not bad work if you can get it!
Can you imagine the resentment people felt at being treated that way? And at having no recourse? Against the might of Rome, they were utterly powerless.
Then word reached Jericho that someone was coming to town. Someone who could change everything. His name was Jesus. Rumors were flying that he was the Messiah, the one Jews had long expected to come and free them from the Romans. Free them from scum like Zacchaeus. Crowds were lining the streets. Maybe there was hope for them after all. That’s where we pick up the story in Luke 19.
“Jesus went to Jericho and was passing through.” I can imagine they were disappointed to learn he was just “passing through”. They had kind of hoped he might take off his coat and stay awhile. Maybe do a few of his miracles while he was here. Maybe knock a few Roman heads together. But no, he was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem. He had 19 miles left to go, so there was no time to stop.
It continues: “There was a chief tax collector there named Zacchaeus, who was rich.” Now we know how he got to be rich! “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was a little man and could not see Jesus because of the crowd. So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, who was going to pass that way.”
We aren’t told why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. That part is a mystery. I have a theory. I think Zacchaeus was not happy with his life. All his money didn’t compensate for the misery he felt at being the kind of person he had become. He wanted to change. Somehow he knew climbing that tree to see Jesus could be part of that change.
Richard Pimentel told me something that makes a lot of sense. That the Bible is so filled with the stories of losers doesn’t mean that God is reaching out especially to losers. It means that losers are the ones who are reaching out especially to God. They are the ones who know best of all how much they need God.
So Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus. Because of his stature he needs to be high enough to not have his view blocked. That’s one reason he’s in the sycamore tree. But there is another reason. Sycamores are beautiful trees with big leaves. Big leaves to hide behind. He was in the tree both so he could see Jesus and also so he could hide from the people he had cheated and who hated him.
A tree is a good place to hide, leaves or not. People would walk by, look straight ahead, and not even notice him. I remember a day years ago when my children were playing hide and go seek indoors. Our daughter, Kelsey, hid on top of the refrigerator. I think I may have had something to do with suggesting that hiding place and getting her up there. And it took forever for her to be found.
So Zacchaeus could easily have sat in that tree unnoticed and then climbed down after all the excitement was over. That was what he had in mind. Except that Jesus saw him. That’s pretty amazing in itself. He had done his best not to be seen and Jesus saw him. But more amazing than that, Jesus called him by name.
The Bible gives no indication that Zacchaeus had ever met Jesus before. Or that he would ever meet him again. So how did he know his name? Some of us have a hard time remembering the names of people we know real well. How did Jesus know that name of someone he had never met?
I asked our pre-school children in Kids Stuff that very question last week. One of the girls had an answer. “Jesus knows all of our names.” I can’t improve on her answer!
I want you to imagine the mood of the crowd at that moment. They all looked up and there he was. That outcast. That jerk. Jesus had just called to Zacchaeus. Now surely Jesus would give him the punishment he so richly deserved. Can you imagine their shock, can you imagine Zacchaeus’s shock, at the words Jesus spoke? “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, because I must stay in your house today.”
What?? Remember, he was just passing through! He was in a big hurry to get to Jerusalem. And now he’s going to stay with Zacchaeus? He’s going to actually go to his house? We’re told the people grumbled. This wasn’t what they were hoping for.
I imagine some of those grumbling haven’t eaten for awhile. They haven’t fed their children for awhile. Why? Because of him. Because the money that might have bought food went to him. Because of this traitor and robber that Jesus is now going to honor with a home visit. They grumbled. No wonder they grumbled! Now they’re mad at both Zacchaeus and Jesus!
Jesus could have kept on walking. He didn’t have to stir all this up. He could have hurried on to Jerusalem as was his original plan. He could have pretended he didn’t see anyone in that tree. Jesus actually gave up quite a bit by taking time for Zacchaeus. He gave up three things.
First, the obvious. He gave up his time. He revised his itinerary. He didn’t have the time to stop, but he took the time. I wonder, has anyone ever done that for you?
When we moved here to Nampa, our son Collin was 13. He was between 7th and 8th grades. That’s a tough time to move. My Uncle Ken had moved from Portland, Oregon to Escondido, California when he was about that same age. He took the time to call Collin, to talk with him about what that had been like for him. He was able to convince Collin more than we ever could that it would be all right. And it has been all right.
When someone takes the time to stop what they are doing and give you their undivided attention, it can be huge. It can change your life.
Second, Jesus gave up his reputation. He came to Jericho a hero. He left Jericho as despised as Zacchaeus was despised. They had wanted him to stay. Now they just wanted him to go. Leave!
Jesus had a well earned reputation of standing up for the outcast. The one no one else would stand up for. The little guy. The poor. The hurting. The oppressed. But now here is Jesus standing up for the oppressor. It would be kind of like someone taking the side of Bernie Madoff. It just didn’t make sense. And it ruined his reputation. Jesus knew it would. But he also knew it was worth it.
Finally, Jesus gave up his pride. Stay with me on this one. This might not be as easy to see. It took me several readings to see it. What Jesus does when he tells Zacchaeus that he is going to be staying at his house is to acknowledge that Zacchaeus has something to give him. It’s not just Jesus giving to Zacchaeus. It is Jesus receiving from Zacchaeus.
Our relationship with Sherman Elementary is giving them a lot. They are very grateful. But our relationship with Sherman Elementary is giving us more in return than we could ever give.
Often when we think we’re going to help someone, we go in with an attitude of superiority. We have all the answers and wisdom and resources. You are just so lucky that we are kind enough to help you! And we forget that it works both ways.
Jesus asked Zacchaeus for something. He did the same thing with that woman at the well. He had a lot to give her, no question, but remember how their conversation started? He asked her for a drink of water. He acknowledged that she had something to offer him, too.
Bill Hybels is senior pastor at Willow Creek, one of the biggest churches in North America. He tells the story of a time he offered his church’s resources to help with a struggling ministry in inner city Chicago. He asked how his church might be able to help them. He was a bit taken aback by the answer: “The best way you can help us is to realize how we can help you.”
So Jesus sacrificed quite a bit for Zacchaeus. His time, his reputation, and his pride. But it was well worth the sacrifice. Because listen to the response: “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Listen, sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.'”
Here’s the supreme irony. All those people who were cheated, who couldn’t feed their children, now have money. They have food to put on their table. Because of Zacchaeus. They are still grumbling about him. They are still grumbling about Jesus. But they have to admit, the end result turned out pretty well for them. So the grace of Jesus makes possible the repentance of Zacchaeus and the repentance of Zacchaeus makes possible justice for those he had oppressed. It’s a pretty cool story with a very happy ending!
And we aren’t even at the ending quite yet. Here’s how it ends: “Jesus said to him, ‘Salvation has come to this house today, for this man also is a descendant of Abraham. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.'”
The lost. That means losers. Losers like Zacchaeus. Losers like us. That’s why Jesus came. To seek and to save us.
You probably think I see a lot of movies because I use a lot of movie references in my sermons. Actually, as Helen can attest, we hardly ever go to the movies. I just read a lot about what other people say about them. And I read this week about a movie that apparently is not getting much attention for the Academy Awards this year, “Saving Mr. Banks.”
It’s about Walt Disney persuading a woman named Pamela Travers to allow him to make her book into the movie, “Mary Popkins”. Pamela Travers is not a very likeable person. She’s negative. She’s rigid. She has no sense of humor. She is quite a challenging person for Walt Disney to do business with. When she died in 1996, her own family noted that she “died loving no one and with no one loving her.”
But the movie helps the audience see why she was the way she was. Something in her childhood went terribly wrong. When she created Mary Popkins it was almost like she was creating a refuge for herself in a childhood she never had. So she was very protective of her creation and not generous at all in sharing it with others.
Pamela Travers reminds me of Zacchaeus. She reminds me of so many others who go through life friendless because they make themselves so difficult to love. You know people like these. We are people like these!
It makes all the difference in the world when someone cares enough to take the time to understand why that person is that way. At the risk of your own reputation, to associate with those shunned by others. And swallowing your own pride. Allowing that person to minister to you in your own brokenness.
Jesus set the pattern. It’s now for us to follow.
Lord Jesus, we are all up in that sycamore tree. Wanting to see you, and yet not wanting to be seen by you. And you call to us as you called to Zacchaeus, “Come down! I want to enter your house. I want to enter your life.” We’re all outcasts. And we all know outcasts. Your word of grace comes to us all. You don’t scold us. You love us. And you invite us into a life far better than the life we have chosen to live thus far. May we accept that invitation. May we extend that invitation. May we know life as it was meant to be lived, in you. Amen.