Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, October 30, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 21

Pentecost 21, 2022
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Something that trips us up with the story of Zacchaeus I think is . . . Well, you know, good manners.  It’s impolite to make fun of someone who is vertically challenged.  We just don’t do that, right?  My wife is around 5 feet tall, and one learns to be careful with the topic of height around her.  In the words of Shakespeare’s Helena, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”  But mainly, we just don’t take kindly these days to pointing out someone as being “short in stature.”  Some scholars claim that Zacchaeus being “short in stature” is really a reference to his position in society rather than his physical height.  Maybe.  And others have noted that, because of the grammar, it’s possible that the short in stature refers to Jesus, not to Zacchaeus.  Perhaps.

However, deflecting the light of Zacchaeus’ being short kind of short-circuits what Luke is doing in this story.  In order to see what is happening, or perhaps what is not happening, we need to turn back the clock to the Ancient World.  We need to put ourselves in the place of Luke’s contemporaries, the people who would have been reading and hearing this story for the first time.

In the Greek and Roman world, the physical and the spiritual state of a person are linked together.  In fact, physical maladies and deformities and irregularities were considered to be caused by inward spiritual dysfunction.  About six chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel, we hear of a woman who is bent over from illness and comes to Jesus for healing.  (It came up at the end of August, though you might’ve been on vacation.)  Same thing with her: She was considered unclean spiritually because she was misshapen physically.  Or, perhaps you remember that time Jesus’ disciples asked him whose sin caused a man to be blind, his own or his parents’.  It was an understood fact of life in those days that spiritual brokenness causes physical distortions.  

But Luke the physician is always bucking against this crazy notion.  Luke over and over breaks down this myth, and in order to see him doing it, we have to set aside our “manners” and call Zacchaeus what Luke wants us to call him: A Short Greedy Empty Man.  No dignity, no morals, no height.  Nothing but a scoundrel in his little town.  AND, there’s a connection between the name Zacchaeus and the word “righteous.”  People in Luke’s day would have seen the irony in the name “Zacchaeus.”  Because the last thing this guy would be called is “righteous.”  He’s a short swindler.  And one thing people were sure of back then was that shortness caused greed in people.  A compensation sort of thing.  

So a short man essentially sells himself short at the career faire, and goes with what people expect of him.  He becomes a tax collector, swindling his neighbors in order to make himself rich and satisfy his insatiable greed, which, remember, is caused by his shortness and spiritual emptiness.  Luke’s audience has all these assumptions hard-wired into them, and that is what will make it so powerful by the time it’s over.

A rejected and obviously sinful short man wants to see Jesus, and he runs--totally undignified--runs to climb up a tree.  Luke’s audience would find this highly entertaining, see?  Grown men did not run; grown men did not climb trees; but Zacchaeus is not grown . . . get it?  It’s like a whole package playing right into their expectations.  At best, Jesus would not notice someone like this.  What Luke’s audience is probably expecting is that Jesus will smite him or something for all his wickedness . . . which is all related to his being short.  

And Jesus gets to the spot, and everyone’s waiting to see what happens, and Jesus says, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."  WHAT?!?  No no Jesus, you’ve obviously got the wrong guy here.  Zacchaeus is the ironically named short swindler.  You cannot possibly go to his house!  And all who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."  So not only does the crowd dislike the short little sinner, now they’ve got a grudge against Jesus for going to his house.  It probably even makes some of them begin to doubt who Jesus is, since Jesus obviously doesn’t get who Zacchaeus is.  

And then we come to this tricky spot.  Because our translation has Zacchaeus making a future promise about how he’s going to behave.  But that’s not how it is in the original language.  In the Greek these verbs are past tense, or actually present tense.  Zacchaeus does not say “I will” do these things.  He says I am doing these things.  Half my possessions I have given to the poor, and when I have defrauded anyone I pay back four times as much.  And the reason this matters is because if we’re not careful, we can end up turning this into a story about salvation coming from good works, or buying our way to righteousness.

If Zacchaeus is promising how he’ll act from now on, then it sounds like salvation comes on account of his change of heart.  Jesus comes to visit, Zacchaeus makes some promises to be a good guy, and then Jesus says “Salvation has come to this house.”  Before you know it, this would become a story about how promising to be good is what saves us.  And if promising to be good actually made you good, well, the world would be a much better place, that’s for sure.

So, they’re standing in Zacchaeus’ house now, and Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  This works on a couple levels.  One is that Jesus is Salvation, right?  Jesus is the one who saves.  So, yes, salvation is literally standing in Zacchaeus’ house.  But it also works on the level that Zacchaeus is reminded of his true identity.  You can see that Jesus does not say, “Today salvation has come to this house because Zacchaeus made some good promises.”  No, Jesus says this:  “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”  All your mocking and prejudice and superstition mean nothing, because he too is a child of Abraham.  He’s already in.  Though you want to reject him, he is part of this community.

This is the true identity of Zacchaeus.  He is a child of Abraham.  He may be short, but that is not his identity.  He may make his living as a tax collector, but that is not his identity.  He may be laughed at and rejected by his neighbors, but that is not his identity.  Jesus proclaims to the world who Zacchaeus really is:  A son of Abraham, a child of God, one to whose house Salvation has already come.

And that is why the story of Zacchaeus is so important to you and me.  Because we live in a world that is telling us we don’t measure up.  We live in a place that puts us in our place if we don’t look right, or don’t own the right things, or go to the right school, or get the right job.  Every society wants to have its Zacchaeuses to kick around.  And whether we are the ones doing the kicking or the ones being kicked, it does not change our identity.  Jesus has claimed you as his own in the waters of baptism.  Your identity is sealed by the Holy Spirit, and you are marked with the cross of Christ forever.

No matter what message you may hear throughout your life, that is not your identity.  Because salvation has come to your house as well.  Because you are a child of God.  You are a member of God’s household.  And no one can take that away from you.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  Perfect!  He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.  This is the best part of the story to me.  Because it’s true.  It’s true for Zacchaeus, and it’s true for me and you.  Jesus comes to be the guest of sinners.

And you will see that it’s true in just a few minutes.  Because as you hold out your hands to receive the Sacrament, you will make a literal home for Jesus to visit: In your own hands, Jesus will come to be the guest of one who is a sinner.  A forgiven sinner.  Right in your very own hands.  Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, redeemed sinners who welcome you this day.


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