Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 10, 2019
“It’s Just My Job”
Luke 19: 1-10 – The Message
In Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.
5-7 When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”
8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”
9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
Play the song “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man”
We gathered at Noodles and Company on Thursday for our lectionary lunch. When the group saw that Zacchaeus was our story today, Terri and Kat both broke out in song. I remember it, too, from Vacation Bible School and Sunday School, along with little figures of Jesus and Zacchaeus made out of felt. Some of us remember lessons that involved moving biblical characters around on a flannelgraph board. It was the technological marvel of its time. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can find examples on YouTube.
Zacchaeus makes for a compelling story. First, kids identify with Zacchaeus because they have the lived experience of not being able to see over adults when something important or interesting is happening. Second, Jesus told him, “Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” As a kid I was always so excited when a guest came to the house for a meal. It was certainly more interesting than eating with the same people every day. And third: Someone who notices you. Kids are often invisible. Or told they should be. “Seen but not heard;” though often, not seen either. Jesus made it a practice to see what others didn’t. Especially outsiders. The marginalized. The ostracized. Anyone considered the “least of these” was the most in his eyes.
The song says Zacchaeus was a wee little man. A terrible insult. Why do we teach kids a song that hurts people’s feelings? So, yes, the Bible says he’s of short stature. And he wanted to see Jesus so badly, he climbed a Sycamore tree where Jesus saw him. What else do we know about him? He’s rich. Perhaps most importantly, Zacchaeus was among the head tax collectors, which makes him a collaborator with Rome. We don’t know if he’s rich and also a tax collector or he’s rich because he’s a tax collector. Plenty of tax collectors were, in fact, rich because they skimmed more than their fair share off the top of taxes owed to their occupiers in Rome. Some parables make that point explicitly, but Jesus doesn’t say anything about that here.
Either way, upon seeing Jesus and Zacchaeus together, the crowd was indignant and grumbled. As we heard: “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?” Most translations say the crowd grumbled because Jesus has gone to be the “guest of a sinner.” But is Zacchaeus a crook or, as some commentators say, a “notorious” sinner? Or is that a stereotype because of his job?
Maybe you know what it’s like to be vilified for simply doing your job. The other day I was watching TV and scrolling through Prime, overwhelmed by the number of choices. I was pleased to see there were now reruns of one of Art and my favorite shows – Parking Wars. Parking Wars follows the lives of ticket writers and tow truck drivers. We watch as the general public disparages these civil servants for doing their jobs. Not just as they put boots on cars or discharge vehicles at the impound lot, but we watch as people yell all kinds of insults at them while they’re simply walking along the street or standing in line for lunch. They are trained to take the abuse, but it wears on them. Why all the animosity? Especially if yours is not the car being impounded? They are collaborators with the evil empire of Philadelphia. They’ll often respond, “It’s just my job.” Or, “this is how I provide for my family.” Or, “I’ve got mouths to feed and bills to pay.” You know, now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I enjoy this kind of entertainment…
But my point: Was Zacchaeus really a sinner or did the crowd simply despise him because of his job?
One of the biggest questions about how to interpret this story lies in one Greek word and whether it is present tense or future tense. Some of you who are grammar geeks will really love this. The eyes of others may glaze over while you mentally make a list of what you’re going to buy at the market after worship. But I promise this is important.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus and invited himself to dinner. Does Zacchaeus then reply to Jesus, “I will give half my possessions to the poor”? Or does he say, “I give half my possessions to the poor.” Does he say, “If I’m caught cheating, I repay them four times as much?” Or that now he will?
If it’s will give, that means Zacchaeus realized he was a sinner who needs to repent. But take away the word “will” and Zacchaeus is simply responding to the grumbling of the crowd. They’re not being fair because “I give half my possessions to the poor.” And if caught cheating, “I repay them four times as much.” By the way, the law only required restitution plus 20%. Zacchaeus pays 400%. Does he promise that he will or does he explain that this is what he does?
Here’s where it matters for interpretation. Some Christianity emphasizes human sinfulness and the need for repentance. They insist this story is about how he will give – that he met Jesus, repented, and will now give away half of his possessions. Except, here you go grammar geeks, there is no future tense for this Greek word. The only option is that this is something Zacchaeus already does, and therefore this is not a story about a repentant villain named Zacchaeus but a villainous, judgmental crowd. Any judging going on is how Jesus judges the crowd for labeling and excluding Zacchaeus. If not despised, making him feel invisible. Jesus repeats this important point by reminding the crowd that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham too. Future tense or present tense.
Someone asked, but what’s wrong with saying Zacchaeus is a sinner? Aren’t we all sinners? But, I ask, why is that label necessary? Isn’t it enough that we are all humans? Flawed. In need of grace and forgiveness. After all, we know how hard it is to be a human. Why must we go around labeling each other that way? How often is calling someone a sinner just a way to justify what you fear or hate? Perhaps I’m just sensitive about the whole “love the sinner hate the sin” thing. Which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with love but supposedly softens the prejudice. Yet, if we’re all defined as sinners, when does that happen? Does that include the baby out of the womb? When do those kids who climb trees in order to see over the adults become sinners?
There’s one more word that must be interpreted. Salvation. Jesus proclaims salvation has come to this house. Some may say, that means Zacchaeus has been saved and can now go to heaven. That’s too narrow. Salvation for Jesus is more than that. It’s wholeness and healing, on earth as it is in heaven. In many parables, healing meant they were able to return to their communities and families. The place where they can belong again. Which means, in other words, salvation has come. The healing work of Jesus restored people and their communities.
It reminds me of restorative justice. One local group is Colorado Circles for Change, formerly known as VORP, the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. It provides restorative justice programs for youth as an alternative to traditional punitive consequences in the juvenile justice system. It is a method for youth to take their actions seriously and resolve them in a way that restores the relationship. It is an intervention so these kids don’t become just another statistic in the pre-school to prison pipeline. Schools that use restorative justice instead of suspensions often prevent what becomes the inevitable next step to jail. CCFC helps youth acknowledge and heal harm, but also affirms their strengths, transforms their decision making, and reduces recidivism. And if you will indulge my pride, as some of you know that Art, after being introduced to VORP here in church, was honored on Thursday night for 10 years of volunteer service doing exactly that.
Restoring wholeness to the world includes ex-offenders too. We need robust re-entry programs to help those who have paid their debt to society so they can be fully reunited in their communities. Australia has a program called the Sycamore Tree. Embraced. Included. Instead of forever labeling people “felons,” thereby making some incapable of getting a job or renting a house.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly proclaimed that the kingdom of God is for the poor and the oppressed. He proclaims liberation for the captive, freedom for the prisoner, and sight for the blind. Jesus welcomes the misunderstood and reviled. And “the least of these.” The crowds who followed Jesus loved that. But, just steps from Jerusalem, counting down the days from his execution, this story takes it even further – maybe too far. The crowds liked it until Jesus proclaimed in this parable that the kingdom of God includes even Roman collaborators. That’s the scandal of this story. Even them.
But the scandal of this story won’t make sense until we place it in our context today. Who are the “even them!” for you? Sure, we can come up with a whole list of people reviled for doing their jobs. Meter maids and DMV employees and border patrol agents and hedge fund managers on Wall Street. But deeper in your gut, more viscerally, a feeling like how the crowd about Zacchaeus… How about officials in the Trump administration? Not civil servants just doing their jobs, but… well, I’ll let you fill in the blank.
As the impeachment inquiry proceeds, what is your desire? For every obstructionist to land in jail, lose their job, live their lives forever as a disgraced sinner? Unable to go out in public. Banned from restaurants. That may provide temporary satisfaction for some people. But followers of Jesus are called to the scandal of “even them.”
After accountability, our call is to work toward the beyond. To move beyond labels that exclude and denigrate to the work of restoring broken families, communities, and a nation more deeply divided than any time in our lives. That is how salvation will come. Salvation is not about “pie in the sky in the by and by when we die.” But, as UCC pastor Kenneth Samuel describes it, one of my favorite lines, “our faith is about looking for something sound on the ground while we’re still around.”
We seek truth. Accountability is absolutely necessary. But let’s never forget ultimate reconciliation with “even them.” It’s not just our job. It’s our calling as a church the follows Jesus Christ.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world