Proper 26/ Pentecost +24 Year C
Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world. Oasis of green and palms in the midst of desolate wilderness. Cross roads of trade from Egypt and Syria, Asia and the West, gateway of the climb to Jerusalem. Jericho’s streets in Jesus’ day would have been full of publicans and courtiers, fanatics and ascetics, traders and thieves, priests and pilgrims on their way to the yearly festivals in David’s city.
And Zaccheus, wealthy agent of Rome, the chief tax collector in this thriving metropolitan occupied Jewish city. The townspeople would have known him, both envied and despised him. Rome had no interest in this province except for its strategic location as a land bridge to Egypt and what taxes it could extort. But Rome could not be everywhere and so it outsourced its Internal Revenue Service. Contracted with natives of the country to do the job. They paid Rome in advance and received the right to extort whatever they could from the locals.
Tax collectors have never been particularly popular. But in those days the title tax collector automatically meant traitor and thief to the average Israeli. The tax collector was stamped as corrupt and had abandoned their community and was therefore abandoned by their community as well. His name would have been said as a sneer. When born, his parents had chosen Zaccheus because it meant – the righteous, the good, the pure. But Zaccheus would have meant the cheat, the extorter, the traitor to his people, the Jews.
Isn’t that part of his problem? Everybody thinks they know him. He is the wealthy crook. Sinner and tax collector were said in the same breath. All anybody knew was that he was rich and resented. No matter that he might be a lot of other things as well - a caring husband, loving father, struggling to create a safe and secure life in a dangerous and uncertain world, somebody’s son. They had named him and that was that. Tax collector.
We do that a lot, imprison one another in a name. Sum others up in ways that destroy their humanity. We label and lock up our minds. And so we sum them up, simplify them into stick figures we do not need to understand because, of course, we know who they are.
Labels are dangerous, labels like failure, unstable, stupid, insensitive, elitist, because they reduce human beings to categories, see only aggregates, rather than as complicated beautiful mysterious struggling individual human beings. Tax collector. That summed him up.
But the thing that made him different than others of his class, different than the other wealthy bureaucrats, was that something deep still stirred within him. We know this because we know something about that culture. And there were at least two things a mature male of the wealthy elite never did. Run in public and climb trees. Which tells us that he was still hungry for and open to something more in life? And he was willing to look the fool to find it?
God seldom becomes important or real to the comfortable, the self-satisfied.
It is only when we are still sensitive to the emptiness this world cannot fill, only when we still long for some transcendence in our life, some tie to the eternal, that God becomes available. “If with all your heart you truly seek me…” writes the prophet. And Zaccheus was willing to run ahead and climb a tree, to be a child again, in order to get a glimpse of this man that might be the savior.
So Old Zack, for all his wealth and comfort, was still searching. He had heard of the man of Nazareth, that he was something special, someone from God, and he had to see him. But he was short—or as we say today, vertically challenged. But in that gathering crowd waiting for the parade, not a chance. With his name and reputation and lack of stature in the town, he stood only to be jostled, elbowed, smothered in the crowd of those around.
So he swallowed his pride and ran, on ahead of the mob, to a Sycamore tree which he climbed, high in the overarching branches, a quite ridiculous sight hanging there in the middle of the street.
And while he is hanging up there embarrassed and hungry, Jesus walks up to that tree and stops. Now that is what this story is really all about, how God enters our life. Jesus teaches about God not only in words, but by how he acts. Jesus acts out the way God works in this world. And what do we see here? Not a God who is passive and distant and impersonal and judging. Rather, a God who pursues us in love and acceptance and embraces us as we are ready for him, open to his presence, available to his friendship. So Jesus sees this little man who has climbed a tree to see him and invites himself over for dinner.
We miss something of the power of this story because eating together no longer has the same symbolic and social power that it had in that time. In Jesus’ day, to eat with someone was to offer him the most intimate form of friendship, was to allow him into one’s community and circle of acceptance which is why the uproar among the whole town of Jericho. “He has gone to be the dinner guest of one who is a sinner,” that is, someone who doesn’t belong, clearly outside the love of God. It is entirely fair to say that Jesus was finally killed because of his eating habits, his determination to include those whom everybody else had excluded.
So the God that Jesus shows us is a God who turns aside and takes a chance, who pursues, embraces, forgives before he demands. So this story is a word to Zacchaeus and to you and me that no matter how we have messed up, no matter how downhill the day has gone, no matter how we have tended like Zacchaeus to put our own survival first, God does not abandon us. We are welcomed unconditionally, just as we are, by the most important person in our life, God.
You don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to become somebody. God wants you to know that you are loved and accepted. “Zaccheus, hurry up and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” And that’s when we start to change, to become more like this Jesus, when we accept and recognize God’s love for us. God begins to change our hearts as we follow this Jesus. And we receive a new name, son of Abraham, child of God. Because in the last analysis that’s the only name that counts.