New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus and Zacchaeus
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
A different perspective:
“I don’t really know what all the fuss is, but I heard Jesus was coming to Jericho. I’ve heard stories from travelers passing through that he has healed some really sick people, forgiven and accepted some people that don’t normally have any stature in the community and welcomed with love tax collectors like me. I don’t really like taking money from the people in my community, but Rome wants the taxes and I need to feed my family so that is the job I have to do and most of the jobs out there require a physique I just don’t have. I had heard that tons of people would be coming to see him as he passed through town just like other places he has been and I thoughtthe only shot I would have to get a glimpse of this guy Jesus would be to run ahead and find somewhere on high ground. So I headed up in front of the crowd, but I was still having a hard time seeing with so many folks standing in front of me. I spotted the sycamore tree and thought that climbing up a bit would help me get a better view, and that’s where I was perched as Jesus came down the road. I waited with great anticipation and out of the way of the crowd.
Just as Jesus reached the spot in the road under my tree, he looked up directly into my eyes. He called me by name. By MY name. I was shocked; how did he know who I was? Then, again, just talking to me, he told me to come down because he was going to stay at my house. Well, when Jesus says he needs you, you better “hop to!” I couldn’t believe my ears! Why me? A Tax Collector even! But I scrambled down and started walking with Jesus to my home. As we turned to walk away together, I could hear the not so quiet grumblings of the religious leaders and others in the crowd – I’ve become used to the way folks look at me and talk badly about me and my family. That’s the risk you take when you are the Chief Tax Collector. But it still stings to have people speak about you like you aren’t as good as they are.
So I stopped with Jesus right there. I felt like I needed to justify myself to Jesus and those who were watching, so I pledged to give away half of everything I owned to the members of our community who lived in deep poverty. I’ve always prided myself on being honest – I collected taxes to send to the Roman government and only kept enough for myself to take care of my family, but I assured Jesus that I would make amends to any who felt like I had taken more than necessary; I promised that and so much more if needed. But Jesus said the most unexpected thing: He welcomed me into the Body of Christ with open arms and no strings attached. As his eyes burned into mine, he told me he was there for me. My life had been just lived for me until that day, when he gave me and my family the gift of salvation. I will forever be changed by this intimate encounter with Jesus and commit to sharing the Good News of Christ to all I meet.”
Ok, I fudged a little to make a point. Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt on that once in a lifetime day. Forget about the special event that Jesus provided by calling him by name and stating his intention to stay in his home – unthinkable based on his stature in society. Then, when Zacchaeus realizes everyone is looking at him as if he could never deserve such an honor, he tries to prove himself to Jesus. But Jesus never even acknowledges the offer to give away his possessions and pay back anyone wronged by him four times over. He just welcomes him to accept the greatest gift of salvation. No questions asked and no task required.
I’ll bet that shut up the crowd for a second…once they headed down the road the family home though, I’m sure the talk started right back up again. “Unbelievable!” “No way!” “Zacchaeus…are you kidding me?” Surely that is just a snippet of the nasty things said about him when he came down from the tree to Jesus and again when they were out of earshot.
Why do we sometimes hate it when others are blessed? Why do we look down on others based on their lot in life? Why do we always think we are better than anyone else? Why don’t we read stories like this and realize that each of us is worthy of redemption and forgiveness, as Jesus proves time and time again in our Gospel readings? All we have to do is turn to him. So ignore the negative talk (both from others and from yourself), stop judging others like we are better than them and turn to Christ. Simple, huh? Simple but not easy…that’s why we keep having to do it over and over again, every single day of our lives. And spread the Good News in the world. That is all God wants from us is to serve his Kingdom with love.
Lord of all mercies, we give you thanks for your incredible generosity and your forgiveness of all we do to drive a wedge between ourselves and our Savior. Keep us looking ahead to salvation and give us strength and courage to speak of your children with love. Thank you for the perspective of Zacchaeas and for welcoming us into eternal life. We ask all things through Jesus Christ who loves us. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“At least I’m not like THOSE people.” I’ve said it. I’ve thought it. I’ve meant it.
I can be pretty proud of myself at times. I believe it when I read a news article about my most recent professional accomplishment. When people tell me I’m a great principal, I love that feeling. After meeting our family and chatting with our almost graduated from high school daughter, and compliments about her are given to us as parents, we can get pretty puffed up with pride. When I do something kind for someone else and hear how I have helped them, I can feel pretty darn good about myself. Let’s just go with this…I don’t suffer from a self-image problem or deal with debilitating insecurities.
But today’s lesson from Luke is all about the humility with which we are to approach our life in Christ. The Pharisee does one heck of a job of pumping up and list his accomplishments to an all-knowing and all-seeing God. It’s like he is looking for God to thank him with a big “Atta Boy!” for living a righteous life. And in comparison, the tax-collector, that lowest of the lows in society at the time comes before God with a humble heart and asks for mercy without even raising his eyes toward heaven. Jesus then shares that little nugget at the end about the humbled being exalted, essentially admonishing the bragger and do-gooder for forgetting that God’s gifts come without any strings attached.
To be exalted is to be elevated in status and that is exactly what Jesus tells us to will happen when we live our life in deference to the gifts of grace and mercy. The Pharisee approaches God as if to collect what he deserves…but let’s face the truth here. We can never do enough good and follow enough rules to ever deserve God’s mercy. That’s the coolest and most humbling part of all – all we have to do is ask. And it is done. That’s it.
But make sure you want the elevated status in God’s eyes, rather than search for it in the eyes of others. With a somewhat high profile job in my community which provides a service, people tend to tell me things about myself that I could easily believe if I allowed what others’ think about me to influence my status. I could believe that I have almost magical leadership powers if their interpretations of my leadership are correct. I could also believe the opposite on my worst day as a principal if I let the feelings of others determine my worth. So I try to find a balance – I am my worst critic for sure – but in God’s eyes, I am his creation and therefore must turn to him to be given the gift of grace and mercy.
Today’s parable is a cautionary tale to be wary of puffing up oneself to others and especially to God. He knows all that we are and all that we are not without our need to list off the accomplishments and/or failures. No matter how we are feeling about our worth to ourselves or our family/friends/community, approach God with an open heart to the gift of justification through our humility. And we will be exalted through him.
Lord, we are not worthy to accept your gift of your one and only Son. Yet we know that you intended that gift just for us. Help us to stay humble in our good works and remind ourselves we are deserving of your grace and mercy. For our exaltation is for you and for your alone. AMEN.