Today Salvation Has Come to this House!
April 2, 2017
I can’t hear this story of Zacchaeus without thinking of “the song.” You know “the song,” right?
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree,
for the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Savior passed that way,
he looked up in the tree.
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down!”
For I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!
It’s a memorable little song, and a cute way to remember the story. But if we are to understand just how radical and surprising this story is, we’re going to need to go beyond the cute Sunday school images of Zacchaeus as a wee little man perched in a sycamore tree.
Here’s the thing: Zacchaeus is not a good man. He’s a cheat and a scoundrel- a greedy man who uses his privilege and power to exploit others and seek his own gain. Luke tells us that he is “a chief tax collector.” Tax collectors were among the most despised people in Jewish society. Even today, working for the IRS doesn’t win you a lot of friends and influence, but it was far worse in the ancient times.
Tax collectors worked for the Roman government, who were oppressing the Jewish people by levying oppressive taxes on them. All of this money was sent back to Rome to make the Roman citizens there wealthier, and it left towns like Jericho impoverished. The only people who lived in comfort and ease were the tax collectors, who were traitors and sell-outs. Everyone despised the tax collectors, and the Jewish community considered them “unclean”—sinners.
But Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector, which meant that he was getting filthy rich by being in charge of other tax collectors, and they were taking advantage of the people, guilty of what we would call today “extortion.”
Zacchaeus would have been one of the wealthiest and most hated men in all of Jericho. Luke tells us that Jesus is passing through Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus doesn’t intend to stop and spend the night in Jericho, which would have been a major disappointment to the community. This is an honor/shame culture, and to have someone who had reached the celebrity status of Jesus spend the night in your town would have brought great honor to the whole community.
But for some reason, Jesus decides to just pass through. Zacchaeus, this despised chief tax collector, wants to see Jesus. Maybe he was just curious like everybody else, and wanted to get a chance to see this candidate for the Messiah that everybody was so excited about. Or maybe there was something in his heart, though he was a rich man, that still felt restless--like he was missing something and wondered if Jesus might be a clue to that yearning. Luke doesn’t tell us why Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus; all we know is that he is eager to do so. No, eager is not a strong enough word. The Greek is more like desperate…Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus.
But he, like some of us, was height-challenged! And the crowd hated him so much there was no way they’d let him jostle to the front of the crowd. So in his desperation, Zacchaeus does something that no honorable man in this culture would do. He runs. A grown man running was a deeply humiliating act. And he climbs a sycamore tree. This, too, would have brought him ridicule. But again, Zacchaeus is desperate. He just wants to see Jesus.
As Jesus is parading through the throng of people, he reaches the end of the city limits and looks up into the tree and sees Zacchaeus hiding. He tells Zacchaeus to hurry and come down, for he’s changed his mind. Jesus has decided that he is going to stay overnight in Jericho. But to the astonishment of everyone—including Zacchaeus—Jesus decides he’s going to stay with Jericho’s most hated and scandalous citizen.
You would have expected Jesus to pick the most honorable, righteous, morally upright person in the community. Especially as a Rabbi, he should have picked one of the Pharisees or other priests—after all, Jericho was a lot like Holland, Michigan—it was a “city of priests.” They were everywhere!
But who does Jesus pick? Are you kidding me? The most dishonorable, despised, morally-flawed person in the community? That would be like Pope Francis coming to Holland and picking the chief drug dealer in the community and going over to stay at his house.
And here we see the extravagant and generous love of God on full display in Jesus. Jesus, the chief of generous givers, moves toward Zacchaeus, the chief of greedy sinners. And the crowd is shocked. They grumble. “What’s he thinking going to the house of a sinner? “
And let me tell you now just what Jesus is doing. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will generously give his life on a Roman cross for the sins of all the Zacchaeuses of the world, which turns out to be every single one of us, no matter how righteous we think we are. Jesus would take on our shame and disgrace, and generously give us forgiveness and new life.
That’s what he’s already doing here for Zacchaeus. In this act of generous love, by choosing to go and stay at Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus is taking all the hostility that the community had targeted on Zacchaeus and putting it on himself. They would now redirect their hostility toward Jesus. “ Who is this man, anyway? What’s he doing being a guest with a sinner?”
Not only that, but by going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus was being made unclean. If Jesus would sit in his chair, have table fellowship with Zacchaeus, sleep in one of his spare beds, all of this would defile Jesus and, according to Jewish law, make him morally unclean. Is this any way a Messiah should behave on the eve of the Passover?
Jesus takes on Zacchaeus’uncleanliness, and he gives him a new status. The most hated man in town now is the host of honor for the Messiah. By embracing Zacchaeus, Jesus is telling the community to embrace him as well. Jesus would say he is a Son of Abraham, he is part of God’s covenant people. Don’t shun him anymore.
And what happens to Zacchaeus when he experiences this kind of generous love and acceptance? His heart gets transformed. How can you not when you encounter this kind of amazing grace in the person of Jesus Christ? Zacchaeus stands up before the Lord and says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
The Mosaic Law required that 10 percent—a tithe—be given back to God. That would have been sufficient. But Zacchaeus goes well beyond the tithe. Why? Not because he had to; not because he was obligated to do so; but because his heart had been transformed by God’s generosity and he wanted to give more. For Zaachaeus, this is not just about being generous, but it is also tied to justice. He has wronged these people, and now he will make it right. He will give back not just what he extorted from others but he will repay them four times!
Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come to your house.” But let’s just be clear. He is not saying this because Zacchaeus promises to live a generous life. No, salvation had already come to his house in the person of Jesus—from that moment Jesus spotted him up in the sycamore tree and embraced him. Zacchaeus chooses to live this kind of generous life because he has experienced salvation, and that has transformed his heart. He wants to give generously to others as an act of gratitude to God and because he now sees that abundant life in Christ has not to do with accumulating more but opening his hands to give away.
This is such a powerful story. I can’t help but think of Paul’s words is 2nd Corinthians 8:9 when he writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
For Zacchaeus sake, Jesus, who was rich, became poor. And Zacchaeus the “rich” man is now truly made rich. Jesus has done this for you, as well. For your sake and mine, he became poor so that we might become rich. Not rich in the material sense but rich in life, love, joy, freedom and generosity. Rich in the sense of becoming who God designed us to be—who we most desire to be—fully human and fully alive.
Jesus transforms our hearts so that we might live into a more generous life. Let me say one final thing about this. While it is true that a generous life flows from a transformed heart, it is also true that practicing generosity leads to a heart that is more deeply transformed. Generosity is not only the fruit of a transformed heart; it is also the path by which our heart experiences ongoing-transformation.
I believe this is one of the most important reasons why God invites us into the flow of his own generous life. We are called to serve by practicing generosity—like Zacchaeus to go beyond the minimum of what is required of us—because it is a primary way that the Holy Spirit draws us closer to God and makes us more like Christ. It is also a primary way that God works transformation—healing and justice—in the lives of others. Through our generosity, God changes the lives of others, even as he changes our lives as we give.
As so many of you know, a group of us just returned from a week-long mission trip to Nicaragua. Nicaragua is one of our new mission focus partners, and it was an incredible trip. We can’t wait to share stories with you of how we encountered Christ at work—and we’ll be doing that in the near future. But let me tell you one story this morning about a woman who encountered God’s radical love in Christ, and how her heart and hands overflowed with generosity.
Her name is Rosillo, and she lives in a rural village just outside of Managua, the capital city of Nicragua. It’s a remote place, a place of extreme poverty as only recently did they get electricity and running water. This happened through a ministry called CEPAD, which goes into the poorest villages like this one and works with leaders in the community to provide resources and opportunities for community development. Rosillo is a leader in her community. Unlike Zacchaeus, she is loved and greatly respected. CEPAD worked with Rosillo and gave her seeds for a variety of fruits and vegetables and taught her how to plant, grow and harvest her own crops (organically).
So on this day that we visit the village, Rosillo brings us to her house and shows us such beautiful hospitality. It’s a crude little house with a tin roof and, literally, a dirt floor. Three rooms—a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom where 9 people sleep. Her husband is in Costa Rica working as there are no jobs for him in Nicaragua. Rosillo stays behind to care for the crops and run the household. She is a remarkable woman—kind, smart, and a deep love for the Lord. She and her husband have five children of her own, but they’ve also taken in two of her nieces because they had nowhere else to go.
She proudly shows us around her little farm, pointing out all the different fruits and vegetables she’s learned to grow—bananas, pineapples, mangos, watermelon, peppers, squash, and more. She plucks them off the tree or the plant, before they are fully ripe, and hands them out to us to eat, with a smile on her face.
We ask her, “What do you do with all the crop? Do you have enough to feed your family?”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “More than enough! God has been so good to me, to us! And so I give it away—to the village, to those who don’t have enough.” Then she gestures to the farm with her hand: “None of this is mine; it all belongs to God.”
Like Zacchaeus, Rosillo is a woman who has encountered the generous, extravagant love of Christ—a love that has saved not just her soul, but impacted every aspect of her life. And she can’t help but open her heart and hands to others and serve her community by being generous. Here is a woman who, by our standards, is still in “poverty.” But by God’s standards, she is so, so rich—and we are all moved by her generous spirit.
Do you know this Jesus, who sees us as we are, and loves us as we are in order to make us all that God desires us to become? Do you have a relationship with him? This is where it all begins. He, who is rich, became poor—gave his life on the cross—so that we, who are spiritually impoverished, might become rich.
And as we encounter this generous love of God in Christ, how is it then moving your heart towards more generous living? As we follow Jesus to Jerusalem, as we get closer to Holy Week and make our way to the Cross and the Empty Tomb, what would it look like for you to serve by opening your heart and your hands to others? This becomes one of the most powerful ways we can join God’s mission,A and bear witness to the way that salvation has come to our house today!
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.