First Congregational Church
October 31, 2015
24th Sunday after Pentecost
“Here, Too, Is a Son of Abraham”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
You know, optometry jokes just keep getting cornea. Did you hear the one about the optician who fell into the lens grinder? He made a spectacle of himself. What do you call a deer without eyes? No idea. How many optometrists does it take to screw in a light bulb? You tell me — is it one — or two? Where is the eye located? Between the H and the J.
Lena walks into an optical store to return a pair of spectacles that she purchased for Ole a week before. The assistant asks, “What seems to be the problem, Madam?” Lena replies, “I’m returning dese spectacles I bought for Ole. He’s still not seeing tings my vay.”
In regards to this morning’s scripture passage from the 19th chapter of Luke, it’s interesting that it follows a chapter that includes the story about a blind bigger receiving sight, instantly — no mud, no herbs, to medications. A little before that, there is the parable about the pharisee and the tax collector, and how each one “saw” themselves — as compared to those around them. Before that, there was the parable about the widow and the judge, and how each one “saw” their need. And in the chapter before that, there were the ten lepers who saw healing, one of whom saw the deeper sight of a second blessing in his return to thank Jesus.
As a physician, the apostle Luke was probably a guy obsessed with observations of all kinds, but it is a little intriguing, all these pieces in his writing, that contain a common element of sight. It’s an interesting subject, sight, especially knowing that there are several — and I’m not just talking about one or two — but several people in and around this church family that struggle with sight issues, macular degeneration being the most prevalent.
As Molly comes forward, I’ll make a last point, that in the progression of Luke’s gospel, this event immediately follows Jesus’ third prediction about his death and the healing of the blind roadside beggar, just days before his entrance into Jerusalem and his final, holy week.
1 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.”
Thank you, Molly. Having lost his donkey a man, got down to his knees and started thanking God. A passerby saw him and asked, "Your donkey is missing; what are you thanking God for?" The man replied "I am thanking Him for seeing to it that I wasn't riding the donkey at that time, otherwise I would have been missing too."
It’s easy to “see” what this story about Zacchaeus says. We read the words, and I’m guessing most all of us have a very similar vision in our minds. The thing is, hidden under our American English are the ancient, dead, Greek words of the gospel’s original language. And there are words that we don’t necessarily relegate as important, because they are so casually “every day” words.
So not only was our guy, Zach, a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector, which we should read as “very rich.” He was probably disliked, if not disdained, by his fellow Jews, because he was rich — a traitor and a robber — in their minds. Zacchaeus was short, not just in stature, but also in terms of moral standing — among his neighbors at any rate.
The quick glimpse and simplified math of this morning’s passage would be something along the lines of: if a, then b: if repentance, then forgiveness, including matters of the wallet. But here’s the thing; Jesus does not commend Zacchaeus' penitence, or his faith, or his change of heart. He doesn’t say, “Because you repented, you are forgiven.” From what Luke tells us, Jesus doesn’t even ask for any repentance. Instead, Jesus blesses Zacchaeus.
Zach doesn’t get blessed because of anything that he did, but because, as Jesus said, “he, too, was a son of Abraham.” The writer of Luke has a thing for the down-and-outers, those not as valued in the eyes of the world. In Bible terms, most of the time we think of those folks as orphans and widows, the “challenged” and the sick. Zacchaeus may have been rich, but he was still despised, so he had a soft spot in Luke’s and Jesus’ hearts. In front of God and man, Jesus tells everyone that this guy, that is not so much up a creek without a paddle, but up a tree with a stained Armani robe and scuffed Bruno Mali sandals — is, too, like them, a son of Abraham.
On a little aside, according to the scienceinstories webpage, sycamore trees have stood sentinel on earth long before humans appeared. They have back dropped human history and inspired people to survive devastating tragedies. Some sycamore trees can live for 500-600 years. Because these trees often divide into two or more trunks near the ground, it would have been an easy thing for Zacchaeus to shimmy up into that sort of tree.
This phrase, a son of Abraham, is also a hidden phrase to most of us, because it’s from long before Zacchaeus was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. In an article by a guy named Bruce Prewer, this identity as a son of Abraham is a revelation. In the Old Testament days, this was a phrase about dignity. Abraham was immortalized as the supreme example of a man of faith. To call a Hebrew person a true child of Abraham was to give the highest honor. Jesus said, in not so many words, that Zacchaeus as a child of Abraham, was one of the covenantal people, a beloved child of God, one worthy of noticing. Now that’s a horse of a different color!
If we hold on to this idea of hidden — remarkable meaning, then some of the other “hidden” or obscure aspects of this passage, hidden in ancient Greek, become even more important. As I reread the passage for the umteenth time this morning, I thought about how “dull” it sounds.
Most of us probably glossed over it, but our passage says that Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today.” In other translations, the words are “it is necessary that I stay at your house today.” In the Biblical book of Dinah, it’s translated as, “Dude, if I don’t go to your house today, the world is actually going to stop!”
It’s the same word that a writer used of the necessity of Jesus’ becoming human or the utter necessity of Jesus’ death on a cross. Those things were — and are — imperative, absolutely essential in becoming the people that God has always seen us to be. There was going to be no way around it; Jesus had to go to Zach’s house that day. It probably was a life-changing visit for Zacchaeus, and maybe for Jesus, too. But it sure would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in all the neighbors’ houses, too!
An atheist was spending a quiet day fishing when suddenly his boat was attacked by the Loch Ness monster. In a second the monster tossed him and his boat high into the air. Then it opened its mouth to swallow both. As the man fell head over heels, he cried out, "Oh, dear God! Help me please!" At once, the ferocious attack scene froze in place, and as the atheist hung in mid-air, a booming voice from above said: "I thought you didn't believe in Me!” "Come on God, give me a break!" the man pleaded." Two minutes ago I didn't believe in the Loch Ness monster either!”
There is another word that escapes our notice, because it’s used so often. It’s the word that describes Zacchaeus’s reaction to Jesus: he received Jesus chairon, “with joy.” Our version says that Zach hurried down from the tree and was happy to welcome Jesus. Flash back 4 chapters in Luke and we see this kind of joy and rejoicing in the bottom line of all three of the parables of lost-and-found in Luke 15: the joy of the saving of a lost sheep, the joy of a poor widow finding a lost coin, and the joy of a prodigal child returning home. As Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary said, the “joy” with which this little tax collector received Jesus is the very joy that always crops up when salvation is in the air. I thought of that kind of joy — like a shift in your private universe when something is so very full of delight and how it sticks with you for a very long, life-changing time. Perhaps, then, there is more to the last line of this passage: For the Son of Man came to seek out — and to save the lost.
It is interesting that according to our passage for this morning, this joy was present before Zacchaeus did any of his own changing of lives — giving money back to the poor and those he cheated. It is grace first, then deeds that flow out of that grace and love. It’s what God does first, and then how we react to God’s love and thoughtfulness (in a larger, rather than diminutive way) that changes the world.
After all that, if we take a step back to look at this whole passage again, it, like so many events in the Bible, is about relationship — between Jesus, Zacchaeus and the people in the immediate area — as well as all of us — and all those down through the ages. And it’s about God’s deep, abiding, tenacious desire to be in a relationship with each and every one of us - God calling us down out of our trees, to go to our houses (hearts).
Sometimes there are problems in the way of living in that relationship: problems that I would guess are mostly about our own understanding of ourselves, of the limitations of our own minds and in the limitations of what we think we can do, because of who we think we are. There are so many with pained and hurting hearts that have short statures of faith, feeling like they are short on the stuff needed for God to use them and be of use to God. In our earthly, human short-sightedness, we don’t have the same vision that God has — of what is possible because we — like Zacchaeus - are sons — and daughters — of Abraham, covenantal people, an individual and beloved child of God.
In our busyness, our crazy schedules, our running from here to there and every where, we forget to stand to our fullest height, and regardless of what we think, there is no one that is just a waste of space, incapable of doing anything of value. Even those in people in vegetative states require someone to see after their needs, to supply those who need it, with a job as a caretaker. And those of us not in those states, even though you — we — may have failed God more times than you can count, it doesn’t change God’s belief in you and God’s love for you. For that reason alone, we should pray.
God of all the universes and molecules and everything in between, we thank you that you care about each of us — the tall, the short, the sighted and the blind, the loud and the quiet, and all the other ways in which we think we are different. Thank you that you see us as sons and daughters of dignity and respect and honor, even when we may feel so far from those things or act so far from those things. Help us, when we need to rectify our wrongs, that we can see them quickly and clearly and help those we have hurt to forgive. Help each of us to see the dignity and respect and worth in others, even in those we deem undignified and unworthy. May we all — your people in this whole world — come to live and be the sons and daughters you have always dreamt of us to be. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.