When I was a child, I learned a song about Zaccheus. I won’t sing it for you, but the words went like this:
Zaccheus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…
The fascination of the story for children, of course, is that this small but important man clamored up a tree to get a better look at the popular preacher who had come to town. He was curious and determined, and he didn’t let his small stature deter him from realizing his goal.
We can picture him running ahead of the crowd, climbing into a tree, and looking down the road as Jesus approached. He hides himself among the leaves, wanting to see the prophet, but not expecting to be seen by him. And yet this is exactly what happens. Jesus stops the procession, looks up into the branches, and summons Zaccheus to come down. He already knows who Zaccheus is – not only that he is a tax collector, but that he is a chief tax collector – but he also perceives that there is far more to this little man than what his title and role might suggest. Perhaps he senses Zaccheus’ present dissatisfaction with his life, or perhaps he recognizes his hunger for God. Whatever it is, he sees something and invites Zaccheus to a life-changing conversation.
Our world paints weakness in a very bad light. It’s seen as something to be exploited, or mocked, or—at best—pitied. But today’s Gospel reading flips that script. I think this passage is a very clear example of the necessity of weakness with Christ.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax-collector in Jericho. He was a Jew who had decided to collaborate with the Roman Empire for his own wealth and power. Many of his fellow Jews saw him as a traitor. Not only that, but tax collectors were widely—and often, correctly—seen as corrupt, willing to abuse their power for personal gain. The average person on the street in Jericho would have been very likely to view Zacchaeus as a treacherous thief.
Traveling in the desert is dangerous. One may faint from heat or be blinded by light. Caves offer safe shadows. One cannot survive alone. In the desert culture of Abraham and today, when meeting someone you share provisions. Generosity may save a stranger’s life. In our first lesson, God visited Abraham and Sarah in the person of three strangers. Abraham hurried from the tent, invited them to stop and rest in the shade of the tree and then hurried off to prepare a meal and serve them. Hospitality, tonight’s radical practice, is essential in a desert and everywhere. We all need welcome and sharing.
We assume self-sufficiency though most of us experience much need and forget our past. Remember the children of Abraham spent 400 years as resident alien slaves in Egypt. After being rescued and later receiving land, God instructed: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt”[i] Being a stranger shapes behavior. We know what it feels like. God said: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”[ii] Later our ancestors were aliens in exile under Babylonian rule. We know what it is like to be traveling and to be outsiders. Having been strangers, we welcome strangers.
Preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Thess 1:1-4, 11-12
Several years ago, I found myself in Jericho. I was there with a group of pilgrims and we had stopped off to see the excavations. Jericho is thought to be the oldest city in the world and is of course the scene of that famous battle when the people of Israel marched around Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. But we hear about Jericho in the gospels as well. It was to Jericho that the man who fell among thieves was going and about whom Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was in Jericho that Jesus healed the blind man, whom Mark names at Bartimaeus. And it is of course where our gospel story takes place today.
This evening we begin a five-part preaching series entitled, “Breaking the Word.” Each Tuesday in Lent we’ll be considering a different word. The words we’ve chosen – conversion, forgiveness, grace, redemption and passion – are words that we Christians use frequently but which we may not fully understand. We seldom take time to explore their meaning or to reflect on their significance for us. That’s the purpose of this series.
Tonight’s word is “conversion.” It’s a word that, for some of us, might have some mixed, or even negative, associations:
- It may elicit unpleasant memories of encounters with religious groups or individuals that make it their chief aim to convert others to their point of view.
- It may bring to mind a certain style of evangelism that strikes us as manipulative or intrusive.
- It may conjure up images of “hell-fire and brimstone” sermons, or of massive crusades in which charismatic preachers try to whip up the emotion of the crowd to affect a response to their message.
- It may remind us of people we have know who have been “converted,” but who bore witness to their conversion in remarkably unattractive ways.
As our bulletin notes, the word itself simply means “to turn around.”
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.
As a child, I learned a song about Zaccheus. I won’t sing it for you, but the words went like this:
“Zaccheus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”
The fascination of the story for children, of course, is that this small but important man clamored up a tree to get a better look at the popular preacher who had come to town. He wanted to see Jesus, though he wasn’t planning on being seen by him.