Sunday, April 10, 2011

Zaccheaus: A Lenten Meditation

Zacchaeus may have been, as the song says, a wee little man, but Jericho, where he lived, was no wee little town. We often have in our minds pictures of places such as Jericho as dusty Judean backwaters, full of small dwellings and people struggling to get by. While Jericho certainly had its poorer population, in the main our mental image of the place is wrong. It was know as the City of Palms, this city where Jesus encountered both blind Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus. Jericho was a thriving economic center. Situated in the rich Jordan valley, it commanded the approaches to Jerusalem and important river crossings to the east. The fragrance from its balsam trees filled the air for miles around. It was known world wide for its rose gardens and the Romans carried its fame, along with its dates and balsam, to the far reaches of their empire.

It was more than an important agricultural trading center and crossroads for the empire, though. It was also the winter resort for Jerusalem’s aristocracy, a literal first century Palm Springs. Kings built winter palaces there. Herod’s alone featured sunken gardens, a Roman style bathhouse, swimming pools and another pool large enough to go boating on. Herod also constructed a large horse and chariot racing course and theater complex for athletic events, dramas and musical. Jericho was a good place to do business for either a blind beggar-man or a tax collector.

Everyone, from kids in Sunday school to those of us who are older, knows that Zacchaeus was short. But he was a wee little man in more than his stature. He had risen to the top of his profession, but how he got there meant he was hardly well regarded. He worked for the hated Romans, collecting taxes or tolls from his own people to help finance the foreign oppression. And while his name is a combination of names meaning “clean or innocent” and “righteous and upright” he is not seen that way by his fellow citizens. Far from being innocent and upright, operating in that rich economic climate, he made quite a bit.

Zacchaeus, in spite of his wealth and professional standing as one of the chief tax collectors, was not happy. According to the Bible accounts, he was not only short in stature; he was also short of both friends and contentment.

But for some reason, he wants to see Jesus. He hurries from his home and tries to get through the crowd to catch a glimpse. No matter how hard he tries to weasel his way through the crowd, he is kept back. You can imagine the people deliberately keeping him from getting through. Here’s a chance to give the little tax collector some pay-back. He always wants some of what the people have. This time they have the best view of the traveling teacher and his crowd and Zacchaeus is not going to take any part of it.

But Zacchaeus is not a man to be denied. He didn’t get to be wealthy by letting the people have their way. He’d scratched and scrambled his way to get what he wanted and he would do it again. So he looked around and spied a sycamore tree growing out over the roadside, offering some sheltering shade, climbable branches of the type favored by young boys and a good view. Off he went, shimming up it and hiding himself in its branches, ready to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

As we all know, his climbing got him more than a glimpse, he got a dinner guest for his efforts. A dinner guest who changed his life. Zacchaeus’ life was never the same after his encounter with Jesus. He marks his change by pledging to give half of what he owns to the poor and return four-fold to anybody he had defrauded. This is far above what the Mosaic Law required. I think it shows that when we encounter Jesus, a new Law, a higher Law is written upon our hearts and encourages us to do all that we can, not just what is required.

In spite of that change, the good religious people grumbled about Jesus going Zacchaeus’ for a meal. It’s one thing to give sight to a blind man as Jesus did just before meeting Zacchaeus. But dining with a tax collector? An agent of the pagan government! He’s a sinner!!

Ouch! That word hurts, even today. Sinner. It’s not something we like to talk about. It sounds so judgmental. Yet, that’s what the people call Zacchaeus and Jesus doesn’t say “No, he isn’t. Leave him alone.” Neither does Zacchaeus. Instead Zacchaeus, though he never uses the word, repents. Repent merely means to turn around – to change direction. Zacchaeus certainly does that. Instead of living life trying to grab all he can get, he suddenly reverses course and puts a right valuation of his wealth. He’s got all this money and he’s going to become a good steward. He’ll repay anybody he cheated – four times what he cheated them. And beyond that, he’ll give half of all he has to the poor.

When he makes that announcement, Jesus tells him, and the crowd, that salvation has come to that house that day and that the purpose of his coming was to seek and save the lost.

Seek and save the lost. Again those words may make us uncomfortable. They are loaded with lots of emotional and theological freight and have been used throughout history to label people. But they are Jesus’ words. He comes to seek and save the lost. What we need to do is to try to drop our prejudiced understanding of them and look at what Jesus is saying.

In the New Testament, the word lost means simply that – lost. It doesn’t mean doomed or damned for all eternity. It means that whatever is lost is in the wrong place. It’s not where it should be. This is true in all of Jesus’ parables (like the one about the lost coin) and about people, too. A thing, or person, is lost when it or he or she is not in the right place. In Zacchaeus and our cases, a person is lost when, on their life’s journey, they have wandered away from God.

We have all had times when traveling that we suddenly find ourselves where we shouldn’t be – sometimes even heading the opposite direction completely. Certainly that was true for Zacchaeus. He was making a pile of money and living well, but he was far from God. That’s what Jesus meant when he said he came for the lost. He came for those of us (and that is all of us) who have been, or may be, in the wrong place.

Likewise, when Jesus talks about “saving” he means restoring. In the New Testament, something is saved when it returned to its rightful place. That’s how Jesus saves us. He returns us to our rightful place, as sons and daughters of the living God. In other words, saved is the opposite of lost – when we are found. We are found when we allow Jesus to bring us home to the family estate of our loving heavenly parent.

This “being found,” “saved,” is what happens when we seek Jesus and he seeks us. Remember, Zacchaeus, like Bartimaeus, did his part. He got himself to a place where he could see Jesus. He knew that for all he had, there was something he lacked. He knew he was not in his right place.

Zacchaeus wasn’t the only one doing the seeking. Jesus sought him out, too. Instead of passing under the tree and continuing along his way, Jesus stopped, looked up and called Zacchaeus down and then led him to the right place. He found him.

Jesus does that same thing today. The everliving Christ restores us to the family of God. That’s something we need to remember this Lenten season. We follow one who came to bring us back where we belong, no longer lost and wandering, but safe, and saved, to the home that is prepared for us.

Whatever happened to Zacchaeus? This despised tax collector, who did everything he could to get his hands on money and wealth, was hated by his neighbors and himself, and was wandering through life, lost and alone. When brought home by the Master, he changed into the person he was meant to be. He grew to fit his name – upright and righteous. The Bible doesn’t say anything else about him, but ecclesiastical tradition does. It says that he was indeed brought home – in a magnificent way. It tell us that, appointed by Peter, the rock on which Christ founded his church, Zacchaeus became the church’s bishop in Caesarea.

What will happen to us? For one we need to use this time of the church calendar (and every day) to look at our own lives. Do we live up to our name as Friends of God? Are we the people we should be? Are we in the right place or the wrong place? If we are in the wrong place, let us make it our prayer, that, like Zacchaeus, we find ourselves in the wrong place at the right time – the time when Jesus passes by.

-- Brent

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