Friday, October 28, 2016

October 30, 2016, Proper 26, Prayer and Action #7: Zacchaeus

Luke 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus is meant to be a little comic, I think. It’s the comedy before the tragedy, because this is the day before Palm Sunday, and six days later the Lord Jesus will be dead upon a cross. Tragedy then, comedy now. Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, and as the savior passed that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.” 

Why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus so badly? Luke doesn’t tell us. Maybe it’s not important why, or maybe to Luke’s original readers it would have been obvious. It could be that with Zacchaeus being the chief financial officer of the local government it will be to his interest to identify this Messiah who might soon be setting up his new government in place of the Romans by whom Zacchaeus had gotten rich. Was Zacchaeus nervous about his future, having heard that Jesus had said that it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle? Or was he just plain curious?

Now as I’ve done before I’m going to disagree with our translation. Our translation reflects the standard interpretation that Zacchaeus made his vow to give the money back after he met the Lord Jesus. The verbs of his supposed vow are translated in the future tense: “I will give to the poor, I will pay back.” 

But the verbs in the Greek are in the present tense, and are naturally translated as, “I am giving to the poor, and I am paying back.” In other words, he’s already doing it. He has been doing it. If he’s already been doing it, then we have to look at Zacchaeus differently.

Then why do the people grumble? Notice they grumble not against Zacchaeus but against the Lord Jesus, that he’s going to a sinner’s house. Zacchaeus is a sinner no matter how generous he is, he has guilt by association with the Romans. His generosity may soften the system but it doesn’t change the system. To change the system they believe the Messiah has to get the Romans out, not cozy up to their lackeys.

Yes, the Romans did kill Jesus six days later. But they did it in concert with the Jewish leaders and with the support of this same public who turned on Jesus. All governments practice violence, the Romans, the Jews, our Founding Fathers, and everybody else, all governments are corrupt, all governments defraud their people, all governments exploit the poor.

That’s the tragedy of which the government-sanctioned killing of the innocent Jesus is the great example. And the tragicomedy is when the people grumble against Jesus. As they will do, they objectify Zacchaeus as the sinner. They’ve got to have a sinner to be angry at, just as they will really, really grumble against Jesus six days hence.

But the comedy in this is what Jesus represents, and recognizes in Zacchaeus, that, yes, even though all governments are compromised, and it’s silly to think they’re not, yet your government can still use the money from taxes directly to assist the poor, and even though all governments defraud their people, and it’s silly to think they don’t, yet your government can still have practices to control its natural corruption and make its reparations and give some justice to those it typically defrauds.

Today salvation has come to this house. What’s salvation here? Much more than economic policies and practices, or why would Jesus have to die. For Zacchaeus what salvation means is the person and presence of Jesus Christ himself, seeking him. For this sinner, this compromised person, salvation is the actual presence of the Lord Jesus in his life, sitting and eating with him, his disciples too no doubt, the community of Jesus.

Salvation is not so much Zacchaeus accepting Jesus as Jesus accepting Zacchaeus. So stop your grumbling, crowd, stop objectifying people as sinners. The problem that most people have with the Kingdom of God is not who is out but who’s let in! Jesus keeps letting the wrong people in. It’s a comedy.

The Lord Jesus does not ask him to quit his job. There are lessons for us in that. I believe there is a message here for what we should expect of government, that governments should use some of their taxes directly to assist the poor. Not just the middle class, and not just to stimulate the economy yielding better jobs, but directly to the poor. What Zacchaeus did.

Also that governments are responsible to correct and make reparations for the inevitable unfairness that economic power generates. What Zacchaeus did. It doesn’t matter which system of government is at work, whether Roman, Jewish, socialist, capitalist, it’s all the same. These are the values of Our Lord’s economy.

Here’s what it means for all of us spiritually. The Lord Jesus does not call you out of from the world, or from all the corruption of the world. The Lord Jesus keeps you in all of your situations of ethical ambiguity and compromise, and even in social and economic tragedy. And you could act all bitter, or sarcastic, or cynical, and be tragicomical, like the crowd.

But the greater tragedy of the cross of Jesus Christ rises up again into the comedy of hope, and you shall be joyful. The world is worse than we think, but you shall be joyful in it anyway.

The comedy of the Lord Jesus is a comfort when you face the truth that everything that you do in your Christian life has some fault or flaw within it and always some complicity. Nothing you do is pure. Every good thing that you do has some measure in it of self-interest. And so you repent and you laugh at yourself, and you build into your life some realistic feedback-loops, some intentional actions of selflessness, especially of economic justice. You build into your life some sacrifice, not because God needs your sacrifice, but because you do. Not just to keep you humble, but to keep you tuned in to the grace of God.

The comedy of God is not a farce. The laughter of God is not a mocking laugh. It’s the laughter of lovers, it’s a romantic comedy. It’s a love story. You do this whole religion thing in order to keep tuning in to the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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