21 Pentecost C/Reformation Sunday
October 30, 2022
In the congregation I serve, we will observe Reformation Sunday on October 30, 2022. However, I am unwilling to use the traditionally appointed gospel text for that day, John 8:31-36. I don’t think we Lutherans need anything else to enhance our Reformation triumphalism on that day. Singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with gusto and an edge of self-satisfied Protestant superiority is more than sufficient in that regard.
The John text, like so many Johannine readings, has significant anti-Jewish potential, especially when paired with the Romans text. In a time when “Truth” is a weapon rather than an aspiration, I’m inclined to avoid that reading. Others could certainly argue that this is precisely the time to take “Truth” back from those who would see such truth as univocal and univalent. That’s a fair argument. I look forward to reading the sermons of those of you who take such an approach.
I will not, this year. In addition, the Reformation observance has a bad habit of cheating us out of the Zacchaeus story in our worship life. This is the climax of the Lukan travel narrative and one of the rhetorical high points in the Lukan account. We’ve been pointing toward this text for weeks now. I’m just not willing to miss out on the big payoff here. And I’m hard-pressed to think of a text that really gets at the heart of Luther’s Reformation theology any better than this one. Zacchaeus is, indeed, justified by grace through faith.
The lectionary takes us from the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to this enacted parable on the road heading out of Jericho. Of course, there’s a fair bit of stuff in between. I need to re-anchor myself in the Lukan rhetorical arc for a bit before moving more deeply into the text itself.
This last part of the travel narrative has a clear eschatological edge to it. In Luke 17:20-37, we get the Lukan take on Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. It’s obvious that the Lukan author is managing the eschatological expectations of the community of faith. People may point to the Kin(g)dom and say, “Oh, there it is!” But they will be wrong. The final days are coming, Jesus says, but any number of things must happen first. In particular, what must happen in the presence of the disciples is the crucifixion.
People will be divided by their responses to that event. Most people will be oblivious to what is happening. They will go about their normal business until the moment the final cataclysm arrives. If we seek to secure our lives on our own terms, Jesus says, we will lose them. It is only in losing one’s life in the Kin(g)dom that our lives will be kept. This will happen most obviously in the crucifixion, the place where the vultures, both literal and metaphorical, will gather (Luke 17:37).
It’s important to keep this eschatological framing in mind, I think, as we read through to the Lukan Palm Sunday story in chapter 19. In the meantime, disciples need to pray always and not lose heart. All those disciples who exalt themselves will be humbled. Faithful Jesus followers will stand toward Jesus and not toward themselves. They will receive the Kin(g)dom of God as a little child – that is, they will be brought like infants to receive Jesus’ tender touch. And they will welcome that transforming contact, or they will remain on the outside looking in.
Losing one’s life may be a literal experience for disciples. However, it is more likely to involve losing things we think sustain life. That’s what we get in the story of the Rich Ruler (Luke 19:18-27). The punch line for that story comes as a question from the crowd. As the sad rich man stands before Jesus, grieving his relationship with his gold, Jesus declares how difficult it is for someone who is rich to enter the Kin(g)dom of God. Clearly, we are still in eschatological territory here.
“Who, then, is able to be saved?” the anxious questioners ask. Keep in mind the conclusions of the Zacchaeus story at this point. I think it’s fairly clear that Luke is pairing the stories of the Rich Ruler and Zacchaeus. “Salvation” is a significant notion in both stories. Jesus tells his listeners in Luke 19:10 that the Son of Man came to seek out and to save those who are perishing. One rich man is challenged to give it all away and follow Jesus. He declines. Another rich man is welcomed into the kingdom as a child (after all, who climbs trees?), and makes restitution. “Salvation” (Greek = soteria) comes to his house.
Luke 18:31-35 provides an interlude focused on the disciples. Therefore, we move from Lukan proclamation to the crowds and to instruction for the faith community. Peter rightly points out that the disciples have done precisely what the Rich Ruler refused to do. Good for you! Jesus replies. In fact, those who leave behind what we think secures our life in this world will get it all back and more “in this age”! And in the coming age, they can expect “eternal life.”
Between now and then, however, there is that pesky notion of crucifixion – followed by resurrection. The resurrection prediction is a new note in the narrative. But it’s lost on the disciples (and probably often on us as well). They couldn’t grasp any of what Jesus was saying. Indeed, the meaning of the words was hidden from them. They couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying.
The disciples may not get it. But two others, outsides, will get it. I find it helpful to pair the stories of the blind man in Luke 18:35-43) and Zacchaeus. It’s too bad that we get a chapter break between the two stories. We tend to read those editorial insertions as part of the text when we should often ignore them. Both of these stories are connected to Jericho – one as Jesus enters the village and another as he is leaving it. I think there’s no question that we should use these stories to interpret one another.
Jesus tells the blind man, “Have your sight back! Your trust has saved (Greek = sesoken) you” (Luke 18:42, my translation). Sometimes, the NRSV translates “saved” as “healed.” I’m glad that doesn’t happen here. The man gets his sight back. But the most important part of the story is that he gets up and follows Jesus, glorifying God. The blind man answers the call to become one of Jesus’ disciples – in fact, the last one so called in the Lukan story.
The blind man can’t see due to obvious physical infirmity. Zacchaeus is also trying to “see” Jesus. He is unable to see Jesus, not because he’s blind but because he’s short. Lia Valle-Ruiz offers an intriguing idea in this regard – that perhaps Zacchaeus suffers from dwarfism. There’s no reason to embrace or reject this suggestion. It’s possible, of course, but it’s not really suggested in the text. Nonetheless, Zacchaeus can’t see until he climbs the tree.
The blind man calls out repeatedly until Jesus responds. He’s not put off by the orders of the disciples or the crowd or his handlers. In a sense, he “prays always and does not lose heart.” Zacchaeus can’t see, and he climbs a tree. He also “prays always and does not lose heart.” Each of the characters in some way humbles himself in order to be exalted. The “up and down” metaphors are especially prominent in the Zacchaeus story. That will be worth some additional comment downstream, I think.
Zacchaeus is a small man – a “child” in some sense, perhaps. When Jesus calls to him, he clambers down the tree. He is happy to “welcome” Jesus. The verb here is an enhanced form of the verb used in Luke 18:17. Zacchaeus is an image of one who welcomes the Kin(g)dom of God like a little child. He does so with joy. Those who watch the scene are like those who want to keep the infants away from Jesus in the previous chapter. And they echo the words we heard way back in Luke 15:2 – “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It would be great if we could go directly from the Zacchaeus story to the Palm Sunday parade in the Lukan account. However, we still have some work to do. And it’s worth wondering how the Parable of the Pounds fits with the overall rhetorical arc of the Lukan account. For the Lukan author, this parable does some work in dealing with the delay of Christ’s return (see Luke 19:11). I think this parable serves as an allegory, for the Lukan author, to describe the resistance to Jesus that results in his crucifixion. And there’s a dark reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in Luke 19:27.
One of the reasons I love the Zacchaeus story for Reformation Sunday is the way it allows me to talk about being “saved.” Most of the emphasis for our traditional Lutheran folks in the pew will be on what we’re saved “from.” Jesus dies and rises so we can be saved “from” the powers of sin, death, and the Devil. Indeed, I believe that as well.
But we are also saved “for” forgiveness, life, and salvation. That salvation is not merely pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. For Zacchaeus, it is restitution and reparations. It is repentance and renewal. It is receiving and rejoicing. It’s what we do after we come down from our sycamore trees.