The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26C)
31 October 2010
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may run without stumbling to obtain thy heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-5(6-10)11-12
Last Sunday we heard the parable of the two men who went into the Temple precincts to pray. One, the Pharisee, was sure of himself—smug, I suggested—and confident of, and proclaiming, his own righteousness. The other, the tax collector, was not so confident. Nevertheless, he humbly came before his God and asked for mercy. Jesus told us plainly that it was the tax collector, the sinner, the one whose work in the first century financial industry put him amongst the less respectable members of society, who was justified before God. Jesus told us plainly that “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
This week we learn of another tax collector’s encounter with Jesus. This time the tale is not a parable—a story told using examples from daily life to make a point, usually in the New Testament about the nature of the Kingdom of God or about God’s dealings with human kind—but rather a narrative account of a meeting Jesus has with an actual person. In today's lesson Jesus engages with a flesh-and-blood tax collector, the chief tax collector, in fact, a wealthy man who may have made his money in ways that were widely regarded as less than just.
Often times we think of Jesus’ ministry to and with those on the margins as an encounter only with the poor and dispossessed. Indeed, throughout the Gospels we see Jesus engaging with the sick, outcasts, widows, and other men and women whose economic and social status are, to put it bluntly, quite low. Here, however, the one on the margins is a man of means. The margins on which this man finds himself are those of respectable, religious society like that to which the Pharisee of last week’s parable belongs. In a way, it is as if Jesus were engaging with a Wall Street raider or fat cat politician—a Bernie Madoff or Charlie Rangall. Here Jesus shows us that his message of repentance and reconciliation is heard up the social and economic ladder as well as down. All people, Jesus teaches us, may be drawn to him, into his saving work.
Today, Jesus enters the town of Jericho and, we are told, the chief tax collector—a Jew working as an official of the Roman government—was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Luke tells us that he was having a hard time seeing through the crowds given his small stature. I imagine a small man, in a bespoke suit (quite natty), jumping up and down, trying desperately to see above the heads of the people around him. He was so drawn to see Jesus in fact that this little fellow “ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’” And here we have one of those great moments when we understand why later commentators believed Luke to have been a painter, an artist. Just close your eyes and imagine the picture: Jesus and his friends on the main street of Jericho, crowded about on all sides by excited townsfolk, and Jesus looks up into a tree and sees a wealthy, little Jewish tax collector perched in the branches, and addresses him by name and asks for lodging. And what does Zacchaeus do? “He made haste and came down, and received [Jesus] joyfully.”
Jesus chooses to engage with this funny little rich man whom he knows to be a sinner in the eyes of polite society. Jesus chooses to go under the roof of a man whom many other religious leaders would have shunned. Jesus knew what the people would murmur, and indeed the people did murmur: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” But this is what Jesus does. Jesus accepts all who are drawn to him, especially those who have lost their way in the world, for indeed, Jesus tells us at the end of the story, “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
For some reason Luke does not explain, Zacchaeus was drawn to Jesus. Having been drawn to him, however, Zacchaeus, was moved by him and by Jesus’ acceptance of him. Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus moved him so much that he “stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’” Accepted by the one who is the walking incarnation of the Love of God, Zacchaeus is moved to do something concrete with the resources he has reaped, perhaps dishonestly, in his work and give alms, give alms sacrificially, and make amends for any wrongs he has done.
Here we learn that God makes use of all who are drawn to him and does not hold our past against us. God calls out to each of us where we are, and not as we might be or where we might like to be. God calls out to us at unexpected moments and sometimes that call is so strong that we might be moved to climb a tree in our Sunday best just for a glimpse of him. God draws us into relationship with him in many ways and sometimes it is the simple curiosity that Zacchaeus the tax collector showed. We may be curious to see what all the fuss over Jesus is about. We may be curious to see whether “someone like me” has a place amongst the religious, “someone like me” might be acceptable or worthy. What we discover when we finally go and take a look, is that God is looking back up at us with love, knowing us fully, knowing the best and the worst about us. We discover that no matter who we are, God calls down to us and asks to come under our roof, dwell with us for a time, and break bread with us.
Gathered here this morning, our diverse community of tax collectors and sinners—regular, real people trying to make their lives in the City—welcomes God in Christ into our midst, under our roof, in the Eucharist we now share. In this Sacrament and assured of his love for and acceptance of us, Jesus inspires and nourishes us to live lives engaged with God's work of reconciliation and love. Gathered under this roof we are offered a glimpse of Christ and are drawn to the altar to be close to him, engaged with him, connected with him, one with him. Jesus comes under our roof—the roof of a diverse urban community of imperfect people—and nourishes us with the bread of life. He nourishes us so we can ourselves say, “Behold, Lord. Use me as an instrument of thy love,” as Zacchaeus does after he realises that Jesus truly accepts him, knows him, loves him. May all of us this day feel the excitement that led Zacchaeus to climb the tree, see our Lord face to face, break bread with him under our roof, and offer up to him our gifts and talents and skills.
Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Feria, 25 October 2010
© 2010 Andrew Charles Blume