I have what I presume is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this evening of preaching for a second time in the space of just over two weeks about the story of Zaccheus. The first was on Sunday, November 4, when I used the story as a starting point to talk about the radical welcome that Jesus extends to all, even – and especially – to those who live on the margins of human society. (If you’re interested, you can read it or listen to it on our website, www.ssje.org.)
Having looked at the story as an example of God’s generous and abundant love which is lavished on us all, good and bad alike, tonight I’d like to look at the story as an example of one man’s generous response to God’s love. I’d like to talk about the salvation of Zaccheus.
The story is a simple one and well known. Zaccheus is described as a man small of stature, who is despised by his fellow Jews because of his role as a chief tax collector, a role which necessarily implicates him in the corrupt and oppressive rule of the Romans over the Jews. One day he learns that Jesus, the acclaimed prophet, teacher and healer from Nazareth, is coming to his hometown of Jericho, and he decides to go to see him. His short stature makes it impossible for him to see above the crowd, so Zaccheus risks the ridicule of others by climbing up a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by. It’s an extraordinary effort and it occasions an extraordinary encounter between the two men. Zaccheus aims to see Jesus by climbing the tree, but he is surprised when Jesus sees him, and invites him down to share a meal with him, an act of generosity that upsets the crowd. “All that saw it began to grumble, and said, ‘he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (Lk 19:7). The result of the meeting, however, is a dramatic conversion, in which Zaccheus promises to give half of his worldly goods to the poor, and to make restitution to all those whom he has cheated.
“Salvation has come to this house,” says Jesus, in response to Zaccheus’ pledge.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been intrigued by that phrase, “Salvation has come to this house,” and in particular, by the meaning of the word “salvation.” The language of salvation appears frequently in Christian theology, liturgy and spirituality. In the Nicene Creed, we profess that it was “for our salvation” that God became incarnate among us in the person of Jesus, who is often referred to by Christians as “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” i But what is “salvation”? And what might we learn from the story of Zaccheus about what it means to be saved?
According to British theologian J.C. Fenton, there have been “considerable shifts of emphasis [in the Church’s doctrine of salvation]…; the terms have been understood in diverse ways at different periods of the Church’s history.”ii
Fenton explains that in the writings of St. Paul, the earliest of the New Testament writings, “’salvation’ is used to refer to a future event in which God will judge the world, destroy the wicked and establish his final kingdom of earth.”iii In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Paul writes that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed,”iv implying, as the context shows, that the return of Christ and the last judgment were expected to take place before he and his readers had died. Elsewhere he speaks of “the hope of salvation,”v clearly seeing it as a future event.vi Only once does he refer to Jesus as Savior, but here again it is in respect to Jesus’ future work: To the Christians at Philippi, he writes, “We await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him to subject all things to himself.”vii Here, Fenton points out, “Jesus is called savior because of what he will do, not because of what he has already done.”viii “The future sense is also found in the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke], where to be saved is identical in meaning with entry into the kingdom of God.”ix
In later New Testament writings, a shift of emphasis begins to occur. What was at first spoken of as a future event is now described as something accomplished in the past or being accomplished in the present. The author of the letter to the Ephesians refers to a salvation that has already taken place when he instructs the Christians at Ephesus that it is “by grace you have been saved.”x
Fenton also tells us that “although the title ‘Savior’ is applied to Jesus only twice in the four Gospels,xi the idea of Jesus as Savior is far more frequent. For example, Matthew explains the name “Jesus” as the one who saves his people from their sins,xii and in many of the healing miracles restoration to health is taken to be a sign of salvation.”xiii When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you,” he invites us to see “the healing stories as symbols or images of salvation, which the believer hopes for, or rather, believes that he has received.”xiv The salvation God is bringing to the world through Jesus refers not only to deliverance from the final divine wrath, but healing and wholeness that takes place in the present.
Thus there are past, present and future meanings associated with the word “salvation.” As a series of statements I learned long ago puts it,
Jesus has saved us from the penalty of sin.
Jesus is saving us from the power of sin.
Jesus will save us from the presence of sin.
The first statement, “Jesus has saved us from the penalty of sin,” refers to the once-for-all work of salvation accomplished through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The second, “Jesus is saving us from the power of sin,” reflects an ongoing process of conversion by which we are being healed and liberated in the present. And the last, “Jesus will save us from the presence of sin,” looks forward to that time when sin will be no more when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness. All three of these meanings are present in Scripture and describe the hope of salvation we have in Jesus Christ.
Now what of Zaccheus? What can we learn of the nature and process of salvation in this story of repentance and conversion?
What is particularly startling about this story of salvation is Zaccheus’ radical response to the invitation of Jesus. He stands before Jesus and offers to give half of his possessions to the poor – just like that! Then, he expresses his willingness to offer restitution to those whom he has wronged – four times the amount that he cheated them! The generosity of his offer would have amazed those who witnessed it, because it went so far beyond what the law required.
Grace is at work here, and its work is always amazing. Amazing grace prompts this lonely and forgotten soul to seek Jesus. Amazing grace brings healing and hope as Jesus recognizes and embraces him. Amazing grace turns his heart to seek forgiveness and to make restitution for the evil he has done. Amazing grace moves him to extraordinary generosity and love. As Jesus says elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, those who are forgiven much, love much.xv
“Today salvation has come to this house,” says Jesus, and he is speaking not just of a change in the condition of this man’s soul brought about by a private inner moment of faith and belief. No, when the gospels speak of salvation they are speaking of something far more broad and comprehensive. The Greek word for being ‘saved’ is also translated “made well,” “healed,” or “made whole.” It refers not to some private transaction between God and the soul, but to the healing and transformation of the whole person! Those who experience this salvation are changed beings! They have been given a new identity, a new way of seeing, a new way of living. Their lives are radically transformed! Salvation has implications for every aspect of their lives: their work, their finances, their relationships, their priorities, their character, their spiritual practice. Everything becomes new!
Zacchaeus is saved by God’s amazing grace! Greed gives way to generosity. Self-centeredness yields to self-sacrifice. Caring only about one’s self is transformed into a broader, deeper caring that flows out to family, friends and neighbors. See the new Zacchaeus. See how generous he is, how full of thought for others, how humble and contrite, how good. When Zacchaeus and his household are saved, when his life is so transformed by love, even the poor benefit! “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!” (v. 8). The salvation Jesus offers radically alters every aspect of our lives: personal, domestic, social, economic and political. We are made new!
And this is the mission of Jesus. He has come to seek and to save the lost, to bring this salvation, this healing and wholeness, this forgiveness and reconciliation, to the whole earth. He is the image of the invisible God, the sign of God’s love and acceptance, of God’s compassion and care.
Have you experienced this salvation? Have you met this Jesus who stretches out his arms of love to embrace us all, who gathers the sinners and the outcasts and the poor as well as the wealthy and the powerful and makes them all new people, whose transformed lives reflect his kindness, generosity and love?
We are his people. We have been saved by his love. We have been healed and transformed and made new by his grace. We have been restored by his forgiveness. We have been taken gently into the arms of his love. In him, we are new.
This is why he was sent into the world: “to seek out and save the lost.” And this is why we are sent into the world. To bring God’s healing and salvation to others, to let them know that, no matter how twisted or broken their lives have become, there is love and salvation and healing and blessing in God. There is no greater mission, no higher calling than this: to be channels of God’s love and healing and salvation to every human being and to the whole of God’s creation. Come, all you who have been saved and are being saved and will be saved, join the mission of God! There is much to be done.
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