Sripture reading: Luke 19:1-10

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Here comes Zacchaeus. A wee guy, but a nasty piece of work. A tax collector.

Now, I know a bit about tax in first century Palestine. I had to do some research on it a few years ago. The Church and Society Council, of which I’m a member, did a report on tax for the General Assembly of 2015[1]. I was sent off to think about what Jesus thought about tax- because he did talk a lot about tax: ‘render unto Caesar’ and all that. And the Gospels mention tax collectors quite a lot. Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Another tax collector, Matthew, simply left his office to follow Jesus.

Usually the Gospels aren’t very complimentary about tax collectors. I think there are at 15 least times where the Gospels mention tax collectors, and usually they are lumped in with ‘sinners’[2]. The very religious people often complained about the company Jesus kept: ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ they asked. For the tax collectors, like prostitutes, were included among those of questionable morality.

So here comes Zacchaeus. A wee guy, but a nasty piece of work. A tax collector.

A nasty piece of work, because he was a thief, a scammer, a fraudster. Not, as we might imagine a tax collector today, a respectable civil servant. Back then, tax collectors were con men.

For the Romans privatised tax collection. The tax men in Roman colonies like Judea were employed on a franchise basis. They were paid by results. The Romans let them keep a percentage of what they collected. It was a system ripe for corruption. So men like Zacchaeus collected taxes, on behalf of a foreign, occupying power, and got rich by overcharging their fellow countrymen. No wonder everyone hated them.

So, here comes Zacchaeus. The hated chief tax collector of Jericho. A man who has got rich by fleecing his neighbours on behalf of the Romans. And he’s come to see what’s happening- why all the crowds today? He wants to see who this Jesus is. He’s curious about Jesus. But he can’t see him. Because there is a great crowd around Jesus, a crowd of enthusiastic followers, of hangers on, of fans. And that crowd around Jesus means wee Zacchaeus can’t see him, even though he wants to.

I wonder what it is that stops you seeing Jesus? Is your life so crowded out with work, or worries, that you sometimes lose sight of Christ? Are you surrounded by people who block your view- people who despise you, people who seem bigger than you in so many ways? Maybe you need to find a tree, then. Climb up, see over their heads, and get a good look at Jesus.

Not only that- ask yourself- do we stop people seeing Jesus. We Christians claim that Christ is at the centre of our life together. We say that all we do in Church is about Christ. But do we sometimes we crowd him out? Do our often old fashioned rituals, with concerns about buildings and money, our arguments about doctrines and rules, stop the wee people seeing Jesus? Are we who are so keen to claim that Christ in our midst, a bit like that enthusiastic Jericho crowd, keen to be near the action, but blocking the view of Christ for others who need to see him?

Zacchaeus, though, has a plan. There’s a sycamore tree up ahead, and he sprints towards it, and soon he’s clambered up it. And I’m sure he looked pretty silly up there. I’m soon he was soon recognised- the despised tax collector, the wee scam merchant, up a tree like a naughty child. They may well have seen him, and made fun of him, jeering and laughing at him.

Imagine, if you will, the sort of life Zacchaeus might have lived. Yes, he was wealthy. And perhaps he was even feared. For it was the law- you had to pay your taxes. Many people, for example, would be farmers. But they couldn’t take their produce into the city going through a toll, where Zacchaeus or his underlings would demand payment. And if you attempted to argue with their reckoning if how much you owed, you might find yourself at the sharp end of a Roman spear. So Zacchaeus, was powerful, and feared. And he would be resented. And in the privacy of their homes, the farmers and fishermen and traders and ordinary folk of Jericho and the country around would have had no good words for him.

But what about this rabbi, this teacher of righteousness, whose arrival in Zacchaeus’s home city is causing such a stir. He sees the man in the tree, possibly surrounded by a jeering or resentful faces. But Jesus, for some reason, knows his name, and he call out his name: ‘Zacchaeus, climb down out of that tree, and hurry, because I’m coming to stay in your house today’.

Christ today still awaits the opportunity to say something to those who feel despised, rejected, or crowded out by a busy world. He’s waiting to say words of grace and of love. For these are words of grace and love. You would expect a travelling preacher to go and stay with a respected religious figure (and we do here of Christ eating in the homes of religious leaders, such as the Pharisees). For this was an Eastern culture, where it was a great honour to give hospitality to an important guest. So it is an act of divine grace for Christ to decide to go and be a guest at Zacchaeus’s house. It is as if he has picked the most unlikely place in the city to go to.

And you get an idea of this by the reactions to Christ’s words. The crowd don’t like it:

All the people who saw it started grumbling, “This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner!”

Because that’s what he is- Zacchaeus a sinner. How dare a rabbi honour him by going to stay with him? But Zacchaeus is delighted: he ‘hurried down and welcomed [Jesus] with great joy’. For at last, someone has a kind word for him.

It’s sometimes said that the mission of the church is to let people hear Jesus saying to them, ‘Follow me’. That’s’ what happened to the other tax collector, Matthew:

As [Jesus] he walked along, he saw a tax collector, named Matthew, sitting in his office. He said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him.[3]

And it was as simple as that for Matthew. But to another man, a rich man, Jesus said, ‘Sell all you have and give the money to the poor… then come and follow me’[4]. To people in a hungry crowd he gave bread and fish. Sometimes his message was ‘Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven is near!’[5] Sometimes he doesn’t say much, but just heals and brings wholeness to a broken life.

Because every person is different, and so Christ treated people differently, saw different needs, and different possibilities for different people. In Zacchaeus he saw, not a sinner, not a corrupt tax collector, but a man who was so curious about Jesus he climbed. And also, a man who needed a kind word, a sign that he was not beyond the pale, a man who needed to be reconciled with God and his neighbours.

So Jesus doesn’t say to Zacchaeus, ‘Follow me’. In fact, he says to Zacchaeus: ‘I’m going to follow you! I am going to follow you to your house, and you are going to give me my dinner, and I don’t care what the crowd thinks’. And Jesus honours the tax collector and sinner, Zacchaeus, by his presence in his house.

Sometimes Jesus throws down a challenge; ‘Follow me!’ But sometimes, it seems, Jesus just follows you home. He sees you’re curious, and he says, ‘I’m going to come home with you’. This reminds me a bit of the story of the walk to Emmaus. After rumours of Jesus’ resurrection, two men met a stranger in the road. They invited him to stay with them. And when, at table, the stranger broke the bread and blessed it, they recognised that it was Christ who had come home with them.

Today we are commissioning Dot to help lead us in mission. And in a way we are also commissioning ourselves anew, because this isn’t just Dot’s job- it’s the job of us all. We are being challenged to go into the street, as Zacchaeus did, and see what Jesus is doing. We are being challenged to leave our comfort zones, to climb trees if need to, in order to see Jesus who Jesus is. And we are challenged to do as Jesus did- to find the right words, or do the right things, so that people encounter, in Christ, the grace and love of God, which is available to everyone without exception.

That report on tax I helped write back in 2015 was about how many multinational companies don’t even render unto Caesar. They find ways to avoid their taxes. Well, Zacchaeus was also part of a broken, corrupt and unfair tax system, in which got rich at the expense of his neighbours. But they hated him for it. And he is so delighted that Jesus has a good word for him, he says he’s going to pay it all back:

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.” 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.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is what Jesus is all about. He comes to save those who are lost in a corrupt and unfair world. He comes with a good word for the despised, and can change lives so that the robbers give back to the poor, so that the cheated find justice. We might have to climb a tree to see him, but Jesus is at work in our city, bringing the grace, and justice, and love of God.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/speak_out/archive/poverty_and_economics/tax

[2] See https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=439635810

[3] Matthew 9.9

[4] Matthew 19.21

[5] Matthew 4.17