Saturday, October 30, 2010

Salvation comes to Zaccheaus

Luke 19:1-10

This little story about Zacchaeus is the last one before Jesus enters the area immediately surrounding Jerusalem. It occurs in Jericho, about 15 miles as the crow flies from Jerusalem. Today, it’s about 30 miles as the bus drives.
Luke frequently puts two or more similar stories together; you might remember the three “lost” stories we read not too long ago: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
Here we have two stories about wealthy people, although the lectionary skips over story of the rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him to give away all he has to the poor. The rich man walks away very sad, because he was very rich.
There are two rather distinct ways to interpret this story. Let’s start with the more familiar way: A crowd has gathered, watching for Jesus to come. By now he’s very famous, so the crowd is very large. Try as he might, Zacchaeus can’t see, so he does the undignified thing for a grown man, especially for a very wealthy grown man, and climbs a tree. Jesus spots him, and calls out to him, and invites himself to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house.
People in the crowd know Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, which means he’s the supervisor for a number of other tax collectors. The tax collecting business means collaboration with the Romans; the way it was done resembles a Ponzi scheme. The higher you are on the pyramid, the more money you can make, and the more you have an opportunity to cheat others; it also means you owe larger amounts to the Romans, and ultimately to Caesar.
As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus bears the continual scorn of the people of Jericho. When Jesus sees him and invites himself over, Zacchaeus is suddenly convicted of his own sinfulness and repents, He promises to give half of his assets to the poor, and to repay anyone he has cheated with four times the amount.
Let’s assume he’s a millionaire; he gives ½ a million to the local food pantry. If each tax collector under him owed him $20,000, and he demands $25,000, he’ll repay him 4 times the over-charge of $5,000, or $20,000. If we assume he has 10 tax collectors under him, his total repayment is $200,000.
This leaves him with $300,000. While he’s still wealthy by our standards, he’s worth a lot less than he was a few minutes ago. He has given back over 2/3 of his estate.
Jesus is impressed with the degree of repentance, and promises that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house that day. Zacchaeus is now living a repentant, forgiven life.
Another way of interpreting this story begins with looking at the Greek text, which is always a good idea. In Greek, the verbs translated in English as “I will give” and “I will repay” are actually present progressive tense: “I am giving” and “I am repaying.”
The average person in Jericho makes assumptions about him, and most likely gossips about him. But they don’t know that he gives away ½ of his annual income to the poor, so he really lives on $500,000 a year, not a whole $Million.
In other words, Zacchaeus is an honest chief tax collector. If he determines that he has cheated anyone or overcharged them, he repays them. And he believes in living on half of his income and giving the rest to charity. Zacchaeus’ only obvious sin, then, is collaboration with the enemy Romans.
When Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to dinner at your house,” in this interpretation the intent is to say that tax collectors – those who collaborate with the enemy -- are welcome in God’s kingdom, or reign. Even though Zacchaeus has lots of money, he’s an outsider in the Jewish community, but he’s welcome in Jesus’ reign.
The major difference between these two interpretations is the giving of salvation. For many people, scholars and lay people alike, one must repent before receiving salvation. In the first interpretation, Zacchaeus repents and atones for his sinful cheating. Therefore, he deserves salvation.
In the second understanding of the story, Zacchaeus has not repented, though there is an attempt to live an upright life – except for that collaboration with the enemy. Yet he and his household are given salvation by Jesus. God has different rules than humans!
Is that not the key tenet of the Protestant Reformation? There is nothing we must do in order to receive God’s grace, God’s salvation?
Salvation is a key theme in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ very name refers to salvation: Yeshua (or Joshua) means “God saves.” [Jesus is the Latin version of the Greek version of the Hebrew name.] Here are some references to salvation in Luke.
·         In her song of praise, Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …”
·         When John (the Baptist) is born, Zechariah his father sings: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” 
·         When Jesus is born, the angel tells the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 
·         The word for healing and for saving is often the same in Greek -- sozo. People are healed and saved in the same moment.
·         Salvation refers to a way of life. Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
·         Salvation is what the Apostles preach in Acts; for example Peter says to the High Priest and others: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
·          Salvation comes in Jesus’ presence: Old Simeon looks at Jesus in the Temple and says, “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples….”

Jesus was sent to us so that we might be saved, forgiven, brought closer to God. I often say, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more; and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” 
God sees us through Jesus’ eyes, as forgiven and loved sinners. God’s view of us is as saved people, children of Abraham, children of God … saved as Zacchaeus was, by Jesus’ words, and by Jesus’ presence in his life.
Knowing we are saved can bring us to respond with love, generosity, and forgiveness to others. Knowing others are saved as well can bring us to see them through Jesus’ eyes, too.
Let us live into God’s view of us all as saved people. Amen