Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The last time this Gospel came up I made a radical suggestion–namely, that though we have always assumed that Zacchaeus was short, and that’s why he climbed the tree to see Jesus, it is entirely possible that Jesus was the short one. It is unclear in the language of the Greek original to whom the pronoun “he” in “because he was small of stature” refers. Being of below average height myself, I like this alternate reading, obviously. It also dovetails nicely with my sermon last week, in which I said that tax collectors in First Century Palestine were thugs who extorted money from the people. It’s easier to imagine a big burly geezer wringing money out of someone than it is to imagine a “wee little man” doing the same.

It doesn’t really matter who the short one was, though, as one needn’t be tall to be intimidating. Nota bene: Bruce Lee, Winston Churchill, and Alexander the Great were all the same height as I am, and Lawrence of Arabia was a couple inches shorter. The point is, like I said last week, that tax collectors were known for the fear they inspired, so Zacchaeus, whatever his height, should be thought of as a rough customer you wouldn’t want to cross, rather than a cute little fellow from a Sunday School song. We don’t get the full impact of the story unless we recognize that Zacchae’us was a frightening, nasty guy in the eyes of the crowd.

“And when they saw it, they all murmured, ‘he has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’” It’s this sort of person Jesus came to seek and save.

And Zacchae’us, unprovoked, not yet confronted by Jesus, knows what will be coming when the Lord arrives at his house later on. The mere presence of Jesus is enough to bring conviction into the heart of this hardened source of terror and abuse. “If I have defrauded any one of anything,” he says, “I restore it fourfold.” This would have been his obligation under the Mosaic Law, as it is recorded in the twenty-second chapter of Exodus: “If a man shall steal…a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore…four sheep for a sheep.” So, here, Zacchae’us is promising to remit his debt according to the law. But his other promise is not simply the fulfillment of an obligation, but a gift of penance and thanksgiving: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.” Such grace from such a bully!

There are a number of things we can learn from this: none of us is beyond saving; the proper response to receiving grace is to give graciously- an important thing to remember as we are asked once again to consider our commitment of time, talent, and treasure to Christ’s church; simply opening up to God’s presence will convict us and set us right. But, I think, the most important thing for many of us to learn is that we cannot permit our prejudice to make us deny God’s ability to turn around the lives of those most unlovely to us. That chap you know who’s been in and out of prison; the guy who gets into fisticuffs down at the bar; the drug dealer; the terrorist. God can save them, too. He can turn them into gracious, charitable people, just like he did for that nasty chief tax collector in Jericho. If we don’t hold out hope for “those people”, if we don’t see them as having the potential to be better men and women than us, then we think we can limit the power of God, and that, my friends, is a losing proposition.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.