Proper 26C Sermon (1995)

24th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Luke 19:1-10;
Ex 34:5-9; 2 Thess 1


Preachers like to find good stories to use in their sermons these days; most parishioners also like to hear stories. But sometimes the preacher doesn’t have to look hard because the story from the scripture reading is hard to beat. The story of Zacchaeus is one of those stories, I think. It comes with some unusually colorful details, like Zacchaeus being short and needing to climb a tree. In these days in which we are so self-conscious about our bodies–tall or short, fat or skinny, handsome or plain, athletic or frail–we can relate to this story about a short, unpopular person with a lot of spunk. It is also the good news in a nutshell, as salvation makes a house call on Zacchaeus. I’d like to simply retell the story of Zacchaeus today, filling in and elaborating on some of the details.

The first thing to notice is that, even though Zacchaeus seems to be a colorful personality who takes the initiative, it is Jesus’ initiative that makes the story. The story begins with some stick-to-it-iveness on the part of Zacchaeus. There seems to be a parade as a big crowd is gathering. Luke, in his storytelling, implies that Zacchaeus doesn’t even know who is coming. He’s simply curious, wanting to know who it is that’s commanding such a crowd. In any case, he runs up against a couple barriers in satisfying his curiosity. One is that he is a tax collector–kind of like being an I.R.S. auditor today, only worse. A tax collector in those days also was ultimately working for the enemy, the Romans. So this crowd isn’t about to let this pint-sized collaborator get to the front of the crowd where he could see. And that, of course, is his second problem: he can’t see without being at the front, because he’s too short. Any child, or a parent with small children, knows enough to get to a parade early to have a spot in front. But Zacchaeus has come late to this parade, so he needs to take some initiative. He runs and climbs a sycamore tree.

But for all Zacchaeus’ initiative, it’s what Jesus does that’s the real shocker. As Jesus is passing by Zacchaeus’ tree, he stops the parade and calls out his name: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” We can’t know for sure that Zacchaeus even knows who Jesus is, but he’s utterly thrilled that this popular person, for whom the crowd is throwing a parade, is recognizing he, Zacchaeus, a terribly unpopular person. That had to feel great! Sure enough, Zacchaeus hurries down from the tree and welcomes Jesus into his home.

The crowd, of course, has the opposite reaction. The good news of the invitation to Zacchaeus is distinctly bad news for them. They’re utterly appalled. “Look at this!” they mutter to themselves, “Jesus is going to the home of a sinner!” Yes, they’re players in the insider/outsider games, dividing between sinners and saints, winners and losers. And Jesus once again spoils their game. Jesus doesn’t seem to want to abide by those same distinctions between people that we want to. Jesus goes right into Zacchaeus’ home, the home of a sinner, for dinner and for a place to sleep.

Once on Zacchaeus’ turf, it appears once again that he takes the initiative. For as soon as they settle into the meal, Zacchaeus grabs a wine glass and launches into a big toast–toasting himself more than his honored guest: “I’m so glad to have you here at my table, Jesus, that, despite all the talk you may have heard about me around town, I’m really a nice guy, after all–so nice that I’ll give half of all I get to the poor. And, I might add, if it can be shown that I’ve ever given anyone in Jericho a raw deal, I’ll make it up to him four times over.”

Notice my slant on this story. We often think of Zacchaeus as making a great conversion in the company of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. This apparent turn-around is better than no response at all. But I think we need to be careful about leaping to conclusions about conversion. Conversion is long-term discipleship, not spur-of-the-moment heroics. Zacchaeus might only be trying to live up to what he thinks are Jesus’ expectations. In which case we might expect Jesus to fall all over him saying, “Great! See? Anybody–even a little weasel like Zacchaeus–can become a really nice guy, if he’s appealed to in the right way. That’s why I always make it a practice to go to eat at the homes of sinful little losers like Zacchaeus, so I can transform them into good people.

But, as usual, what we (or Zacchaeus) expect Jesus to say is not what he says at all. Again, he is taking the initiative that truly matters here, not Zacchaeus. Jesus doesn’t stand up praising him for his wonderful turn-about. No, what matters is what Jesus is doing, and especially what he is about to do, as he makes the last leg of his journey to the cross. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus announces, “today salvation has come to this house, because you also are a child of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Well, that brings Zacchaeus off of his high horse. Zacchaeus is still thinking in the usual terms of insiders and outsiders, of winners and losers. He wants to place himself in the company of the winners with his little speech to Jesus. But Jesus cuts him off and reminds him who it is that he came to save, the lost and the losers. In other words, Jesus brings Zacchaeus back down to the only ground on which he can possibly stand and receive a favorable judgment: the ground of the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. (1)

Jesus is uttering judgment of a sorts here. And he is uttering it on the only basis he will allow. He will not judge the cluttered business of our lives, because on that basis none of us will be anything but condemned. Rather, he will judge us only as he raises us, reconciled and restored, out of the uncluttered nothingness of our death, the death of the old self, and a rising to one who will follow as a disciple.

What truly matters is that salvation has made a house call. Just because Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life–just because he has that effect on the dead, raising them to a new life–and just because Zacchaeus is standing there as a solid brass dead duck, Jesus raises him up uncondemned. He refuses to judge him in the same way that others judge him. And so he opens up the possibilities of Zacchaeus’ life once again. Zacchaeus can even stop judging himself long enough to be someone new. Perhaps it will be the sort who gives away half his goods.

But that’s not the most important thing at that moment of Jesus being with him. “Look, Zacchaeus,” Jesus says in effect, “just bag it, will you? I have no use for your chin music about your life. I’m on my way right now to make safe the death you’re avoiding–to make it the only ticket anyone will ever need. Sit down and eat up. Let’s just have a quiet dinner before I go into the silence and solve your problem.”

Jesus says something similar to each of us this morning. We don’t have to come ready to impress him, or others, with all the good we’ve done or plan to do. Those things matter, mind you, the good things we do. But not as the thing that has won our salvation. No, Jesus has already taken all the initiative on that one. Salvation came looking for us; salvation has made a house call. Salvation is making a house call as we gather once again this morning to be hosted at the dinner of our Lord. He comes to raise us once again to all the new possibilities in our lives, possibilities of discipleship. He ignores all those judgments that we and others may put upon ourselves, that we’re too short, or too dumb, or too frail, or too sinful. No, salvation makes a house call once again this morning and dines us with the bread of new life. So don’t worry about making the right impressions; just sit quietly and drink it in. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 18-19, 1995


1. If this line about “the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead” sounds especially familiar to you as a reader of Robert Farrar Capon, it’s because this sermon is greatly indebted to Father Capon’s insights into this passage, and even indebted to ‘borrowing’ some of his language, from his book The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 76-79.

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