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Monday, November 4, 2013

Go climb a tree...

I have always been charmed by the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), for some reason.  I don't know why, maybe because he was such an underdog, maybe because the concept of a grown man climbing a tree to catch a glimpse of the traveling freakshow that was Jesus and his disciples is so absurd as to be laughable, maybe because the desperation and/or hope which drove him up the tree is so visceral and relate-able.

But let's go over the story.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and he was rich, the Gospel passage tells us.  This defines him as a three-time loser.

First of all, tax collectors were Jews who had betrayed their people by collaborating with the Romans.  They collected taxes from the Jews and gave the money to the Romans, in other words.  Strike one.

Tax collectors were, by definition, ritually impure as they regularly consorted with Gentiles (ie the ritually impure).  Tax collectors therefore routinely defiled themselves.  Strike two.

That we are told Zacchaeus was rich is not random.  Tax collectors were not supposed to be rich.  The implication is that Zacchaeus was skimming some cream off the taxes he collected.  Strike three.

Zacchaeus was a traitor, was defiled and was a thief.  Ouch.

Maybe was can understand why Zacchaeus did not seem to care what people thought about him as he climbed the tree.  They could hardly have thought worse of him.

And yet there is something truly charming and redeeming about Zacchaeus.  And that is that he recognized his shortcomings.  Literally and figuratively.

We are told that he was short, hence the reason he had to climb the tree in the first place.  We cannot be sure, WHY he climbed the tree.  Was he looking for salvation, forgiveness, enlightenment, or was he simply rubbernecking?  We don't know.  But either way, he recognized that his size stood in the way of what he wanted, and in order to reach his goal of seeing Jesus, he was willing to do what he had to do.

Similarly, he has something of a conversion experience later in the passage.  I don't mean he converted to Christianity, I mean he had a change of heart.  As a tax collector, he must have realized all along that he was sinning against his own people and against his own conscience, and that must have weighed on him heavily.  Somehow, his exchange with Jesus convinced him to stop sinning and to try to make amends.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I personally do not believe that God keeps score.  He doesn't need to.  I keep score.  And I think we all do.

We are all bright enough to know the difference between right and wrong, and unless you were born without a conscience, I think we all suffer the weight of the misdeeds we have committed.  God doesn't even need to enter into it.

The only way to make that right is to make that right.  As Zacchaeus did.

The charm of the story is that not only did he recognize his literal physical shortcomings, but he also recognized his spiritual shortcomings.  Not only did he recognize where he fell short of the mark on the wall, he recognized where he also fell short of his own conscience.

And more importantly, he did something about it.

I think we live in an age where as a species we are coming to terms with our own intrinsic goodness.  Thankfully, gone (or at least going) are the days when the church told us we were all terrible people.  It's ironic that it has taken the church 2000 years to catch up to the theology espoused by its founder, but there you have it.  We deserve to acknowledge our own worth, value and dignity.

But this is something that has to be held in balance.  We are not perfect, and we all do things we regret.  Go too far in the direction of self-love and you become self-absorbed.  Become too preoccupied with your shortcomings and you fall into self-loathing.

But Zacchaeus teaches us the value of recognizing our shortcomings and doing something about them.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

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