Jesus in Jericho (March 29, 2020)
Jesus in Jericho
So we arrive today at Jericho. Jericho is in Judea. We are now closing in on Jerusalem; in fact we will be in Jerusalem just next week. There are a couple of stories around Jericho. In Mark, we have the healing of a blind man named Bartemeus. You may have heard that story in your childhood. Originally I was going to preach that story, but I felt that the healing of someone who is sick was a little too close, so I decided to go with the story that is equally as famous, and equally as important a story: the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector. In fact, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector. That made me think almost like a mob boss this week: like we have all these people collecting money and this is the one that is in charge of all of them. It would actually answer how a short person, who was short in stature, would be able to extort the people, would be able to do what tax collectors did. It’s always kind of been a question for me. It would make sense if he wasn’t alone, if he was just like in charge of a group of people who are doing that. Let’s remember the story of Zacheus.
So in the story, Jesus enters the city of Jericho and he heals the blind man. But then he continues on, and he develops a crowd on the street. And in the crowd is a short man named Zacchaeus. “Zacchaues was a wee little man…” You may remember from the children’s story. And he’s trying to see Jesus, but he can’t see Jesus. The crowd is blocking him out. We see that repeatedly throughout the Gospels: the crowd tries to block people out from Jesus. And the stories get recorded because people find a way through; but let’s not forget that when we have a crowd, we cannot block people from Jesus. But Zacchaeus finds the way: he climbs up into a sycamore tree.
Now I went to Jericho earlier this year, and one of the things we did there was we visited a sycamore tree in the city of Jericho, just to see what that would look like. So, here is a picture of the sycamore tree there. If you are seeing this sermon on the blog, the picture associated with this post is the picture of a sycamore tree in Jericho. This is not the tree of Zacchaeus, because sycamore trees don’t live that long, but this is what it might have looked like. So, Zacchaeus somehow climbs this tree in order to see Jesus; and we’re told in Scripture that Jesus walks under the tree, stops, and looks up at Zacchaeus. And then says, “Zacchaeus come down. I must dine at your house.”
And the crowds grumbled because this was a sinner. And not just any sinner, this is the chief of all the sinners in the area. Right? He was THE tax collector. And this prophet comes into town, and he is eating with this guy? Now, I will say that as you are trying to be a disciple, as you’re trying to do what Jesus did, you shouldn’t be going out to eat with anyone right now, sinner or not. At least for the next few weeks. Please remember that. But I do want you to know that Jesus pays no attention to what the crowd thinks of this man, this sinner. He just sees a child that wanted to see him, a child of God, and he wanted to see his child. So he looks up and says “I will dine at your place.”
The reality is we are all sinners. Some sins are more socially acceptable then other sins in our world. That was true then, that is true now. Tax collecting was one of the least acceptable things. I will get into why a little bit later, but I want you to notice this is yet another story not only of the crowd blocking people out from seeing Jesus, but another story of Jesus scandalizing the public by associating with an outcast. This, again, is the person that a prophet should really know better than to associate and dine with. Jesus does not look at the sin, but at the heart. Zacchaeus had a repentant heart that was eager to heal. And Jesus wanted to go and heal him of his own kind of blindness; of his own, very different kind of sickness.
Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. But there are actually two ways of looking at it, and it all deals with a translation of the word “give” in Zacchaeus’s response: “if I have defrauded anyone I will give back fourfold.” The word for give there in Greek is in the present tense, not the future tense. Some translators have said “well, in Greek that’s a little different, and so we will translate it into a changed heart with ‘I will give’ back those I have defrauded.” One such is the one we read weekly here: the New Revised Standard Version. Other translators, such as the King James Version, just use the present tense: “if I defrauded anyone, I give back fourfold of what I received.” How you look at this change is a great deal.
I typically have looked at this by reading the New Revised Standard Version as he is changing his heart in this moment and becoming a new man. And that since he’s introduced as a sinful rich man, a tax collector, a chief of all tax collectors; then by the end he states that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and make up any wrongdoings up to four times what he had taken it shows a rich man who does what he needs to in order to show salvation.
Now, theoretically, if he’s as rich as is implied he might still remain rich. But he sees someone in need and does what he can about it. That is a heart that is following Jesus by the end of the story. It’s a redemption story. That’s always been the way that I have looked at it. A little bit earlier in Luke is the story where Jesus says that in it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. And this is essentially a response to that story. The rich man gets into heaven how can the miracle happen? How can a camel go through and eye of a needle? Simple: the rich man sees the poor person in need and takes care of their needs. So you can stay rich, as long as you don’t see a poor person in the ditch and leave them in the ditch.
But I found it interesting to go down the thought line of what if Zacchaeus wasn’t the blind one in the story? What if Zacchaeus wasn’t actually the sinner in the story? What if Zacchaeus was always righteous? What if he is defending himself here by giving the present tense, because he’s always been doing this and the people just see a tax collector and assume that he is taking advantage of them: assume that he is sinful, assume that he is a traitor upon his people. That’s what tax collectors were in a lot of people's minds: they were traders to their own people. They had given up their salvation for money. They traded their soul to earn a paycheck. Because they were working with the oppressors, with the Romans, to extort the people of the land; to extort their own neighbors. And certainly the tax collectors are going to have to take slightly more than they should just in order to make a living themselves, that remains the case today with tax professionals charging a little bit more than what is owed to the IRS for their own salaries and for the services that they are providing. But there is a fair amount. And what if Zacchaeus wasn’t charging over that fair amount?
What if he was protecting the people from other tax collectors who might have done that? What if he was righteous? How would that change our thoughts? How would that change the lesson from this story? If this is true, then he is not the one with the problem, but rather the people are. The people’s quick judgments on him, the people not taking their time to consider the realities of the situation, the people assuming a problem because of what a person did and the way someone looked was the actual sin. And Jesus the prophet dines with the only righteous man in town. He isn’t eating with sinners, he was giving a message to the city. It’s an interesting thing to think through.
If we’re thinking this way, then Jesus’s response looks a little different. And yet, it still is powerful to us. He states that “today, salvation has come to this house.” Now, if we assume that Zacchaeus just recently changed his heart and mind, then this is the key central point of the entire passage. That tells us the manner in which we are saved: that we change our hearts and our mind, if we’re rich then we give half of our possessions to the poor, these types of things; and then that shows that we have changed our hearts and that we are saved. It shows that salvation has come into our house. But if Zacchaeus wasn’t a sinner, if we choose this other translation, then this statement says that Jesus is salvation; that salvation has entered his house in the person of Jesus, and the centerpoint of the passage is not actually this line but the line that comes immediately after it. And the entire rest of the paragraph begins to make a little different kind of sense. Salvation enters the house not because Zacchaeus changed his heart, but rather because Zacchaeus is still a son of Abraham. He’s not a traitor to his people. God hasn’t given up on him, and so therefore the God of Abraham has come to see him.
It changes the concept of who is lost; not only in the story, but also with the readers.
Jesus declaring that this man was still a son of Abraham was declaring him to not be a traitor to the people. It was a massive political statement. And it was a way of saying that this man is saved. He is righteous. He is headed for Paradise. This is the statement that we all hope to receive: that you too are a child of Abraham, it is a way of saying you are saved, that you are justified. In the words of Paul, we are getting grafted onto the Tree of Abraham so that we can receive the promise of that salvation. As we go into this week, may we all be like Zacchaeus, and we give when and where we can of our time or talents or treasures. May we care for those around us. And in so doing this, as a result of our changed hearts, whether that was changed long ago or whether it’s changed this week; may Salvation enter into our house as well, and may we be counted among the children of Abraham. God bless you all this week, Amen.