Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, October 30 2016
Isaiah 1.10-18; Psalm 32; 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12; Luke 19.1-10
Rev Kate McDonald Reynolds, Scottish Episcopal Church
The American Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson wrote on the social media site Twitter a while ago, “The Bible is a book that reads us, even as we read it. It’s an uncommon book so requires an uncommon sort of read.” Today’s gospel reading is one for which these words particularly ring true.
We’ve just heard the wonderful story of Zacchaeus.
Now, up until this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of God to his disciples, the religious leaders, random stragglers, tax collectors and all the various people who make up the crowds who are following him. He’s used parables and illustrations. He’s healed and forgiven. He’s taught and rebuked. And up until now, he’s focused on the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the “other”.
Thus far, much of what he has said aligns with the prophets’ teaching, though his interpretation of the law and his criticism of the Pharisees has drawn the attention of the authorities.
So in this context, today’s gospel story – a story of a rich man offered salvation – comes as a bit of a surprise.
After all, in just the previous chapter, Jesus tells the disciples after his conversation with the rich ruler, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”.
This text about Zacchaeus seems to stand in direct contrast to so much of what Jesus has said and done before. It feels a bit confusing.
And so to make sense of it, we often then read this as a story about repentance.
In last week’s gospel reading about the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer, the tax collector repents, right? He can’t even look up to heaven, and he beats his breast and cries out to heaven, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Therefore, we read the story of Zacchaeus as follows: Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus, a notorious rich tax collector; Zacchaeus, overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus, repents of his sin and promises he will make amends; acknowledging Zacchaeus’ repentance, Jesus declares that salvation has come to this house.
And many translations actually guide us towards this conclusion. In the NRSV we use here and in several other translations, after the crowd complains that Jesus is going to eat in the house of a sinner, verse 8 reads in the future tense:
Zacchaeus 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.”
In the future tense, this statement is a promise, an act of contrition.
However, in the Greek, this verse is not future; it’s present. Zacchaeus already gives half of his possessions to the poor, and pays back what he’s defrauded. Peterson’s Message translation of the bible reflects this:
“Zacchaeus stammered apologetically, ‘Master, I give away half my income to the poor – and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages’”.
Neither Jesus nor Zacchaeus say anything at all about sin or forgiveness.
So why do we so often want to read it that way? What is it in us that longs to see Zacchaeus atone for his greed, his power, his complicity in an unjust government of occupation and oppression?
Today’s text is an example of how we so often approach our scriptures with our own agenda, our own ideas about who should repent, who deserves forgiveness, who is already in the fold, and who is lost. We – and many translators – want God to conform to our expectations, to abide by our definitions of justice. Forgiveness can only be preceded by genuine repentance, right?
But this is – as all our gospel stories are – a story about God. This isn’t really a story about Zacchaeus. And if we allow the bible – in Peterson’s words – to read us even as we read it, we realize that we turn it into a story about Zacchaeus because it’s far easier for us to judge another human being, to join in with the crowds who name him a sinner, than it is for us to recognize the wide embrace of God’s love.
We often focus on that earlier saying of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. And we gloss over Jesus’ words when he is asked: “Then who can be saved?”
His reply? “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
This is not a story about repentance. It’s a story about revelation.
The great Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero, who spoke prophetically about the injustices in El Salvador in the 1960s and 70s – and who for his passion was shot while saying mass in 1980 – preached thus:
We cannot segregate God’s word
from the historical reality in which it is proclaimed.
It would not then be God’s word.
It would be history,
it would be a pious book,
a bible that is just a book in our library.
It becomes God’s word
because it vivifies,
what is going on today in this society.
This, I think, is what Peterson means when he calls the bible an uncommon book which requires an uncommon sort of read.
We live today in a trouble land in a troubled world. Everywhere we turn there is conflict and tension and injustice and division and anger and fear and grief.
So how does this story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus become God’s word today? How does it vivify, enlighten, contrast, repudiate, praise what is going on today in this society? In our communities? In our churches? In ourselves?
This is the great challenge of the gospel.
Who is Zacchaeus for us today? Whose views do we disagree with? Who would we not share a table with? Whose lifestyle do we not approve of? Whose manner offends us? Whose actions and words cause us anxiety? Whose work do we despise? Who do we think should repent and beg the most for forgiveness?
Whatever names and faces just came to your minds (I had quite a few), remember this isn’t a story about Zacchaeus but about God; this isn’t a story about repentance but about revelation. And the ways in which this story vivifies, enlightens, contrasts, repudiates, praises what is going on in our society can be put simply in the words of the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber: “Every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint
Eugene H Peterson, The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language
Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, sermons compiled and translated by James R Brockman, sj