Faith In Real Life: SEEN AS A SINNER
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
The focus this week is upon the repair dimension of confession. We start with repentance—the reorientation of our lives to view other lives as valuable as our own. It is a faith claim that runs contrary to our hard wiring but we claim that such an orientation leads to life and to God. Once we have turned toward God, we discover how difficult it is to live such a life. And we must confess the many ways we put ourselves first at the expense of others. Sometimes these behaviors are intentional, sometimes inadvertent and sometimes we simply benefit or ignore the inequities around us. In each case—the reason hardly matters—we miss the mark. We need to know that about ourselves to stay the course. How do we repair what we have done—or what we failed to do?
Zacchaeus was a wealthy tax collector. Tax collectors made their money at the expense of others. The tax collector was permitted to charge whatever tax he wished. As long as he paid Rome its share, the tax collector could pocket any monies he could collect above that threshold. It was a very lucrative position. In religious terms, Zacchaeus was a sinner. Instead of a life that proclaimed the value of all God’s children, centered upon gratitude and mutual regard, he lived a life that served himself. His sin was putting himself at the center of his life instead of God.
However, it is important to know that Zacchaeus’ job, though immensely unpopular, was absolutely legal. The law of the land was behind Zacchaeus. It is one of many examples in life where having the right to do something is very different from the right thing to do. Claiming our rights is a familiar secular argument, it just doesn’t carry much weight with God. I suspect that most of the time we defend ourselves by claiming our ‘rights’, we are revealing our self interest is more important than God’s desire for us.
In any case, for reasons unknown Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. That is interesting but the story hinges upon Jesus seeing Zacchaeus not the other way around. Then Jesus invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home. The crowd was appalled—surely such an obvious sinner did not deserve such notice. We are familiar with Jesus’ advocating for the disenfranchised and the exploited of the world. He reaches out to the outcasts, the unclean, the homeless—he reaches out to old beggar women, thieves and adulterers. All of these have been harmed by discrimination and mistreatment and Jesus seeks to make them whole again. But here, Jesus reaches out to one of the most wealthy men in the community. Not too many people think of Jesus’s care extending to an agent of exploitation. There was a crowd of people seeking Jesus that day—most of them almost certainly more deserving— but of the many, Jesus chose the unlikely. Repair in human relationships and in social systems begins with the radical redefining of who belongs.
Zacchaeus was not saved by his promises. Many people make promises. Salvation came to his house that day because Jesus saw him—saw him as a sinner and did not hold it against him. What Zacchaeus does, or, what we do with that radical inclusion is another question entirely. In fact, as far as I am concerned there is plenty of reason to doubt Zacchaeus. I can’t tell you how many abusive people promise to be different—who promise never to do it again. And I have heard countless apologies that begin, “I’m sorry if you felt hurt, that was not my intent.” Zacchaeus adds a similar condition—-”If I defrauded….”—as if that were a question. I think a legitimate argument can be made that the nature of Zacchaeus’ response revealed that he did not actually grasp his sin. Again, everything he did was legal. How could that be fraud?
Salvation came to that house not because of what Zachary’s said or did, but because Jesus saw him. Jesus shared a meal with him and in so doing, challenged human assumptions about who belongs. I said last week and I will say again— We should not confuse what God calls good with our sense of ‘deserving’. When we do, we expose our own sinfulness.
At one level, I find this thought disturbing. I am used to the idea that God is on the side of the oppressed and I am used to the idea that I have some idea of who fits that category. But unfortunately, I am wrong. Such a determination is not my call any more than the Pharisees’ determining who was pure enough to come before God. Such categorizations belong to God and Jesus consistently interfered with human attempts to determine them.
I do not believe we can repair our sin out of a should or an ought. Everyone of us, somewhere in our heart, thinks we are better than somebody else. Our prejudice might be that we are prejudiced against prejudiced people. That is just as judgmental as the people we are talking about. In order for salvation to visit our homes, our sinfulness must be seen and forgiven. I believe that is what Zacchaeus was offered. He seems to have repented. He seems to be on a path of repair—out of gratitude for what had been offered to him. But what happens next is entirely unknown. Jesus opened the door—in fact he opened Zaccheaus’ door. There are no requirements or conditions. We actually have no choice about whether God loves us. Our only choice is whether we will enjoy such love. There are indicators that we have received the gift but not conditions.
Repair begins with God. The repair that God offers is an entirely different paradigm of inclusion. In my experience, in real life,we are incapable of such inclusion. To think otherwise is hubris. The very best we can do is move in that direction and be ever mindful of the ways we fail. Repair does not depend on us doing better, repair begins with humility and gratitude for what we have been given. We are loved and included in the full knowledge that we are inadequate. It is easy to forget that we are all ‘undeserving’ (by human categories) recipients of God’s care. We are not measured by what we do—and that includes proper apologies, reparations, good intentions or acts of service. Those are the behaviors that emerge from God’s goodness to us. It is all too tempting to make this story a morality tale about the virtue of good deeds and how we should go and do likewise. This is more about the incredible capacity of Jesus to love than our ability to respond.
We are constantly creating new ways to measure goodness. The first century Jews had many rules about who belonged to God. In the 21st century, we might have changed the rules but we have them nonetheless. It is just too easy to point out other people’s shortcomings. We continue to act as if other people’s behavior changed, life would be better. In real life, like the onlooking crowd, we regularly dislike God’s care for others. We silently think—yes but….certainly not ‘those’ people. Repair begins with seeing our own sin and realizing God is still inviting us. Whether or not Zacchaeus actually learned that lesson, I do not know. I know the invitation was given to him and is given to us. As the scripture puts it: “he too is a son of Abraham. .”
Repair begins when we are seen for who we are and experience God’s radical inclusion. Even if the law is on our side, if we do have love, we are like a clanging cymbal. Keep that understanding of God at your center. Trust God with your inadequacy and your failure. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
God simply does not measure us as we measure ourselves and each other. Hopefully Zaccheaus learned that lesson. If he did, he would at least approximate his extravagant promises. If we accept that grace, we will be able to live with our own limitations and be far more gracious towards others.
It is the journey towards loving that makes all the difference. Let it be so.