Sermon for October 30, 2022

“The Great Pretender”

Luke 19:1-10 (11-27)

That’s how most people know Zacchaeus. He’s a rich, short guy who wants to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way. He climbs a tree to see Jesus. Instead, Jesus sees him. Jesus invites himself to dinner. Zacchaeus is so happy he starts handing out cash. Jesus says nice things about Zacchaeus. They all live happily ever after.

It’s a good story. But it’s not the story in the Bible. The real song for Zacchaeus is this one. “Oh, yes! I’m the Great Pretender!”

Have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not? Have you ever hoped people would see you as one person even when you know you’re another? Have you ever been an outsider looking in? Have you ever known that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never belong?

Then you “get” Zacchaeus. He’s the Great Pretender. But his pretending is ending.

Tomorrow is Halloween. It’s the high holy day for being something we’re not. We wear masks and costumes. Little tykes come to our doors. We ask, “Oh, who (or what) are you?” The kiddos are dead serious about their identities. Some of them really are, at least for the moment, Batman or Elsa or the Hulk or Moana.

Why do we like those masks and costumes? It’s fun to dress up and pretend. Psychologically, it’s also about escaping from ourselves for a while. That’s true for adults as well as kids. Historically, it’s about hiding from death for a while. If we have a good enough disguise, death might miss us – at least for the moment.

Pretending to be someone else. Hiding from death. We’re getting to know Zacchaeus a bit better.

Zacchaeus was head tax collector in the Jericho jurisdiction. He didn’t manage the regional IRS office. Zacchaeus was more like the local mob boss. Collecting taxes for the Romans wasn’t processing Form 1040s. It was more like theft, fraud, and extortion.

We shouldn’t be surprised that his neighbors spat on the ground whenever he walked past. We shouldn’t be surprised that they called him a sinner with their spit. We shouldn’t be surprised that they didn’t budge an inch to let him see Jesus.

We should be surprised  that Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house.

Or maybe not. A few weeks ago, we heard two of the Lost and Found stories in Luke fifteen. We heard about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. You might not remember the verses that introduce those stories.

“But all the tax collectors and sinners wee coming near to hear Jesus,” we read in Luke fifteen, verse one. In verse two we read this. “And some of the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling as they said, ‘This one is welcoming sinners and sharing meals with them.”

As that great philosopher, Garth Brooks, might say, “Jesus has friends in low places.” We shouldn’t be surprised by Jesus’ actions. Welcoming and eating with miserable sinners is what he does. That’s always worth remembering.

Zacchaeus is the one who surprises us. When that crowd along the Jericho road saw what happened, they weren’t happy. The started grumbling. They were just like some of the Pharisees and scribes in Luke fifteen. Jesus had no business going to Zacchaeus’ house, they said. Zacchaeus was a sinful man.

At that point, Zacchaeus had had enough. He drew himself up to his full height. Of course, his full height might have been all of four and a half feet. Maybe he climbed up on something to be seen and heard. Anyway, he stood up and set the record straight. He was talking to Jesus. But he was addressing the crowd.

“Look,” Zacchaeus shouted, “I’m giving half of what I own to the poor. If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’m paying four hundred percent in damages. Get off my back, you ungrateful fools!” I added that last part. But I think Zacchaeus would approve.

The truth was out. No more pretending. No more hiding. No more masks. No more double life.

Zacchaeus had lived on the shadowy boundary between two worlds. When he was around rich people, he was the wealthy businessman. He was backed by the full might of the Roman Empire. No one messed with Zacchaeus.

But all the old money types in Jericho wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this new-money social climber.

Behind the scenes, away from the powerful, Zacchaeus tried to put things right. He kept poor people from starving. He paid restitution and reparations when his employees got too enthusiastic about their work. There were people in that Jericho crowd who had jobs and homes and food because of Zacchaeus.

But all his neighbors wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this thief, this fraud, this extortioner.

Zacchaeus was the Great Pretender. And all his pretending got him precisely…nothing. He was rich. He was powerful. And he was seeking something more. So, he climbed a tree.

But the seeker became the “seek-ee.” Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. But Jesus saw him first. There Zacchaeus was, in that tree, with nowhere to hide. He was exposed for who and what he was. He was revealed for what he needed. The Great Pretender could pretend no more.

Have you ever been up that tree with Zacchaeus? Have you ever lived in the world of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”? This story is for you. Zacchaeus was a sinner. There was no pretending that away. But that’s not all he was.

“Each one of us,” Bryan Stevenson writes in his book, Just Mercy, “is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Zacchaeus needed to hear that message. So do we today.

Zacchaeus also needed to become a Beatles fan. He needed to learn that money can’t buy me love. “Look at what I’ve done!” Zacchaeus shouts in frustration. “Can’t you see that I’ve earned your love and respect? What else do you want from me?”

They don’t want anything from you, Zacchaeus. Money won’t buy you love.

Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house. He goes after he knows Zacchaeus is a sinner. He goes before he knows this man is a saint. Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house because God loves Zacchaeus no matter what. For even this man, this Great Pretender, really is a child of Abraham. He was lost and has been found. He was dead and is alive.

What are some take-homes from the Zacchaeus story?

First, each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes in Romans three, verses twenty-three and twenty-four, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” This is the great reminder of the Reformation we remember today.

Second, if we follow Jesus then what we do, we do for love.

We don’t do good deeds for God’s approval or for human rewards. Zacchaeus learned that money can’t buy you love. But it can buy food, clothing, and shelter for our neighbor in need. As Martin Luther often said, God doesn’t need our good works. But our neighbor surely does.

Third, doing justice for Jesus is more likely to get us rejected than rewarded.

Zacchaeus outed himself that day on the road out of Jericho. I imagine his Roman bosses weren’t very happy about his covert good deeds. When we challenge unjust and oppressive systems, those systems are going to hit back.

If you want some additional reading this week, read the Parable of the Pounds that follows our gospel reading. This is a story about what happens when brave people refuse to be part of corrupt systems. Jesus tells that story to help us understand Zacchaeus.

No more pretending for us. Through Jesus, we are freed from sin and freed for service. We are called to come down and rejoice. Jesus has come to our house today. Where will he lead us tomorrow?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Two)

One of the central issues in this text comes down to verb tenses. I’m not just nerding out on this, although there is that. The verbs in Luke 19:8 are translated, for example, in the NRSV in the future tense. “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (my emphasis). However, in the Greek, the verbs are “I am giving,” and “I am repaying.” That’s a problem.

If the verbs really are future in their connotation, then this text is about repentance and reparations. That’s the traditional interpretation that many of us have heard and would embrace. If the verbs are really present in their connotation, then this text is about defending Zacchaeus from the slanderous opinions of his neighbors. That’s not the traditional interpretation that many of us have heard. Nor are we, I suspect, very excited about embracing it. But there it is.

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

Some interpreters and translators render these verbs as a present tense that contains or implies action in the future. I suppose that’s a possibility. The problem is that when interpreters and translators do this, the only real example of this rendering is (wait for it) Luke 19:8. In fact, this is circular reasoning that doesn’t get us very far.

So, let’s see what we think about the translation. And then let’s think about what we do with it (when we’ve decided that it really is just a couple of garden variety present tense verbs). Sorry for the spoiler – not!

Richard Swanson takes the verbs to be, without question, present tense. For him, our text is in part about Jewish rituals of caring for the poor. “An observant Jew practices her faith by acting out the ritual and letting it shape her life,” Swanson writes. “That is why it is so significant that, at the end of this scene, Zacchaeus reveals to the audience that he is already giving half of his possessions to the poor and that any offense is repaid at ruinous rates. Zacchaeus,” Swanson continues, “practices the ritual of binding the world together and thus reveals himself to be an observant Jew, even though his status as a tax gatherer puts him outside that community line” (page 221).

If we read the text in this way, then we see that the Zacchaeus story continues the Lukan emphasis on the surprising and unpredictable character of God’s grace in Jesus. Zacchaeus should be a bad guy in this story. We’ve been set up for this by the Lukan author in numerous ways. Zacchaeus is rich. Rich people in the Lukan account tend not to fare well, as we have just seen with the Rich Ruler. Zacchaeus is a tax collector – one of the villains in first-century Palestinian life. There’s no way that he should be a hero in the gospels.

Yet here he is. Zacchaeus is the concluding and climactic example of discipleship in the Lukan travel narrative. “Anyone who says they saw this coming is lying,” Swanson says, “even though Luke provided hints early in his story” (page 221). Those hints included tax collectors coming to John for baptism and repentance. When they ask what they should do, the Baptizer doesn’t tell them to get another job. He tells them to be faithful in their current job. It may be, in fact, that the Baptizer tells them to be like Zacchaeus.

“Zacchaeus is still a surprise,” Swanson writes, “That is the point, I think.” Swanson interprets this story as a scene of revelation, not of redemption. It’s not that Zacchaeus has an epiphany and announces a change in behavior. Instead, he already gives to the poor and pays fourfold reparations if he defrauds anyone. Zacchaeus is, as Jesus reminds us, “a son of Abraham.” Remember that just before John the Baptizer gave his ethical counsel to the tax collectors, he told the crowd that “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” Abe’s kids might pop up anywhere and often in the last places we’d expect!

Swanson concludes his provocation by remembering the story of Schneeweiss, a Jewish collaborator in the Janowska concentration camp. I would encourage you to read that story here. As Swanson notes, it makes for a powerful interweaving with the story of Zacchaeus.

Levine and Witherington agree that the verbs are present tense and not future. They disagree on what to do with those verbs. Levine notes that the text makes no mention of repentance. Therefore, Zacchaeus is not repenting. Instead, “the tax collector is explaining that he has been judged, incorrectly, as sinful.” Remember that it is the crowd, not Jesus, who identify Zacchaeus as a “sinner.”

The “salvation” that comes to his house, in Levine’s view, is “the restitution of the man to the community, which occurs when he states what he actually does, rather than what the crowd thinks he has been doing.” Jesus gives Zacchaeus a platform upon which to defend and rehabilitate his public standing. And Jesus approves that defense, I would add, by going to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner.

Witherington reads the verbs as say that Zacchaeus is ready to make repayment and reparations. He takes support in the text from the assertion that salvation has come to the tax collector’s house “today” (and not before). In this way, the verbs indicate a behavior that is happening now (for the first time) and will continue into the future. “Something happened on that day,” according to Witherington, “that changed him” (page 512).

Levine and Witherington can share the same conclusion even as they take different paths to get there. Zacchaeus remains a tax collector. He is one of those Jesus has come to seek and to save. He is a child of Abraham, no matter what his neighbors might say and think. Even though Zacchaeus is identified as rich, he isn’t condemned (or labelled as a fool). Instead, he uses his wealth appropriately. Zacchaeus “shows that the rich, through divine grace and appropriate income distribution, can enter the Kingdom” (page 513).

I find it interesting and surprising that this is the message the Lukan author presents as the climax and conclusion of the major Lukan addition to the gospel accounts. In discussing the story of the Rich Ruler, Justo Gonzalez offers this conjecture. “Quite possibly, Luke is writing this account at a time when the presence in the Christian community of some who are in better economic condition than others,” Gonzalez suggests, “poses problems and raises questions, much as was the case in Corinth when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians” (Kindle Location 4085).

A gospel account that is often seen as hammering the rich for unfaithfulness may in fact be an apology for the presence of faithful rich people in the early Christian community. How’s that for a reversal?

Gonzalez understands the verbs to be future in connotation, although he doesn’t make a big issue of this concern. Zacchaeus is a “sinner among sinners.” Thus, the grumbling of the crowd is not at all surprising. Jesus makes Zacchaeus a parade example of the lost who have been found.

When it comes to wealth, Gonzalez sees this story as a commentary on and corrective to some of the previous “rich person stories.” Zacchaeus is no fool when it comes to his wealth. He doesn’t see it as “his,” nor does he treat it as something to be hoarded. Nor is he sad when he parts with his wealth, as was the rich ruler. In addition, the story makes clear that it’s not necessary to sell everything in order to follow Jesus. Gonzalez gives this interpretation.

“When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing—and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined” (Kindle Location 4174).

Malina and Rohrbaugh hear the verbs as present tense. Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as one with whom he can share table fellowship and thus community, in contrast to the attitude of the crowds. “Zacchaeus,” they write, “vindicates Jesus’ judgment about him by pointing out that he already gives half of what he owns to the poor and (already) repays fourfold anyone he discovers has been cheated” (page 387). The crowd doesn’t believe his assertions, but Jesus does.

Therefore, Jesus acknowledges him as “a son of Abraham.” This means, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh that Zacchaeus’ salvation consists of being restored to his rightful place in the covenant community. “In other words, this is a healing story: the restoration of abnormal or broken community relationships (caused by the stereotyping of Zacchaeus on the part of the community) has been effected by the power of Jesus,” they conclude. “The story is therefore not about Zacchaeus’s repentance but about the curing of his illness” (page 387).

If one combines this insight with Swanson’s story of Schneeweiss, we get a poignant picture of one (Schneeweiss) healed by dying for the sake of the community.

I’m convinced that we should read the verbs in the present tense. I’m not sure how to present that in a message on Sunday yet. Nor am I quite sure of what I think it all means. I have this suspicion that one of the keys is hidden in the text that follows and actually concludes the Lukan Travel Narrative, The Parable of the Pounds. I think we’ll go there next.

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 19 1 to 10 (Part One)

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.

Photo by Arndt-Peter Bergfeld on Pexels.com

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.