October 30, 2022, What Happened Here? Luke 19:1-10 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click the link above.

One of the things that really bugged people about Jesus was his propensity for hanging out with sinners. Over and over again, he’d go out for dinner and drinks with tax collectors and prostitutes. He chatted with women, which was bad enough, but he even chatted with women who had questionable reputations. And in the story today, among the thousands of perfectly nice, law-abiding people in Jericho, Jesus decided to choose the home of one of the most – if not the most – unpopular citizens of the city to spend the day. It just wasn’t the way people expected a teacher and a man of God to behave. Everyone in the city knew what a mean, selfish, dishonest man Zaccheaus was, not to mention being a tool of the Roman occupying forces. How could Jesus not know how much of a sinner he was? Or did he just not care?

But I think no one was more shocked by what Jesus did than Zacchaeus himself. When he heard that Jesus was going to be passing through Jericho, he was dying with curiosity to see this traveling prophet and miracle-worker everyone was talking about – who wouldn’t be? But he was too short to see over people’s heads, and among all those neighbors he had cheated and defrauded, there wasn’t a chance anybody was going to let him get a front-row spot along the roadway where Jesus was about to pass by.

And here we get a glimpse of something good in our little friend Zacchaeus. He was greedy and unprincipled – there was no denying that – he was an opportunist and he was a cheat – but one thing you could say about him was that he didn’t have any illusions about his respectability. All those years of being hated and despised seem to have cured him of thinking too highly of his own dignity. And so, when he couldn’t find a place in the crowd, Zacchaeus wasn’t too proud to scurry on ahead up the road, and to clamber up into the branches of a sycamore fig tree, where he hoped to get a glimpse of this Jesus person as he passed underneath.

I’m sure he assumed he was well hidden up there among the foliage. With the crowds crying out on all sides, pressing forward to see Jesus and his disciples, maybe reaching out in hopes of touching him as he went by, Zacchaeus must have known, must have been positive that there wasn’t a chance of anyone noticing him, especially Jesus himself. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Jesus stopped right under the tree. He looked up. And he called Zacchaeus to come down – by name. Of all the people who were surprised and baffled by what Jesus did, surely no one was more surprised and baffled than Zacchaeus himself.

And we just read what happened next. Zacchaeus, rich, greedy, selfish, lonely man that he had been for so, so long, suddenly declared his intention of giving away half of his worldly goods to the poor – not just the money in his bank account, but his possessions, his finery, his carefully curated collections – half of everything. And he promised to make restitution to every person he had ever defrauded, which must have included pretty much everybody. It was sudden, and it was stunning. And Jesus said, in the hearing of all those gathered around this little scene: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

So, salvation – that’s what I want to talk about. It’s such a theological term, and I’m not sure most people really understand exactly what Jesus was talking about. If pressed, I think a lot of people, maybe most people, would say that Jesus meant that when Zacchaeus died – now that he had repented of his wickedness – he would go up to the Good Place instead of down to the Bad Place. Because I think most of us have been taught to believe that when we say we need to be saved from our sins, what we mean is that we need to be saved from the punishment we deserve to get from God on account of the bad things we’ve done, as if God is just standing by with a celestial paddle to whack everyone who doesn’t get saved.

The problem is that the Church has so often, and for so long, taught God’s children a theology of fear instead of a theology of love; and a theology of afterward instead of a theology of now. In his first letter to the churches, way back at the beginning, John wrote this: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” God’s motivation in creating us was love. God’s purpose in coming to dwell among us is love. God’s desire in saving us is love. And, also, God’s plan for our future is love.

So what did Jesus mean when he declared of Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house?” Did he mean that golly gee, God loves Zacchaeus so much that all his greed and cheating and thievery and selfishness really doesn’t matter? Clearly not. Jesus proclaimed joyfully that salvation had come to Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus was in desperate need of being saved. But Zacchaeus didn’t need to be saved from God. Zacchaeus, and you, and I, and all human beings, are in desperate need of being saved from ourselves, from our selfishness, from our greed, from our dishonesty – but also from our fear, from our hurt, from our despair, from our bitterness. Because all those things are what are keeping us, now, from being the people God created us to be. Those are the things that are blinding us, now, to the grace and the forgiveness and the love of God. Jesus, as he said, came to seek out and to save the lost, so they might all be saved. So that now they won’t be lost.

Whenever I hear the story of Zacchaeus I can’t help thinking of the Dr. Seuss story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I’m pretty sure all of us older people grew up watching the cartoon every Christmas on TV, with Boris Karloff doing the narration and the voice of the utterly mean and grinchy Grinch, as he steals every bit of Christmas cheer in the Who village. But then, at the end, when he sees the Whos gathering to celebrate Christmas anyway, salvation suddenly comes to the Grinch – he is healed of his grinchiness – and, as the narrator tells us, “his heart grew ten sizes that day.”

I believe that’s essentially what happened to Zacchaeus when Jesus looked up and called him by name. It wasn’t a pardon, or a legal transaction that happened, forbearance in exchange for restitution, forgiveness in exchange for a change of behavior. It was salvation, which is so much more – it was a healing of the heart. In fact, in Greek, healing and salvation are the same word. Zacchaeus wasn’t saved from the wrath of God. He was saved from something much more life-threatening – he was saved from himself. On that day, Zacchaeus was healed of the poison and corruption of his own soul. And, of course, that healing is an ongoing work – the healing had begun, in a spectacularly dramatic way, but Zacchaeus would be in need of salvation for the rest of his life. And it would always be there for him, a well of healing and love available to him in all his human-ness, that would never run dry.

Most of us have grown up in the Church. We know that Jesus lived as one of us, that he died on the Cross, and rose again from the dead on the third day. And we know Jesus did all that for our salvation. But what we need to know, and to always remember, is that it is not the anger and intolerance of God that we need to be saved from. It is the sickness and the woundedness of our own human hearts that need the healing of salvation. Because salvation is not for the hereafter. Salvation is for right now, today, and tomorrow, and every day. “For God loved the world so much, that he sent his only Son to us, so that everyone who puts their trust in him will not be destroyed, but have everlasting life.” Salvation is for today, and for every day, because you are loved by God, today, and just like Zacchaeus, today he is calling you by name, and today, he is offering you abundant, everlasting life. +

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