By mtaylor | Wednesday, November 2, 2016 | 9:12 AM
“Extravagance and Salvation”
October 30, 2016
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.
The stuff of Wee Zacchaeus is of song and children’s Sunday school. He has become so well known that Zacchaeus is more folklore than Biblical message. Sadly, his response to Jesus has been misunderstood as the work of repentance required for his salvation. I prefer to interpret this wonderful story as the extravagant love of God calling forth extravagant acts from us. If the stewardship team is still waiting for your pledge card; this story reminds us of God’s relentless desire for us and the relationship between generosity and salvation.
Luke tells this story with extremes. The story is filled with action. Luke describes hyperbolic extravagance. I know a man who only has “best” friends. When I was first getting to know this man, I was shocked when he described someone as his best friend. I am one who uses that term selectively and sparingly. The next day my new acquaintance described another man as his best friend; on another day, another person. That was when I realized that everyone was his best friend. Luke does not wear us out with superlatives and hyperbole. Luke is sparing in his extravagance. Except for this story.
Zacchaeus is extremely short and extremely rich. He impetuously runs to climb up a tree in order to see the rumored prophet. Jesus impulsively invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. At this, Zacchaeus hurries to climb down the tree. There is no leisurely action in this story. In response to Jesus’ visit, Zacchaeus promises to donate half of his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone he has defrauded. It is in the context of these extravagant gestures that Jesus declares Zacchaeus’ salvation. In the context of these extravagant gestures God’s offer of salvation to the sinner Zacchaeus stands out as the most extravagant gesture of all.
God’s desire to be in relationship with us is seen in the action of Jesus. Jesus does not wait to be invited to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner. Jesus invites himself. This may have begun as curiosity on the part of Zacchaeus, but Jesus meets that curiosity with an invitation and ultimately with the declaration of salvation to the home of Zacchaeus. It is the declaration of salvation that flies in the face of the crowd. Luke tells us that the crowd grumbles that Jesus is the guest of a notorious sinner. Time and time again Luke describes Jesus acting against the social and religious expectations and the religious tradition. Jesus chose to associate with those regarded as outcasts or unclean. Jesus demonstrates the extravagant desire of God for the salvation of the lost, the least and the last. That is, for sinners; for us.
I said in my scripture comments that Zacchaeus spoke in present tense action when he described his giving half his wealth to the poor and repaying four times anything he had stolen. If this is an accurate translation it leads me to interpret the real issue of the story differently from the way we have often understood this story. If Zacchaeus is already giving back, then the issue is the unfair condemnation of him by the crowd. Jesus’ statement that Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham,” is another way of saying that he is a good Jew. It is a defense of Zacchaeus against those who claim he is outside the faith. Once again Luke turns the tables on our expectations. It is the tight fisted self-righteousness of the crowd that is condemned. It is the lack of generosity on the part of the crowd that is played against the extravagant generosity of Zacchaeus.
Once again Luke shows how God choses the outsider. I do not expect you to remember every sermon or every Bible story that serves as a sermon text. On the next to last Sunday of August (21, 2016) my sermon was based on the story of the woman bent double. Jesus calls her “daughter of Abraham.” It is a sign that Jesus has removed her from the marginalized position into which the crowd has forced her. Jesus places her into the community of the saved. She was an outcast because of her physical deformity. Zacchaeus is an outcast due to his occupation.
Zacchaeus was wealthy and powerful. He was the chief tax collector. He was treated as an outcast and a sinner by the same folks who condemned Jesus for healing the woman on the Sabbath. They are the same ones who condemn Jesus for going home with such a notorious sinner as Zacchaeus. If Zacchaeus has already given away half of his possessions and repaid four times what he has stolen, then he is no longer a wealthy man. I wonder if his boss called him into the office the next morning to fire him. How could the Roman taxation system survive with chief tax collectors behaving like Zacchaeus?
Luke talks about the proper use of wealth more than any of the other Gospels. Luke does not indict the wealthy for being wealthy or show an aesthetic preference for poverty. Luke’s Jesus is all about distributive justice. Zacchaeus’ repentance demonstrates the presence of God’s salvation in the world today. I can see Jesus about to step over the threshold of Zacchaeus, home. He stops, turns to the crowd, and says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Zacchaeus, the name is derived from the Hebrew word that means “clean” or “innocent,” is saved because that is what Jesus came to do – to save the lost.
After living with Zacchaeus this week, I think I understand why we have turned this Biblical character into a cartoon character. Think about it. If Zacchaeus is a joke; if we sing a silly song about this short little man, then we do not have to take him seriously. Some years ago a book was published, not a best seller, entitled Whatever happened to sin? In our culture we have lowered our standards so far that there are very few of us left who can remember what sin is. That translates to mean that even fewer have experienced the depth of remorse felt by Zacchaeus. Who can know the feeling of forgiveness if you believe you have not sinned? Five hundred years ago we rode the ground swell of the Protestant Reformation. I am glad we are a product of the Reformation, but the result of that movement is that we threw out some things that I think diminished our faith practice. The one I lift up today is confession. The power of going to the confessional and receiving the words of absolution from the priest were powerful and perhaps even life-changing. In order to feel the relief and renewal of confession and forgiveness one must first believe, “I am a sinner.”
Zacchaeus’ salvation did not end with his warm feeling inside. John Calvin said that Zacchaeus was transformed “from a wolf not only into a sheep, but even into a shepherd.” Zacchaeus has become part of the new creation. He has gone from being a distant observer of Jesus to being a faithful disciple of Christ. May the grace of God be such a life-changing encounter for you. May your joyful response lead to your commitment to justice in this world.