A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City,  Mo., on October 31, 2010.
Luke 19:1-10   

One of the oldest villages on the planet is Jericho and if those old walls could talk … if Jericho could talk, this would be one of the stories it would tell. This story in Luke’s gospel is not as big a story as that day Joshua and the children of Israel marched around and around the city walls until they tumbled down; but it’s still a great story.

Jericho is that ancient city “just down the hill” from Jerusalem’s hilly heights at the bottom of that winding road on its way down to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. Over the last 10,000 years, Jericho has seen it all! But admittedly, its most recent event was something of a downer.

Three weeks ago was the 10th day of the 10th month in the 10th year of the first century of the new millennium. In response, Jericho threw a party for itself to celebrate its ten thousand year anniversary recognized it as one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. The Palestinians who inhabit and control Jericho figured 10/10/10 had a great ring to it to celebrate its 10,000th birthday! They believed people would come from all over the world but when the storied date finally arrived, the party fell as flat as those old walls once did back in Joshua’s days because hardly anyone showed up for the big party.[1] Ho hum, we would say!

Just two thousand years ago in the time when Jericho was ruled by Rome, merchants crossing from lands east or the north entered into the district to the capital city of Jerusalem at Jericho but before going further, they paid their taxes to Rome’s man, Zacchaeus. Besides taxing the caravans, Zacchaeus’ levied his own countrymen who had to pay Rome at whatever rate Zacchaeus could collect from them and that made him a powerful man in the city. He was powerful and as Rome’s taxman, he was a man of great influence. As a Jew, you may have hated him for what he did but you respected him as a man of political power and influence. And so in the day of Jesus, Jericho was the site of an important but unscheduled stop for dinner with the single most powerful man in the community.

I’ve always loved this wee little story simply because it’s a quirky and cute story and telling it is a joy. It’s a big part of the gospel stories we tell children and they easily embrace this one as a favorite. I suppose it’s cute because a grown man climbs a tree to get a better view of what’s happening; spotting him there, he’s called out by Jesus and called down by name whereupon Jesus invites himself to lunch with this notorious traitor! There’s something almost silly about visualizing this and remembering that forever more peculiar Zacchaeus has been freeze-framed in memory for this single moment.

Notice I’ve not tried to claim Zacchaeus was “a wee little man” as the song points out because the text doesn’t make it entirely clear who was the one of short stature. Was it Zacchaeus as we all suppose (and all the biblical commentators agree), or was it Jesus? Who was it? The Greek text doesn’t clearly indicate which of them was the short one. Here’s how we could reframe this idea: “Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because Jesus was short of stature …” [2] I suspect we’ve not allowed the possibility that Jesus could have been the short one for reasons we’re not willing to admit.

The language of Luke could be understood either way but I suspect we’ve all been told this story with a resistance that Jesus could have been the short one as a limiting sign that “taller is better,” a social prejudice that continues to this day. One pastor did some research on this and discovered that no one knows for sure how tall Jesus was, but the best answer she found was “he was tall enough to get the job done.”[3]

Nevertheless, there’s something playful about their exchange that’s endearing for both Zacchaeus and Jesus – perhaps it’s a hint they already knew one another or at least it’s an occasion that showed Jesus had a friendly, easy sense of himself that reached across the social boundaries in a way I suspect both startled and pleased Zacchaeus.

When the parade came to a stop, Jesus looked up and saw two bright and eager eyes waiting to be noticed. Maybe that’s the first point of this sermon:  The trees are full of people who are outsiders, outcasts from the inclusion of the community who are waiting for someone like Jesus to walk underneath and notice them. Zacchaeus was the local taxman and Jesus’ easy sense of himself recognized that this was more of a job and did not limit his acceptance of Zacchaeus but saw him as a person.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg claims it was Jesus’ willingness to relate intimately to God that helped him see the world differently. More specifically, he could see people differently. What made Jesus so powerful among those estranged from God and from one another was his refusal to see people through the lens of “cultural categories as beautiful or ugly, important or unimportant, deserving or undeserving, but (rather) as beloved of God.”[4]

Zacchaeus may have been unpopular, he may even have been a short, bad man in the work he did on behalf of the Roman government, he may have been peculiar for all those things, but he was still a treasure in God’s eyes.

A part of the fun in this story comes in knowing what Jesus has just said. You see, this story most of us have known since childhood about Zacchaeus doesn’t stand-alone. It has a partner. This is a two-part invention and part of a larger theme that Jesus develops in teaching about the Kingdom of God. Jesus has just finished telling a parable where the righteous stood piously before God while a tax collector had slipped quietly in the back of the synagogue. Both offered their prayers and only one of them was accepted by God … the taxman.

Jesus was picking a fight with the Pharisees, the orthodox Jews, by utilizing a tax collector as a religious symbol of how outrageous the grace of God can be. And now, here he stood toe to toe with just such a man. The story’s no longer hypothetical. Now, it’s real and Jesus steps into his own parable. No more imaginary arguments. Jesus and Zacchaeus become the parable for those who may have missed the point.

In the parable, a great reversal occurs. Actually, once you get inside the stories of Jesus, you discover that the idea of role reversal is a common theme. It was one of Jesus’ best teaching devices. What should be up is down and what is down is up. In other words, the gospel will turn upside down our usual ways of seeing the world. If you want to live closer to God, you will need to see this as a principle God wants you to adopt as evidence of your intimacy with God.

Jesus knew something about needy tree-climbers. He understood they needed him to cross the bridge to meet them on their turf where they lived if he was to meet them at all.

Maybe this is a good time to make the sermon’s second point:  We’ve got to get over the fact that most tree-climbers aren’t going to walk into this fine church and ask us how to get what we’ve got. We’ve got to go out into the neighborhood where the trees grow and look up. When we find one of our neighbors up in the trees, we’ve got to make a house call. Maybe they’re waiting for us to walk into the places where they live and ask them heartily, “What’s for dinner?”

One of my friends claims Jesus gave Zack the best of all gifts. It salvation, to be sure, but it was something tangible as “he gave him permission to be a different person.”[5] And in response, Zacchaeus joyfully repented of his crookedness and offered generous, lavish restitution to all those in the community. He divested himself of all he had made and came clean.

And those in the trees can’t get close to the action because they’re not enough of this or that or that they have something in their lives that the religious crowd wants to shun. The truth of the matter is the trees are full of comic rogues and rascals who need to encounter Jesus.

While on vacation one time Preacher Fred Craddock was once approached by a man who identified himself as Ben Hooper who told Craddock his story.

“I grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains, he said. I was what was called ‘an illegitimate child.’ In those days I was a shame, and I was ashamed. The reproach that fell on her, of course, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess, and I ate my lunch alone. In my early teens I began to attend a little church that had a pastor with a heavy beard and a big voice. I was moved by his preaching, but I was always afraid I was not welcome since I was, as they put it, a bastard. So I would go just in time for the sermon, and when it was over I would quickly leave, lest someone say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in a church?”’

He continued … One Sunday, people had filled the aisle before I could get out, and I was stopped. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. It was that minister. I trembled in fear. He turned his face so he could see mine and he seemed to be staring for a while. I knew what he was doing. He was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Well boy, you’re a child of …’ and he paused there. I knew it was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. And I knew I would not go back again. He said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance, boy. Now, you go claim your inheritance!”

Peculiar … you may not know who Ben Hooper was but he grew up and was twice-elected Governor of Tennessee. He became a state treasure known as the bastard governor. But his name might have easily been known as Zacchaeus if we understand this story deeply enough.[6] No telling what peculiar treasures are out there waiting in the trees above our heads hoping to be noticed.

[1] Edmund Sanders, “Jericho birthday fete nothing to trumpet,” Los Angeles Times, 10/14/10, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/14/world/la-fg-jericho-birthday-20101014

[2] Luke 19:3, amended to demonstrate how the pronoun “he” could be read in an alternative reading

[3] Kate Huey, “Transforming Love,” Weekly Seeds, a publication of the United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/transforming-love-october-25.html

[4] Marcus Borg, “Jesus Before and After Easter,” The Meaning of Jesus, Two Visions, with N.T. Wright, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, 70

[5] Tracy Dunn-Noland, “Up a Tree,” Fellowship of Believers Church, Hereford TX, 10/31/2004

[6] Fred Craddock, edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Craddock Stories, St. Louis MO:  Chalice Press, 156-7, 2001

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