Sunday, October 31, 2010

All Saints'

Luke 19
1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." 6So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.' "
8But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "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."
9Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."

A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? I have kept the commandments since I was a boy.”
Jesus said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"


The rich young ruler, not so much. But Zacchaeus can. He can be saved by being the antithesis of the rich young ruler, the answer to the very astute question “who then, can be saved.”

You see, Zacchaeus was rich. He may have been richer than the rich young ruler, because the rich young ruler likely had lands and servants and portion set aside for him alone, but Zacchaeus, he had Amway. You remember Amway, the greatest pyramid since the pharaohs made their mark. It worked like this: the harder you worked, the less you needed to. Sign up and sell some soap. Sign up soap sellers, and collect a portion of their sales. Insist that they sign up sellers and collect a portion of the sellers sellers, and so on, and so on. With a little luck, and lots of arm twisting, you could become the head of your own soap empire.

Now imagine Amway is Rome and Zacchaeus is the head of the Jericho leg. Jericho, some claim is the oldest city in the world, the centre of all those trade routes, the place where you tried out your sales pitch before you made it to some far off market. So Zacchaeus was a wealthy man in a wealthy city, made wealthier by collecting taxes from tax collectors in his own private pyramid scheme.

And they didn’t just collect taxes either. They collected whatever they could squeeze from the people, remitting the required amount to Rome. The rest, as our Mayor-elect might say, was gravy. Tax collectors were the Sopranos of the ancient near-east, using whatever threats and intimidation required to get what Rome needed and whatever else was needed for them to live well. In Luke 3, a group of tax collectors are moved by the preaching of John the Baptist and they ask “what should we do to be saved?” His reply: “Don’t collect anymore than you are required to.” In other words, starve, because what was required was required by Rome and what wasn’t required was required to eat.

Oddly, the words “tax collector” appear only once in the Old Testament, very late, in the Book of Daniel. It requires a tax collector, the author says, to “maintain the royal splendor.” But in Matthew, Mark and Luke, “tax collectors” are mentioned twenty-five times, beginning with the call of St. Matthew, a tax collector. As so it begins:

Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him.
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."

Jesus had a thing for outcasts, even the outcasts people loved to hate. And Zacchaeus was chief among them. But there was a tree, and there was a path nearby, and there was Jesus passing through. To the delight of Sunday School teachers everywhere, Jesus stopped at the base of that tree and said “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I’m coming to your house for tea.”

If the question is “who then can be saved” and the answer is Zacchaeus, the reason is this: "Look, Lord!” he said, “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." In other words, he became a slave. After half, and after four times all the cheating and all the excess, Zacchaeus has less than nothing and could do little more than sell himself to another to cover the debt he created. If there was a needle nearby, Zacchaeus would be riding a camel straight through it.

But he was already a small man. Maybe not needle small, but small enough that it merited mention the Luke’s account. So why a physical description of the man in a book that seems determined to offer no descriptions. What did Jesus look like? Doesn’t say. I guess it wasn’t important to the story. Or maybe he needs to look exactly like he looks in your mind’s eye, because this will help us love him more. But Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and between being short, and climbing trees, and needing coaxing out of said tree, we hear the lighter side of Luke, the lighter side of collecting taxes.

Notice that there has never been a situation comedy set in a tax office? It just wouldn’t be that funny. It would cause the audience tense up, and however clever the jokes and the repartee, the setting would prove unfunny. A surgical unit in the middle of the Korean War, now that’s funny. But never a tax office. But Jesus might, or at least Luke might, because the little man and the big tree has been making us chuckle for some time.

Are we being softened up? Did St. Matthew successfully lobby for a sympathetic portrayal of tax collectors in exchange for joining the group? No, Jesus is busy, once again, coaxing us from our own tree.

For Zacchaeus the tree was obvious. Remember last week: “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'” This is Zacchaeus, or at least some one speaking the words that Zacchaeus might have said if he wasn’t busy trying to keep from falling out of that tree. Zacchaeus knew who he was, and knew what he did, and knew that Jesus was his only hope. Do we know this?

Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, was concerned with defining the true faith, the faith that had faded from the world of the early 1500’s, but he also worried that everything he believed be shared with the masses, the people who did the living and dying in churches and communities everywhere. To this end, he created The Small Catechism, a booklet that described what “the head of the family should teach in a simple way to those in the household.” It takes the form of a dialogue. Here is a section that might resonate for our wee friend, if he was time traveling and could read some German:

1. What is Confession?
There are two parts to confession. One is that we confess our sins. The other is that we receive absolution, or forgiveness.

2. What sins should we confess?
Before one another we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.

3. Which sins are these?
Examine your place in life according to the Ten Commandments. Have you been faithful as a father, mother, son, daughter, employer or employee? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you injured anyone by what you have said or done? Have you stolen anything, neglected your duty, been careless, or damaged anything?

4. What will a fellow Christian say to someone who has confessed his or her sins?
He will say, “According to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you your sins.”

It is as if Luke took the temple tax collector, forgiven but not very compelling, and gave him the name Zacchaeus. It is as if he took the least sympathetic person in town and granted him more than forgiveness, and give him friendship with Jesus. Took us from the thing we struggle to understand (tax collectors can be saved too) and said they belong at the heavenly banquet, sitting near the front, at Jesus side, because his love for them was unconditional.

Imagine a world where the person you respect the most enjoys the person you like the least. I’m not sure how happy I would be in that world. I want the friend of my friend to be my friend too. Friendship is a form of loyalty, and how can I be loyal to a friend who will be friend with just anyone, or someone I can’t help but hate? This religion thing is hard.

And so we confess. We confess that the road is long and the demands are great, and our Lord made curious choices that wouldn’t be my choices and force me to confess some more. We confess that every time Jesus seems to go too far on this friend thing we push back only to have him go one step further and befriend someone else.

In the end, however, even Jesus knew where to stop. “Father,” he said from the cross, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What goes unrecorded, what stayed even the hand of the evangelist and scribe, is what Jesus said next: “And I still call them friends.” Amen.


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