This Sunday, as usual, our DiscipleChurch worship begins with our preparation or purchase of food for our homeless brothers and sisters, and our shared breakfast meal with them beginning at 7:30 in Wesley Hall. Then, our worship continues with a service in Leonard Chapel at 8:30, continues with our prayer, discussion and formation group at 9:30 in the Foundation Building, and then REALLY continues when we go out from there to be God’s people in the world. Everyone is invited to all of this, or any part.
The Lenten sermon series continues this Sunday with Luke 19.1-10, the familiar story of Jesus’ encounter on his way to Jerusalem with Zacchaeus, the rich, Jewish, chief tax collector. Our Lenten sermon series, for all the preachers in all of our church-wide worship services, is “What Happens at the Table.” This scripture is included because of Jesus’ willingness to share a home and this a meal table with a man who was hated by so many, and because of what happened when Jesus did so. The NRSV translation of this scripture is:
“[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When 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.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus 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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’”
(I say that Zacchaeus was Jewish, because Zacchaeus is a Hebrew name. It means “pure” or “innocent.” Consider that!)
The traditional interpretation of this story is that Zacchaeus was “lost” (verse 10) because of his immoral, economic exploitation of the poor, and that just Jesus’ willingness to share a table with him caused Zacchaeus to repent, to reform and to restore himself to the people of God. This is a great interpretation, consistent with Jesus’ entire ministry, and pregnant with so much meaning for us today. And…it will preach! In fact, I preached this very interpretation to you in DiscipleChurch a few years ago.
However, I no longer believe that this was really the import of this story for the gospel writer. I have “repented,” partly because the accurate translation from Greek into English of verse 8 is not as set forth above, but is instead: ” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” Notice the important difference in verb tense. Not that Zacchaeus will do these things (because of Jesus’ willingness to share a meal with him), but that Zacchaeus is already doing these things. If this is the accurate translation–if Zacchaeus was already dealing generously and relatively justly with the poor–then why and how was Zacchaeus “lost”? Again, our Lenten sermon series is “What happens at the Table?” A question posed by this story, given this alternative translation, is “To whom does it happen?” To Zacchaeus? Or more to us?
I’m going to give you a few more portions of Luke’s’ gospel, with some comments, to consider in conjunction with this story about Zacchaeus. I think that these shed light upon what the gospel writer was and is saying to us. I apologize that I am giving you what must seem like homework, but Luke’s gospel stories are best understood in reference to the complimentary parts of his gospel.
*Luke 3.10-14 (The warnings of John the Baptizer to the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers when they asked him, “What then shall we do?”)
*Luke 15 (The parables of “lostness” told by Jesus in response to criticism of him for consorting–and thus sharing table–with sinners and tax collectors.)
*Luke 18.18-25 (The story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler, just a few verses before the story of his encounter with Zacchaeus. So many commentators see these two stories as companions. But question: why was the rich, young ruler asked by Jesus to sell all he owned to give to the poor, while the rich, young chief was affirmed when he was giving only half of his possessions to the poor?)
*Luke 19. 11-27 (the very, very difficult Parable of the Ten Pounds that Jesus spoke to the very people who were grumbling at his treatment of Zacchaeus. This parable starts at verse 11 with “As they were listening to this…,”referring to what Jesus said to the crowd in verses 9 and 10 at the end of the Zacchaeus story. Tip: In this parable, the conduct of the “nobleman” and the “citizens of his country” echoes the conduct of Herod Archelaus and of the Jewish leaders who opposed his kingship, and thus would have been familiar to the hearers of this parable. Archelaus had traveled to Rome to ask the Roman Senate to appoint him king over Judea when his father Herod the Great had died. Some leading citizens of Jerusalem had sent representatives to Rome in opposition to his appointment. When Archelaus was appointed and returned, he put to death some of those who had opposed him. But the point of the parable was and is about how disciples are to act during the interim period when Jesus is away from us after the crucifixion and resurrection, but before his expected return.)
I give you this background so that this can be a sermon and not just a Bible study. And because I know that so many of us love this stuff. I think you’ll be surprised at where this understanding leads us. Maybe we can be disciples even without selling all that we own and giving the money to the poor. Maybe some of us have to keep the world running while we are acting faithfully and expectantly. Maybe part of loving our neighbor includes keeping the world running. This isn’t me speaking. I think it’s Luke. And maybe Jesus.
But in the meantime, between the resurrection and the return (“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”), who is lost to the people of God just because we have “lost” them?
Oh. And please come…even if you don’t do the homework.