November 3, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Luke 19:1-10
Everyone in town knew Zacchaeus. Short. Rich. A sinner. Someone whose house you shouldn’t eat at. Someone whose son your daughter shouldn’t date. Someone who you should avoid when walking down the street. Someone who is a corrupting influence on the community. Someone who is going straight to hell without passing go, without collecting $200, to burn in the well deserved flames of eternal damnation.
Now to be fair to all the righteous Jews in Jericho, Zacchaeus was no saint. We’re told he was a tax collector, a title in ancient Israel synonymous with thief, with traitor.
Traitor because the money Zacchaeus collected went straight into the coffers of the occupying Roman government. Instead of paying to educate kids, repair roads, care for elderly neighbors and operate a reasonably just legal system, the money Zacchaeus collected supported the foreign soldiers who occupied their village, lined the pockets of Roman officials and went to build great monuments dedicated to foreign gods.
Thief because the Roman Empire lacked set tax rates or a professional collection system. Tax collectors like Zacchaeus contracted to raise a certain amount of money for the Roman government. He was free to raise those funds any way he could – and was free to pocket any amount he raised over his target.
Zacchaeus was a thief, a traitor, a sinner – and still Jesus goes to his house.
Some years ago I went to a funeral where the preacher didn’t have a very good opinion of the deceased. The deceased was, to put it mildly, a sinner. He was, we were told directly, going to hell. And we, who were still blessed to be alive, should examine our own lives and make sure we wouldn’t meet him there.
I left that funeral wondering who made that preacher judge, jury and spiritual executioner. Who made those around Jesus judge, jury and spiritual execution of Zacchaeus? I’ve done many funerals in my time for those generally regarded in their communities as saints. I’ve also buried some people held in much lower esteem. Chief Petty Officer Paul Valentini stands out. He’d spent four decades keeping the US Navy afloat but on land had left a trail of ex wives, broken relationships and alienated neighbors. That day, at that funeral, nobody – and I mean nobody – had a positive thing to say about the man lying in the coffin.
There’s something thrilling about assuming the power to condemn someone to hell or admit them into heaven. The preacher at the funeral I attended reveled in describing the sins of the deceased. We could practically feel the flames of hell as he urged us to follow him into heaven. I was tempted to preach a similar sermon at the funeral of my seaman. How good it can feel to appoint oneself judge, jury and spiritual executioner. How good it can feel to stomp someone down for their public sins while airbrushing away our own sins. How powerful we become when we anoint ourselves God’s chosen at the expense of someone else.
The good people of Jericho knew exactly where Zacchaeus was going. Yet Jesus went to his house. Jesus went into his house and sat at his table. Jesus went into his house, sat at his table and ate his food. Jesus went to his house, sat at his table, ate his food and announced the miraculous, saving presence of God’s amazing grace.
The good people of Jericho knew exactly where Zacchaeus was going because they had a checklist. Using their checklist, they knew who was good and who was bad, who was in and who was out, who God loved and who God despised. Since they wrote the checklist, they could make sure to glorify themselves and exclude those they didn’t like. They could airbrush away from their own sins and magnify the sins of others.
Out of curiosity I dug out the eulogy I gave on the occasion of Chief Petty Officer Valentini’s death. Its short. It says remarkedly little. But it does say this:
“Our creation begins on earth and continues in heaven. So Paul, as he transitions from this world to the next is still being shaped and crafted. He’s still being drawn out of himself, reunited with those whom he loved, and reconciled with those whom he pushed away.”
Every time the good people of the Bible subject someone to their checklist, Jesus reaches out to those they’ve left off and meets them where they are. He doesn’t wait until we meet all the proper criteria, or say the proper words, or start hanging with the right people. We change because of Christ, not to earn Christ’s favor. We change as God’s grace impacts our lives, not in order to receive God’s grace.
Every time the good people of the Bible write a checklist, Jesus convicts them of the sins they have carefully ignored. While I hope someone will have at least one nice thing to say at my funeral, Officer Valentini and I stand equally in need of God’s grace. Had I positioned myself as officer Valentini’s judge, jury and spiritual executioner I would have condemned myself with every word I used against him.
Every time the good people of the Bible write a check list, Jesus shreds it. We’d be wise to follow his lead. To repent of our desire to act as judge, jury and spiritual executioner. To be Christ to our neighbor regardless of how they conform to our expectations.