30 October, 2016 – Fourth Sunday before Advent – Year C
‘Today salvation has come to this house’
Does Zacchaeus repent?
That’s a funny question. It’s one we might not think to ask.
The story of Jesus and the chief tax-collector seems to turn on Zacchaeus’ change of heart. That’s how we expect the story to go.
Passing through a crowd in the busy town of Jericho, Jesus’ eye lights on the one person everyone else thinks has no business being there. The y’re trying to shun him. The tax collector. The wealthy collaborator with the Roman oppressors.
The Brethren are hearing from Maccabees at Mattins at the moment. The re was plenty of collaboration with a foreign oppressor in the days of Mattathias and Judas Maccabeus. Indignation grows verse by verse as it becomes clear how successful the foreign King is in drawing Israelites over to his rule and to his determined destruction of the worship of the God of their ancestors. First one, then another, then many fall in line. This arouses a boiling hatred in Mattathias and his sons. There’s a real danger to a Jewish sense of identity, of belonging to their God.
So the people of Jericho in Jesus’ day had this ancestral reason to despise the collaborator. It’s not surprising that Zacchaeus can’t get through the crowd; nobody is going to give way to him but being present when the prophet of Nazareth arrives – this is really matters to him. He’s resourceful and he doesn’t stand on his dignity. So he climbs a sycamore tree. He sees – yes but also he is seen. Jesus sees him, speaks to him, calls him by his name, so that now the eyes of everyone are on him, all the many people of the town who scorn him.
“Hurry. Come down” says Jesus. What’s up? Why? What’s going to happen to me? ‘What’s the prophet going to do with this traitor to the covenant?’ the townsfolk wonder. “Come down; for I must stay at your house today”.
Luke says Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus. This is no idle curiosity which Zacchaeus has. He’s not there to photo-bomb the passing celebrity. The words of Jesus seem to touch a deep-set heart-longing within him.
“I must stay at your house”. The will of God is in this. This is a command of Jesus; his word of authority. In miracles of healing and in exorcisms, such a word brings permanent change. In the preceding story in Luke, set just on the outskirts of Jericho, Jesus hears a blind man shouting after him “Have mercy on me”. He responds with: “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you” and the man does receive it.
For that man, freedom is restored; he glorifies God and all the people, when they saw it, they praised God too.
“Hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today”. Jesus speaks with the same note of command; a command which restores Zacchaeus’ freedom. He, like the blind man, has lived cut off from his people but when the blind man saw again, the people rejoiced. Here when Zacchaeus is included again, the people – perhaps the same people – grumble.
So we look to Zacchaeus to show evidence of a change of heart. Perhaps our minds spool back to last Sunday’s Gospel and another tax collector – one in the Temple, who shrank back into the shadows, cast his eyes down, beat his breast and prayed “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. Surely Zacchaeus is the same? So it is with these ears that we hear his announcement: “Half my possessions I will give to the poor and anyone I have defrauded I will pay back four times as much”. It sounds like a classic instance of repentance in action; a complete turn-around in character in response to Jesus’ unearned gift to him of … well, of his presence at lunch, of himself, his time, his regard.
Yet maybe not. The two verbs in Greek, ‘give’ and ‘pay back’, are not future, not something Zacchaeus has just decided to do: they are in the present tense. The y imply these are things he habitually does. Can it be that Zacchaeus, far from repenting in an excess of remorse, is here offering a self-defence? Confounding his neighbours by reminding them he is as law-abiding as they? He may be doing the Romans’ work but he’s read the law and is more than willing to keep it. It is only Jesus who notices that he truly belongs.
Well, perhaps this is not the only way a present tense can be understood. Maybe when Zacchaeus says “I do it”, he is so caught up into the unimagined joy of that moment, so that the good intention to which his heart prompts him in response is already as sure to him as an established practice. He’s speaking in present terms of something he fully intends to do.
We don’t know.
The point is this: it doesn’t matter whether Zacchaeus is making a generous gesture for the first time or declaring an established practice.
It doesn’t matter because the salvation which comes to Zacchaeus is not what he does. It is not the superbly liberal giving of half his possessions. It is not the four-fold restitution he makes to those he has defrauded (and there is no ‘if’ about that in the original Greek – he’s certainly acted in that way). Zacchaeus doesn’t earn his salvation. He doesn’t even confirm it by this great give-away. He doesn’t fix it in place. The salvation is not a practice of the Law, even a fabulously generous interpretation of the Law. Salvation is never a sub-clause of Torah.
The salvation which comes to Zacchaeus’ house is a relationship. It is given by another. It is being recognised as a son of Abraham; one to whom God gives God’s loving promise. It is being sought out and rescued from the wilderness by the good shepherd. It is being missed by the thrifty widow, so that she searches for you in every corner of the house and throws a party when she finds you.
Why did the Son of Man come? To keep us up to the mark? To judge? To condemn? No, Jesus in his brilliant, intuitive, personal recasting of the Law and the Prophets, gives a wholly different answer: the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. Here is the divine good shepherd whom Ezekiel foresaw living among us as an Israelite villager.
What a collection he finds: an adulterous wife; an heretical leper; an importunate blind beggar; slow-witted fishermen; a man completely out of his wits; a man who can’t move a muscle and is completely dependent on his friends; a woman hiding a debilitating disease; a thief dying on a cross. All of these he seeks out and saves. The kingdom of God stretches a little further and a little further. We may not be any one of these but which of us hasn’t had a moment when we were the one who needed be rescued, our humanity restored, to be included back into the community of hope? It wasn’t our giving in the collection which did this, or the promptness with which we volunteered for a job, or even our good cooking and hospitality. It was God’s hospitable hand held out to us which drew us back in; a hand we sometimes met through another person like you or me.
As All Saints approaches it is good to be reminded who they are who are numbered among the Saints, the firstborn enrolled in heaven: the people everyone else thinks has no business being there. All Saints is a day when we remember who it is who has kindled the flame of love in their hearts.
“For the Son of man came to seek out and to save the lost”.