Belonging Begins With…Noticing Who’s Missing

Sunday, October 8, 2023
Dacon Stephanie Anderson

Luke 19:1-10

In today’s passage, we see Jesus passing through Jericho on the very final leg of his journey toward Jerusalem; toward his arrest and crucifixion to come. And yet, he’s not so preoccupied with his own fate that he cannot take time to notice others along the journey.

The story pans to a man named Zacchaeus, who we read was rich and who worked as a chief tax collector. We read that he was “short in stature”, but the exact phrase used here is a bit of play on words. He could be physically short, but it’s possible that this phrasing is actually referring more to his occupation than his height. Tax collectors were charged with collecting Roman tariffs and they had a horrible reputation in first-century Jewish society because many of them earned their living by over-charging and stealing from their community. The crowds likely shunned him and barricaded him because of what he did for a living. In any case, he’s hindered from being able to see Jesus.

And so, he climbs up in a sycamore tree so that he can catch a glimpse of Jesus, coming through town. But Jesus has this uncanny gift for seeing and affirming what others do not see. So up in that tree, as he was actively seeking Jesus, he finds that Jesus was seeking him the whole time.

Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down from that tree because I’m staying at your house today.” And Zacchaeus is thrilled and receives him gladly. But now the crowd is grumbling – the same word for grumbling is the one used for the Israelites grumbling to Moses in the wilderness, maybe a foreshadowing that they just don’t know what they don’t know. And like so many other cases in scripture, this grumbling means there’s a potential social cost that Jesus is paying by interacting with him. Like past encounters with women or lepers, the crowd is equally eye-rolly at Jesus yet again pausing to interact with the exact person they didn’t want him to. “This guy?? This guy rips us off any chance he gets! This guy doesn’t play fair! This guy is rich and it’s on our backs. This guy is beyond redemption.”

And then we hear Zacchaeus say, “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.”

A lot hinges on our understanding of this statement and our answer to the question: is Zaccheaus statement (that he will give to the poor and pay people back) a promise of something he’ll do in the future, or a revealing of things he’s already doing?

The cleanest, simplest, and maybe most common way to see this story is to understand this as a future promise. That by Jesus honoring Zaccheaus and calling his name, he’s prompted to change his behavior and then receives a blessing from Jesus for doing so. It’s a theological framing that is familiar in our world; we understand, by way of the world, that usually, repentance precedes forgiveness. That Zacchaeus needed a change of heart in order to get that blessing. That Jesus prompted a transformation so powerful that even this hated tax collector would give his money to the poor. But in this framing, we are led directly into a belief that our own repentance must include matters of the heart, as well as our finances; that only once we act, Jesus saves. And wouldn’t that preach a clean and easy stewardship sermon?!

It would. But that wouldn’t do justice to what is actually in the text and it wouldn’t do justice to the Jesus we know.

Rather, when we look closely at this text, here are some things that we see:

  1. For one, the Greek present tense in his statement means that this commitment is ongoing, not something he’ll do only now or only once, and the tense itself likely means he’s already been doing these things.
  2. And this financial disclosure – his insistence that he “will give to the poor and pay people back” isn’t in response to a question from Jesus, but in response to the grumbling of the crowd.

One theologian explained that Zacchaeus isn’t turning over a new leaf here, but lifting up an old one for all to see. He’s clearing his reputation; he feels misunderstood and possibly even trapped in an occupation and a system in which he knows he or his peers are hurting people, but not always sure how to fix it.

And then, Jesus simply pronounces blessing, which isn’t based on anything Zacchaeus has done, but simply because he is a child of God. And the “salvation that has come to his house today”? That is Jesus, who quite literally came to his house that day.

The tale of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus isn’t about Zacchaeus’ actions. It’s about Jesus and the expansive love that he invites us into.

Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus sides with those on the margins; those who have been pushed out or preventing from seeing the life and liberation that Jesus offers. Those who are called “sinner”, just for being a social outsider. And usually, we gather around scripture that opens our eyes to the plight of the poor, but today we’re stopped in our tracks for yet another wild, scandalous expansion of God’s kingdom. Zacchaeus is rich and the community assumes he takes advantage of people. This goes against all of our worldly understanding of fairness and justice; the crowd thinks that this guy scams people. That this guy steals money from people. That he uses the power of the state to make himself wealthy and steal from the poor.

And yet again, Jesus sees him, knows there’s more to the story of who he is, calls him by name, stays with him, and blesses him. And this final line, where Jesus is sort of weirdly speaking to him in the third person? That’s for the crowd; that’s for us to hear: “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.” Jesus stands in front of the crowd, which includes us here, and says, “this one is included in my kingdom, too.”

So where does this leave us in stewardship season? If our finances or time or talents don’t matter for our salvation, why give?

This story embodies the promise that anyone who desires will not only see Jesus, but in turn, be seen by Jesus. When you feel misunderstood, when you feel barricaded from experiencing mercy, when you feel lost or alone or like you’re trying as hard as you can, but man the world (or maybe your occupation?) is really making it hard for you to live in line with your values, the good news of this story is that Jesus sees you, Jesus knows you, Jesus calls you, and you are forgiven before you even know that.

It’s in that truth; that promise – that we stand in God’s grace that we give generously. That we look out to find who among us, both here at Augustana and outside these walls, have been left in the margins. Who has been ruled out of bounds or unwelcome in our expression of church? Who might surprise us with their generosity or a fuller story than we could have imagined? Belonging begins with noticing who is missing because God’s welcome is wider than any margin.

And when we bring our gifts together for the sake of the world, we trust that God’s goodness and mercy and transformation are for all people, regardless of stature or stigma or class or occupation. That every time we wonder if someone is outside of the fold – every time we wonder if someone is beyond redemption – Jesus calls us back to him and to one another; Jesus loves us and calls us home.

Thanks be to God.

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