It’s a Lonely Life
Scripture - Luke 19:1-10
Sunday school classes love Zacchaeus. At lease, they love to act out his story & sing about him. (Zacchaeus was a wee little man…) The little man who climbs up a tree to see Jesus provides one of the most vivid short stories in the entire Bible. (Pun intended!) Children can identify with Zacchaeus; they often find themselves trying to see through a crowd & not able to see what is going on. (This
thought came to mind during my walk through the BBQ Festival.) Many adults can identify with him; they might like to get closer to Jesus, but find it embarrassing to do so, & potentially costly.
Luke makes Zacchaeus one of his minor heroes. Luke’s is the only gospel that tells of him & his sudden moment of glory, & the hardened old tax collector meets 3 of Luke’s regular themes: the problem of riches & what to do about it; the identification of Jesus with ‘sinners;’ & the faith which recognizes Jesus as Lord & discovers new life as a result. Luke tells this story as a kind of balance to the sad tale of the rich young ruler in the previous chapter & uses it as the final piece of framing before Jesus approaches Jerusalem. This kind of healing, this kind of new life, Jesus seems to be saying, is what he has come to bring. If only people in Jerusalem could see the point & make a similar response!
Nobody in Jericho liked Zacchaeus. They would have been horrified to think that, of all the inhabitants of the town, he would be the one known by name to millions of people 2,000 years later. He was exactly the kind of man everybody despised. Not only a tax collector, but a chief tax collector; that is, not only did he make money on the side, in addition to his legitimate collections, but he almost certainly made more money from the tax collectors working under him. Wherever money changes hands, whether across a grubby table in a tin shack in a dusty small town or across a sparkling computer screen in a shiny office on the 90th floor of a Wall Street skyscraper, the hands all too easily get dirty. Whenever money starts to talk, it shouts louder than the claims of honesty, respect & human dignity. We can only imagine the reaction of neighbors, & even of friends & relatives, as Zacchaeus’ house became more lavishly decorated, as more slaves ran about doing his bidding, as his clothes became finer & his food richer. Everyone knew this was their money & that he had no right to it. And everyone knew there was nothing they could do about it.
Despite his great wealth, Zacchaeus lived a lonely life. Addicted persons soon separate themselves from their families & communities because of their lone focus on obtaining opioids. The very people who would give anything to see the addicted person healthy again are cut off by the addicted person.
Yet the addicted person is risking their health every day, whether by overdose, violence – due to involvement with illegal activities – or follow-on diseases. And they are facing these threats by themselves. The addicted life is miserable & dangerous; & not a life anyone would choose.
No one could do anything about Zacchaeus - until Jesus came to town. The moment when the eyes of the 2 men met is worthy of a Broadway show tune. Curiosity had gotten the better of the rich little man, an unspoken question emerging from behind his hard, crafty look. Jesus saw straight through the layers of graft & greed, & of Zacchaeus’ callous contempt for his fellow citizens. Jesus had met enough tax collectors already to know exactly what life was like for them, & how, even though they couldn’t resist the chance to make more for themselves than they should, there was a sickness in their heart for which he had the remedy.
So once again Jesus finds himself relaxing in the company of the wrong sort of people. And once again the crowd outside grumbles. But this time, instead of Jesus telling a parable – Luke probably wants us to think of the prodigal son & the other similar stories he’s already conveyed – the tax collector himself speaks to Jesus in public & gives evidence of his extravagant repentance. Repentance here isn’t just a change of heart; as in Judaism in general, repentance involves restoration & making amends. Zacchaeus is determined to do so lavishly. He doesn’t offer to sell all his property, nor does Jesus demand it. But by the time he had given half of it away, & made fourfold restitution where necessary, we can imagine that he would find himself in seriously reduced financial circumstances.
Yet he doesn’t care. He has found something more valuable. I must stay in your home today becomes today salvation has come to this household. Where Jesus is, there salvation is to be found, for all those who accept him as master & reorder their lives accordingly. Once more J links a former outcast back into the true family of Abraham. Zacchaeus is not going to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, thereby escaping the puzzled & probably still angry looks of his neighbors. No; he is going to live out his new life & re-establish himself as part of the renewed Israel right where he is.
Jesus’ final comment points ahead once more, up the steep & dusty road to Jerusalem. We are almost there. The prophets have spoken of the fate that awaits the Son of Man; but his mission is not just to suffer & die, but rather, through that fate, to search out & rescue the lost sheep. He has gone to be the guest of a sinner will soon change to he has gone out to die with criminals; & the same reason will underlie both. The Son of Man has come to seek & save the lost.
Thankfully, once-lost sons & daughters are being found & coming home. They are detoxing from opioids & completing recovery programs. At this point in their lives, they desperately need our love & support as they begin their life-long journey of recovery.
This week, when you fast, pray, listen, & respond, ask God to show you how you can support, encourage, & love those struggling everyday in recovery in our community. Ask God to show you where they are & how we can get to know them by name. Ask God to show you how to walk beside a person who is in recovery so that they will know they are welcome in our church family.
It is not enough to open our church doors & hope that the prodigal sons & daughters will come in & stay. We must leave our sanctuary & find these persons while they are still a long way off & walk with them all the way home. Step by step.