So, today’s story is about Zacchaeus. And what comes to mind when we think about Zacchaeus? That he was a wee, little man. Not very politically correct to label a man like that. In today’s world, we may say that he was vertically-challenged. Whenever I think of Zacchaeus being targeted for his height and how he may feel about it, I always think of this clip from the movie ELF with Peter Dinklage.
And with all that we learn about Zacchaeus, his height is the most minor detail in this story for us to unpack. What Zacchaeus did for a living is more significant. The scripture tells us that he was a chief tax collector. This was not a good thing. This meant that he worked for the Roman government in taxing his own people, the Jews. The Jewish people were under Roman occupation. The Romans were seen as the enemy. So, for a Jewish person to work with the occupying government to tax their own people was seen as corrupt and inexcusable. Not only that, but Zacchaeus could work the system for him to get a significant percentage of the profits, thus building his wealth off of the backs of his own people. To say that Zacchaeus was hated and despised was an understatement. Consider the crowd as Jesus was arriving. Let’s think of a parade. Most kind-hearted people allow the shorter, younger people in front of us so that they can see what is going on. The grown adults tend to be in the back of the crowd because they can see over the tops of all the others. But Zacchaeus knows better than to push his way to the front of the crowd. For all he knows, some God-fearing zealot might stick a knife in his back if he is in the middle of the crowd. So instead of taking any chances, Zacchaeus climbs up a tree to see Jesus pass by.
Now let’s consider Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, knowing that the cross is waiting for him. But instead of taking the most direct route to Jerusalem, he goes way out of his way so that he can have this connection with Zacchaeus. This testifies to us the amazing grace of how God often goes out of his way to pursue us. In Methodist theology, we call this PREVENIENT GRACE. That is the grace that “goes before us.” Before we knew anything about God, He was the one who made the first move in pursuing us. While we were still sinners, Christ dies for us.
Then Jesus notices Zacchaeus in the tree and invites himself to his house, and Zacchaeus welcomes him gladly. And this wasn’t just a “come over for brunch” type deal. When it says that Zacchaeus welcomed him gladly, it went much deeper than only an invitation to eat together. I suspect that this was the moment of transformation in the life of Zacchaeus in which he gladly welcomed Jesus not only into his home but into all areas of his life. We call this JUSTIFYING GRACE when we connect with Jesus in a significant way where we are forgiven of our sins and are then justified before God because of our faith in Jesus.
Now Shelly and I have many conversations about our past experiences growing up and working in various churches and our experiences here. Some of them are fond memories, some of them are painful. Some of it reflects on the good, and other parts are deconstructing what we were taught and trying to reconstruct what our faith looks like now. In a recent conversation we had, Shelly described how we were inundated with sermons about “getting saved” in our past. There was A LOT of emphasis on getting people to say the “sinner’s prayer” and begin a new relationship with Jesus. I participated in many activities and courses that taught me how to share my faith in such a way as to get others to want to convert to faith in Jesus. Pray this prayer. Sign this paper. BOOM! You are saved and going to heaven. The only problem with that is that this is not how Jesus operated. Jesus doesn’t give us “3 easy steps” to get into heaven. In fact, if we back up to Luke 18, just one chapter beforehand, we see some interesting stories leading up to the encounter with Zacchaeus.
At the beginning of Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector coming to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” While the tax collector prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus points out that it was the tax collector that went home justified.
Then at the end of Luke 18, Jesus is confronted by the rich, young ruler. Here is a guy who wants to be saved. So, Jesus, knowing this guy’s heart issues, begins by telling him to obey the commandments. In response, the man is proud to list the commands that he has faithfully followed. Then Jesus cuts to the heart by telling him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and then come follow him. The man turned away, sad because he was very wealthy. Jesus did not get him to say a quick prayer to get him into the club. Instead, Jesus wanted total surrender, not only of him as a person but everything else that came with him. The rich, young ruler couldn’t do it. You need to see here that salvation is not just a spiritual reality but also impacts our physical reality. In fact, it impacts everything about us!
Now we pick our original story back up with Zacchaeus. Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and says, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” And we are told that Zacchaeus came down at once and welcomed Jesus gladly. This is once again more than just receiving Jesus to his house. He received Jesus into his life. All of it.
As Jesus went to spend time with Zacchaeus at his home, many people took notice of this. The crowd was not too kind. They began saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Let’s stew on this a little bit. In Jewish culture, the idea of purity was a big deal. You had to obey specific laws to be ritually pure if you wanted to participate in life as usual. You could not touch dead things or mold or mildew, or you could become impure. If you were impure, then there were a whole set of other laws you needed to follow to become pure again and be accepted back into the community.
And don’t think for a second that we don’t have our own types of purity culture. In many youth ministries, there is a heavy emphasis on sexual purity. If you choose abstinence until you get married, then all your dreams will come true. But make a mistake, then you are just used goods. There has been a huge industry of shame used to control teens into making decisions about their sexuality. That is not to say we shouldn’t give our teens guidance, advice, and boundaries, but there must be grace, love, and forgiveness woven into our language. And it is not just sexual purity. Sometimes purity culture morphs into thinking we are better than others. If we are honest, we easily divide up people into categories that always make us look better. We have names for them: Karen; ok, boomer; people of Walmart. We are always quick to judge people based on their looks, their clothes, their status, their weight, their age, their sexuality, their color.
The crowd was judging Jesus for contaminating himself with someone who was considered impure. In this culture, it was seen that contact with impurity would transfer over to others and make them unclean also. But Jesus operated differently. Wherever Jesus went, whatever he touched, whoever he met, whatever he came into contact with, his purity had a more significant impact on others, making what is considered impure now pure or clean. This was a radical change in how purity worked. This was a radical change in how Jesus worked.
Now that Jesus has changed the life of Zacchaeus, the question we want to ask is how did it impact or affect Zacchaeus himself? Was he to go back to life as usual? Going back to being a scoundrel of a tax collector throughout the week, but make sure he goes to the temple on Sunday and give some money to the offering, then all is good? I think not. Jesus did not let the rich, young ruler off the hook, and neither was Zacchaeus. Instead, Zacchaeus is immediately confronted with the corrupt way he did business and wants to make things right with his people. He says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” This, my friends, is called reparations. Zacchaeus felt convicted to make things right with those he cheated to become rich. He recognized that he had an occupation in which he became very wealthy off of other people’s backs. And he took advantage of them for a long time. He acknowledged that he took advantage of the system to grow his wealth at the expense of others. And he was immediately convicted of making things right. Zacchaeus’s faith was not just a personal, private thing, but it impacted him holistically and publicly. So, a couple of points to make here:
1) This action that Zacchaeus is taking after being confronted with Jesus would be considered SANCTIFYING GRACE. This is God’s grace that works within us to make us more like Jesus all throughout our lifetime. So, we see the whole pattern of grace in this story: PREVIENENT GRACE is the grace that comes before when Jesus went out of his way to pursue Zacchaeus. God is always pursuing people even before they ever know it. Then there is JUSTIFYING GRACE that represents that moment when we receive Jesus into our lives, and we become justified before God on account of Jesus cleansing us of our sin and being our righteousness. And then SANCTIFYING GRACE is when the Holy Spirit works within our lives to help us be more and more like Jesus in all areas of our life, both private and public. It affects how we interact with people, how we do business, how we conduct ourselves, how we love others, and of course, what we do with what we have, and how we steward our resources fairly and equitably. Our faith ought to seep into all areas of our lives.
2) Let’s talk about reparations. Zacchaeus wanted to repair the way he did business by making things right with those he took advantage of in his business practice. A very cursory study of American history has shown us that white European settlers took advantage of the Americas’ indigenous people. Time and time again, our country would make deals with them only to break promise after promise. Also, the institution of slavery was used for 250 years to build this nation. People from Africa, who are image-bearers of God just like us, were stolen from their country and brought here by force to be used in one of the cruelest forms of slavery in history. When slavery ended, it just morphed into other ways of keeping the white race in control and the African American race under subjugation: through Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, among many other things. I have my ideas about what we as a nation should do to rectify our past sins. But I am not holding my breath. I can ask us, though, what can we do as a church? How can we respond to current-day racism? What can we do to try and make things right in light of our dark past? The hope is that we bring reconciliation and restoration to all. That we create a community in which we see the inherent worth and dignity of all as image-bearers of God. And that we live in a country that is fair and just for all equally. I will be the first to admit that I have grown up in a country that has benefited me tremendously simply for being a white, heterosexual male. How can we be welcoming and inclusive for all, not only within our church walls but also out in our community and throughout our country?
Here is the deal, we are called to be ministers of reconciliation, not just reconciling people with God but also with each other. This is the kingdom of God we are to be living in right now. And when we do this correctly, we draw people to Jesus instead of repeal people away from the church. What does working toward reconciliation and reparations look like for the United Methodist Church? So far, here at Epiphany, we have people involved in a social justice group studying and talking about this very thing. I would encourage all of you to read the book “Be The Bridge.” Christian author Latasha Morrison, an African American, helps us understand our faith and how to pursue God’s heart for racial reconciliation. It is one of the best books I read on the topic of racial reconciliation. Another book I would highly recommend is “The Color of Compromise” by Jemar Tisby. This book helped me see the church’s complicity throughout American history when it came to its response to racism. Both of these books will be offered as small group studies throughout the rest of the year. I think this should be required reading for all Epiphanyites. But our efforts shouldn’t stop at reading books. We need to wrestle with how we can be more welcoming and inclusive to all people, connect with other organizations and other churches to help, and be a blessing to them to inspire and encourage racial reconciliation. How can we help in areas related to poverty, incarceration, addiction, and families in crisis? How can we help to bring equity to education, housing, and access to jobs?
So, today’s theme is the Uncertainty of Surrender. We have always liked the idea of privately surrendering to Jesus, making a personal commitment to follow Him. But why is it so hard to publicly surrender to him in all the other areas of our life; making things right, repairing broken relationships, reconciling all people to live into being the whole and diverse body of Christ? Jesus didn’t give us a prayer to say to be in the club, and then all is good from there on out. Instead, he continuously said, follow me. Follow me.
Follow my example.
Follow my lead.
Follow as I am doing.
Has Jesus impacted you in this way? We may not talk a lot about salvation as compared to my past experiences, but we must ask what is Jesus saving us from? Yes, he is saving us from our sins, but he is also saving us from ourselves. He is in the business of saving us and transforming us so that we are more and more like Jesus in all areas of our life so that we as a community represent the present Kingdom of God as an alternative to the broken kingdoms of this world. Just like Zacchaeus, have you opened yourself up to Jesus breaking into all areas of your life? Have you surrendered to Jesus, allowing him to save you from yourself? If not, know that Jesus is pursuing you, inviting you, and welcoming you into this kingdom project. He is there and has always been there. Are you willing to come down out of the tree and follow him? What are you holding on to that prevents you from surrendering to his call? What do you not want to let go of? Today would be a great day to surrender to Jesus and allow Him into your home and transform your life from the inside out. If you are ready for this move, then I invite you to follow Jesus. Jesus loves you where you are at, but he never intends to leave us there. He intends to take us on a journey of total surrender to his will and purpose for our lives. And what a journey it is.