It is curious that Jesus says
salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house,
”because he too is a son of Abraham.”
It isn’t because Zacchaeus
gave away half his belongings
and a whole lot of money —
it is because he is a Jew.
Now I know a bunch of Christians
that wouldn’t like the idea that
someone gets Salvation who isn’t Christian —
just like the people around Jesus
grumbled that he ate dinner
with a tax collector.
We don’t really like it that God’s love
is so abundant that anyone can get it.
And by the way,
I look at Zacchaeus’ sudden generosity
like I do those advertisements promising
$100 off if you buy three.
If they can afford to take $100 off the top
then they are making a bunch more than $100.
If Zacchaeus is going to pay back
”four times” what he defrauded,
then he gouged a whole bunch more
than four times what the tax required.
Now I like this odd little story, so allow me
to help us listen more carefully
to what it tells us.
We get fixated on the fact that Zacchaeus
was short and climbed a tree,
but the action hovers around his social standing
not how tall he was when he was standing up.
The folks telling this story hated Zacchaeus.
He was a collaborator.
Zacchaeus was like one of those Vichy French
that collaborated with the Nazis
and got fat doing it.
Or closer to home,
a greasy executive of a credit card company
getting rich off of obscene usury
from people that can’t really afford it.
You get the picture — he was hated.
When Luke tells us Zacchaeus was a tax collector,
he doesn’t mean someone
with a government job and benefits
that works for the IRS.
A tax collector in the Roman system of occupation
was a local
who squeezed his neighbors
like a loan-shark with brass knuckles.
Tax collectors went around exacting
whatever the Roman’s charged at the time,
but were also allowed to charge excess
to pay themselves and their cronies.
It was a despicable act of self-enrichment
at the expense of neighbors.
Luke tells us that Zacchaeus
was the “chief” tax collector.
He was the guy
over all the other guys
that everyone hated.
He was also a Jew — one of them —
and therefore the most hated guy.
Then, just to make sure we get it,
Luke says, “and he was rich.”
Do you hear the class warfare?
This story does not come from patricians in Rome
or the small niche of well-off Judeans,
it was a story told by hardscrabble peasants
who hated anyone rich
and especially those who got rich
But the storyteller understands
such hatred is not pretty.
In fact, the class hatred embedded in this story
is also a target of the punch line.
To everyone’s dismay,
the hero of the story, Jesus,
picks Zacchaeus to hang out with.
But there is even more
to read between the lines,
and to see underneath the obvious.
As we know, to eat at the table of a tax collector
was not just socially obnoxious
and a clear betrayal of class solidarity,
it was spiritually impure.
Tax collectors mixed with pig-eaters, heathen,
and made themselves religiously impure doing so.
They had to interact with gentiles
and exchange money with them,
and enter into their homes and establishments.
Tax collectors were therefore
spiritually filthy and dirty
and not to be socialized with
by anyone who cared for their own
By going to hang out with Zacchaeus,
and actually eating a meal at his table,
Jesus was violating social,
spiritual, and religious taboos
more powerful than any social norms
we have today.
We can hear the outrage and dismay
in the tone of the story
even two thousand years later —
even after it has been translated
into an alien language
and filtered through multiple historic cultures.
“Jesus, what are you doing with Zacchaeus?”
Then the storyteller does something interesting.
He or she does not tell us what happened
but simply shows us what happened.
We do not get to know anything other than that:
He gave back what he extorted from people,
and gave away half of what he had
to those who had nothing.
But that is all we know.
Jesus ate with him
and he changed.
We don’t even get to know
if that changed how people viewed Zacchaeus
or if they went on hating him.
We don’t know
if he stopped being a tax collector.
All we know is that Jesus ate with him
and at least on that one day,
from despicable to generous.
Now giving away our stuff
is more difficult for some than for others —
and boy, it’s too bad
this isn’t a stewardship sermon.
But for all of us, I feel certain,
there are times when giving our stuff away
is like trying to slide a heavy couch over carpet.
In other words,
lots of grunting and groaning
just to pry a little bit out of us.
It may not be money we have a hard time sharing —
it may be our time,
or whatever it is
we just really hate to share.
But the universe is not a zero-sum game.
We often act like it is —
sometimes we feel like anyone
who gets something
gains it at our expense.
We act as if we live in a world of scarcity
that is dog-eat-dog
and that is the way it has to be.
But it doesn’t take even 20-20 eyesight
to see that the Creation
was not designed with scarcity
as the guiding principle.
In the world God made
there is abundance
and the problem is not scarcity
We muck up the abundance
by hoarding, over-accumulation,
and refusing to design
systems of equitable distribution.
But my saying so won’t convince
anyone of abundance
if what they see is scarcity.
If what we fear is loss,
and what we want is absolute security,
then proclaiming abundance
will fall on deaf ears.
Still, Creation is dripping with abundance
as if the medicated leaves of the rain forest;
as if the sands of every desert
which hide minions of miraculous creatures
that live and work and play
in and under and over
even the oven-baked crust of the earth.
We cannot turn our head
or look beyond our nose
without witnessing abundance
where we assumed scarcity – unless of course,
we simply do not want to see it.
But something about God,
and the agents of God,
causes us to change and see it.
It is a curious thing
we can see what just moments before
we could not see
when we brush up against the holy.
For some people,
after a moment of holy shock and awe,
the change lasts for a lifetime.
For others it is a momentary change.
But there is something about the presence of God
or being in the presence of an agent of God,
that changes us.
We suddenly get more generous than before.
We suddenly get less scared and more open.
We suddenly see the ill effects of our own behavior
in ways we never quite recognized before.
We suddenly want to be different
and make up for what we’ve done.
We suddenly listen to the angels of our better nature
and live out beyond our self-interest.
when standing in the presence of God
or an agent of God,
want and need to be different
than we have ever been before.
We could speculate all day long
and far into the night,
why God has that effect on us
but there is really no point
because we don’t get to know.
Rather, we can simply recognize
that such change
is part of the physics of God
and do what we can do
to position ourselves
to be open to God’s presence when it comes.
We can scurry up a tree and wait
or stand by the road and wait
or enter into a yoga position and wait
or come to a place like this and wait.
There is nothing we can DO
to make God or the agents of God
come our way.
But we can prepare ourselves
to be open
when it happens.
We can DO the things we need to do
to open ourselves to the actual
and ordinary presence
of God in our midst.
I am going to name just one,
even though there are likely a gazillion
things we can do to open ourselves to the holy.
We know that fear
is a powerful emotion
and it is probably the primary cause
of spiritual blindness
and emotional resistance
when it comes to perceiving abundance.
One of the things we can do,
that we can work on,
is practice seeing abundance
instead of fearing scarcity.
Evoking gratitude is how to do it.
It is difficult
to feel both gratitude and fear
at the same time,
but it is possible.
It’s like learning to pat your head
and rub your tummy at the same time.
It is a matter of practice.
Gratitude for what we have
or have had —
or have seen and done and known —
is an experience
that is at one and the same time
and future tense.
It is a vibe
from wherever we are standing
and moves outward
to encircle where we have been.
Gratitude is down right spooky
in how powerful it is
because it can start as something small
and grow to encase the moment
before we even realize it.
And gratitude hardly needs any room
or soil to grow and expand –
just a tiny little note
or even pea-pod
within the heart.
So the practice of standing, for example,
within the arid land of our resentments
and actively looking for things
to feel grateful for,
will have a profound effect.
Whether we are Zacchaeus
or those who hate Zacchaeus,
even a small garden of gratitude
will open us
to encounter God.
anything can happen.