Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector and a wealthy man. What would drive him up a tree?
It’s easy to like Zacchaeus’s story. It’s easy to admire his spunk, or his zeal. He’s fantastically ready to give away half of what he has, and to repay what he may justly owe. I’d love to be able to identify with that particular readiness. I don’t think I can. Sometimes, though I think I do identify with Zacchaeus as he climbs the sycamore. Because like many of you I know something about what it is to feel faintly ridiculous about my own desire to see Jesus. That feeling of having gone out on a limb is familiar to many Christians in the twenty-first century. Nice story. I’m glad to see him get his reward.
Still, why should he have to climb a tree? We know he wants to see Jesus. Everybody does. That’s a good thing, right? They want to cast eyes upon Jesus as he passes through, and it’s hard not to feel some kinship with them. There is some kind of ardor, or at least a powerful curiosity, that leads that crowd to stand by the side of the road, just hoping to get a glimpse of this healer and teacher on his way to Jerusalem. They know something is happening in their midst, and as New Testament crowds go, that makes them pretty enlightened. Just last week, the Gospel of Matthew told us about Jesus being unable to do anything much in a crowd of people from his own hometown, because they lacked faith and they took offense at him. But Luke’s crowd from Jericho is all fired up. They aren’t hiding their interest in Jesus. They’ve turned out for Jesus in large numbers, it seems. We would do well to learn from them.
But it still bothers me that Zacchaeus has to climb a tree. While that crowd has come together to seek Jesus, while their eyes are trained on this itinerant holy man, they seem unable or unwilling to notice their short friend Zacchaeus. Do you ever wonder about this? It’s fun to imagine him climbing a tree, but what are the unspoken rules of that crowd that make him climb in the first place?
I wonder who else can’t see Jesus in that crowd. I wonder whom else it would be awkward for them to acknowledge. Are the children lifted up on their parents’ shoulders or do they stand in a sea of adults, wondering what all the excitement is about? Are they left to their own devices? I wonder what the man on crutches or the woman with the hemorrhage have to do to get close to the healer. What about the one with the demonic spirit or the leper or the one who is too hungry to focus on anything other than begging right at that moment? What do you do in that crowd if you are blind?
What would it feel like to be standing in a crowd and to realize that there is no way that particular group of people are going to get you close to what you’re looking for in your life with God? They’ll let you stand there, sure, but their backs are firmly turned away from your actual needs, your honest stature. They may have taken your measure silently—I guess everybody knows Zacchaeus is short—but they don’t want to talk about why you feel diminished among them. It would apparently feel awkward to turn to Zacchaeus and ask whether he would like to move up to the front of the line.
Zacchaeus knows how the game is played. He knows what kind of community that is. He is the chief tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman forces that dominate the people, and he knows that whatever he needs in that crowd, he has to take. He knows enough to know that no friendly invitation will be forthcoming. No one will overcome the awkwardness and shoo him on up to the front. So he runs ahead and climbs a tree. Like you do.
All this while, Jesus has been passing through the crowd of people eager to see him. He must intuit something about the spirit of that community. Maybe he just knows that they are like everybody else, and they come to see him in the same way they set about trying to get power or riches or approval or a good parcel of land or the best place at a banqueting table. You take what you want because it’s not going to be given to you. Jesus knows that for that crowd, even desire for holiness has become a kind of a scarce commodity. There are only so many places at the front of the line, only so many people who can be touched by the holy man, only so many chances to have an encounter.
Maybe Jesus knows that we can’t stop ourselves from thinking that his love is a scarce commodity. We know that God’s love is infinite and ever-abundant but how often are we really willing to let that knowledge change how we live? How many people come and go among us, without a deep sense of having been known and loved? How many people can’t see Jesus here because of a feeling of elitism or exclusivity? What are the barriers to entry at Saint Mark’s, physical and social? Is there self-satisfaction? Competition?
The answer is “Yes, of course.” Not because this isn’t a great church. I know a lot about the warmth and forgiveness and faith and creative outreach that are available here, and it blows my mind sometimes to think about what happens in this place. But we are still sinners, aren’t we. This is and always will be a church full of sinners on a long, uneven, journey of healing and transformation. And every one of us will want to jockey for a position at some time or another. Every one of us will foolishly try to measure our own closeness to God by measuring the between us and the nearest competitor. Every one of us will slip into imagining that Jesus is the object of our desire, something out there to attain.
But Jesus is no object. Jesus is no commodity. Jesus is the desire itself. Jesus is the whole process of transformation: the curiosity, the heart warming. And Jesus is the excluded one, too: the short one, the forgotten one, the one who comes out on the wrong end of the social interaction, the one who has already been written off before the competition starts.
And so while all the good people of Jericho, with their growing sense of spiritual desire, jockey for the chance to feast their eyes upon Jesus, our Lord turns his own eyes upon Zacchaeus, and he reorders that whole community. He redirects their quest. “Zacchaeus,” he says, “I need your hospitality.”
Now, I guess, if that crowd wants to get close to Jesus, they will have to go find him in uncomfortable proximity to the people they ignore. They will have to risk looking like the awkward people who hang out at Zacchaeus’s house. They will have to stop straining to achieve something for themselves, and start seeing the people Jesus sees, loving the people Jesus loves, choosing the people with whom Jesus has publicly cast his lot.
That’s a challenge for every one of us, every day. We will have to stop imagining that if we could just feel like insiders within these walls we could win the love of Jesus. We will have to become people who know that if our eyes are really on the Lord, they are constantly being trained to see our neighbors. What we want to receive, we will have to learn to offer. Instead of competing for something we imagine we can own, we have to learn to celebrate what God has in store for someone else.
We’ll have to engage that question that has been coming up again and again at Saint Mark’s in recent weeks: who is our neighbor? And the good news is that a great feast awaits those who are willing to ask that question and bear the answer. It’s a feast at which no scarcity need be feared, no outsider need ever be turned away, no sinner need hold back out of a sense of unworthiness. It’s a feast at which we find the community and belonging we have really always sought, a feast at which we drop the burdens of our own difference and our own isolation. Jesus is not far away, not just passing through our town on the way to Jerusalem. We don’t have to jockey for a place with him. Jesus is here with us, now, and he is playing host at the table of your least valued acquaintance. Let us seek him together. Let us find him. Let us dine with him in incomparable grace and splendor. Today and every day, salvation is coming to our house.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
October 30, 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia