23 Pentecost Yr C

23 Pentecost Yr C, 31/10/2010

Lk 19:1-10

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Jesus and Zacchaeus”

The story is told of a pastor who was preparing his appeal to the congregation for funds. His wife asked him how it was going. He responded: “I’m half way there.” “Really,” his wife said. “Yes, the poor are willing to receive; now all I have to do is to convince the rich to give.”

   In today’s gospel we have another story about a rich man named Zacchaeus. He lived in the city of Jericho, where, you remember, in the days of Joshua, the walls came tumbling down. Zacchaeus was rich because Luke tells us that he was a chief tax collector. Moreover, Jericho was a prosperous city–so Zacchaeus was able to garner a high income as chief tax collector. Yet, after his encounter with Jesus, the wall of his sin came tumbling down. Unlike the pastor who had to convince the rich to give; Zacchaeus voluntarily gives half of his possessions to the poor and goes beyond the requirement of the Jewish law by offering to pay back four times as much to anyone whom he may have defrauded in the past. Now that is generosity!

   There is a group of biblical scholars who [say that] Luke’s story of Zacchaeus…[is] a healing story because it has the shape and form of other healing stories. Most of the stories under the healing category refer to people who are paralyzed, blind, or suffering from seizures. Not Zacchaeus. His condition is that he is rich. Can wealth be an illness?

   Have you read the story of J. Paul Getty, once listed as the richest man in the world? He was totally estranged from all five of his wives and every one of his children. In the words of his biographer, “He only loved oil.”

   The sickness of the Kennedy family, whose star-crossed lives have captured the attention of a nation, is well known. The Kennedy family wealth was built on the illegal activities of Joseph, the father. Though it doesn’t appear that his sons imitated his business ethics, they unfortunately copied his womanizing. To listen to the stories of Andrew Carnegie, the American tycoon who built thousands of libraries across the country, or John D. Rockefeller, a Baptist who built chapels and endowed seminaries, is to hear tales of deception and fraud. How many rich people have made their money at the expense of others?

   Unlike most physical ailments, addiction to wealth can result in deep spiritual illness. Often wealth is gained when truth is traded for a lie. Often the accumulation of wealth causes the ravaging of the environment—[even after a three million dollar fine, Syncrude was in the news again this past week for yet more ducks landing in one of their tailings ponds here in northern Alberta and the result was that over 200 oil-soaked birds had to be euthanized.] Ironically, wealth often dampens the gratitude and lessens the joy of those whose lives are given over to getting it. Many who have won huge sums of money playing Powerball have learned that large sums of money always change our lives, and seldom for the good.

   Zacchaeus was the Jewish head of the Roman [Revenue Canada] division in the gateway town of Jericho, a thriving little city. As chief tax collector, or we might say toll collector, Zacchaeus received a percentage of every dollar his workers raised. The more his workers gathered, the more he made for himself. Most taxes went to help pay the salaries of a foreign army, an army that was hated by the entire Jewish population.

   Tax collectors were labelled collaborators and cheats and were despised. Chances are Zacchaeus had great wealth, but little else. The Romans despised the Jews who worked for them, and no self-respecting Jew would ever socialize with one of their own who was collecting money for the Romans. Furthermore, tax collectors were not allowed to serve as judges, could not serve as a witness in court, and synagogues would not accept their tainted money as alms. They were non-persons.

   It seems that Zacchaeus, who was vertically challenged, was fascinated with Jesus. He climbed a tree to see Jesus as he and his disciples walked by. Jesus, who the gospels tell us was forever being interrupted, stopped at the tree, called the little man by name, and invited himself to dinner. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus shouted, “hurry down. I must eat with you.” Zacchaeus was thrilled.

   Jesus had the ability to spot need from distance, even in the midst of a crowd. He was aware of the special touch of a hemorrhaging woman, he understood the need of a weeping mother, and noticed the expressions on the faces of a paralyzed man and his friends. This time he saw a little rich man ridiculously sitting in a tree, suffering from his wealth.

   The religious leaders were upset when Jesus spent time with this traitor. They were equally upset when Jesus spoke to a woman caught in adultery, or when a woman of the street wiped his feet with her hair. No matter. Jesus didn’t come to meet expectations, but to change them.

   Bernie Siegel writes in Love, Medicine and Miracles that love is key to health. People who are in the midst of a loving relationship suffer fewer illnesses. He writes, “I feel that all disease is ultimately related to a lack of love or to love that is only conditional, for the exhaustion and depression of the immune system leads to physical vulnerability. I also feel that all healing is related to the ability to give and accept unconditional love.” [Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients (New York: Harper and Row, 1995), p. 180. Too strong? Perhaps. But we are all aware of the terrible toll that lovelessness takes. We also know that shortly after a major loss people are apt to become ill. On the other hand, we know what happens when people experience a great love. We know that love changes attitudes. Martin Luther King Jr. used to tell those who marched with him, “Those whom we wish to change, we must first love.” Zacchaeus felt the love of Jesus and it healed and transformed him.

   His healing from the addiction of wealth was immediate. Without any prodding from Jesus, without pressure from anyone, this man who suffered from the sickness related to his ill-begotten wealth, began the healing process. “Half my possessions I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything (and he probably had), I will pay back four times as much.” In cases of fraud the law required a two-to-one restitution. Zacchaeus doubled that. And without being forced!

   Saying, “Please forgive me” can be a cheap attempt to get off the hook. Those who seek a full recovery from the illness of alcoholism using the twelve-step method must finally make a list of those their addiction has hurt and then settle the score with them. They do this not only for the sake of the wronged party, but for their own sake as well, that they may be set free and healed. Zacchaeus’ act of restitution and generosity put his past behind him.

   Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, and it created a desire for change. Zacchaeus longed for the simplicity and honesty of the teacher. He knew that if he wanted the peace that passes all understanding he would have to do some serious house cleaning. God does not force repentance. Having met Jesus, the desire to make our lives look more like his is motivation enough.

   Many people assume that one has to be sad and mournful in order to repent. Not necessarily. In this story there is no sack cloth or ashes. Repentance for Zacchaeus was an act of pure joy. He was trading sickness for health, a life of destruction for a life with God. This is good news.

   Jesus responded to Zacchaeus by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” The word salvation, which we often associate only with heaven, actually means total well-being, health. Zacchaeus literally was made healthy through his encounter with Jesus the healer.

   For Zacchaeus, healing began with a meal. It might begin that way for us, or it might begin with the simple awareness that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Grace is amazing.1

   Just like the walls came tumbling down at Jericho long ago because Joshua was faithful to God and obeyed the LORD; so today we learn of Zacchaeus’ wall of sin coming tumbling down because his obedient faith in Jesus led him to acts of generosity above and beyond what the law required of him. A generosity born of God’s love and grace touching his heart and life. May God’s love and grace in Jesus touch our hearts and lives too that we may also respond with acts of faithful obedience and generosity. Amen.

1 Cited from: Wm. R. White, {in over our heads}: meditations on grace (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), pp. 38-41.

About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

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