Sermon by: Robert Austell
download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below - works in Firefox; IE users will have to use this last.fm link to hear streaming audio)We are in the middle of several weeks of looking at how Jesus showed people the face of God by embodying grace, truth, and love. Last week we heard Jesus’ story about “The Good Samaritan,” told to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In that story, Jesus gave a surprising definition of neighbor: it is not only one in need, but includes one’s enemy! And even more surprising, Jesus said that to keep God’s Law one must not only know this, but do it – we must love our enemies.
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This week we see that these were not just idealistic words, but something Jesus put into practice. And we’ll see just how hard it was for the religious folks to understand!
The personal question and application I’d like you to focus on is who you might already know – or what kind of person God might bring into your life – that would generate a comment like, “You’re talking to him?!” And yet, after hearing this text, you believe this is precisely whom God would have you reach out to for the sake of Christ.
Just How Bad Is He?
To understand the dynamic here, you have to understand who Zaccheus was. If you learned this story as a child, you probably remember that he was short and had to go climb a tree in order to see Jesus, who was passing through town, teaching. But there is more to it…
Simply put, Zaccheus was the enemy of the people. He was a Jewish man who had “sold out” to the Roman Empire for money. Not only did he collect taxes (and who likes that?), he and every other tax collector made their own riches from over-taxing people and pocketing the difference. And no one could say otherwise, because he was backed up by Roman soldiers. It was closer to mob collections than any taxes we know about today. And he wasn’t just any old enemy of the people, he was the chief tax-collector. He was public enemy #1!
This past summer I heard the Bible scholar, Ken Bailey, teach on this passage. He also emphasized this point, that Zaccheus was hated and despised. Dr. Bailey noted that there were two reasons Zaccheus could not see Jesus amidst the crowd in Jericho. One was his height; the other was that the crowd would have killed him. That’s how much of an enemy he was.
The story begins with Jesus entering and passing through Jericho. He had just healed a blind man on the way into Jericho. The crowd was no doubt gathering and following him to see another miracle.
So Zaccheus “ran ahead” – not 30 feet down the road to perch in a tree, but clear out of town on the road out of Jericho. Up in the tree, not only could he see Jesus, but he could avoid the crowd, perhaps even avoid them seeing him. But when Jesus got to the place, he did the unthinkable. He called out to Zaccheus. It was a pivotal moment: the crowd suddenly realized who was there in their midst. Their expectation would have been for Jesus to denounce him loudly and strongly, perhaps even to call him down so they could run him off or worse. Zaccheus had likely climbed up in the tree to avoid being seen, and suddenly he was revealed. Unthinkable!
Grace: Love Beyond Expectation
When Jesus spoke, it was nothing anyone expected. He called out to Zaccheus to hurry and come down, but it was not to scold him or hand him over to the crowd. Calling him by name, Jesus said, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” (v. 5)
Last week we looked at the story of “The Good Samaritan.” In it, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies. Now Jesus is being that Good Samaritan. He is crossing social and political lines to reach out to someone who is hated in order to share the grace of God.
A few weeks ago I defined grace as getting what we do not deserve. And that certainly fits here. The crowd’s reaction to Jesus shows just how undeserving Zaccheus was. But here’s an even shorter definition for grace: love beyond expectation. Jesus’ words and actions were beyond any expectation. From his stopping to his speaking to getting involved to going to share food and house with Zaccheus, he exceeded and even redefined expectation and showed the love and grace of God.
John 1:14 says that Jesus came to live among us to reveal the glory and face of God through grace, truth, and love. That is what Jesus is doing here, both to Zaccheus and to those who were watching.
Several weeks ago I shared with you how transformative grace can be, describing how significantly God’s grace had affected me in my own life in the midst of depression and spiritual struggle. It is this same grace that so profoundly impacted Zaccheus, this enemy of the people. It was not necessary for Jesus to spell out to Zaccheus that he was a sinner. Zaccheus knew; and the crowd did not hesitate to name him as such. Rather, Jesus reached out to him in love and grace, much as the Samaritan in his story reached out to the man beaten and in need by the side of the road. Jesus extended friendship and accepted the hospitality of this sinner with eagerness.
We witness a life transformed when Zaccheus spontaneously declares that he will pay back those he has cheated, not the 1/5th required by Jewish Law, but a whopping 4x over! And he is not just repaying those he has cheated, but also says he will give half of his possessions to the poor.
And Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house” and reclaims him as what he is, a son of Abraham. I think you can begin to sense the magnitude of this transformation, but let me also point out the context here. Only the day or two before (and in the previous chapter in Luke), Jesus had told the disciples how hard it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And here, Jesus is encountering one of the richest men in Jericho, a known sinner, and an enemy of the people.
The crowd had gathered to see another miracle… and this was indeed a miracle! Would they recognize it as such?
Truth: Who Needed it Spelled Out?
It is clear that the crowd had a problem with all this. They were not prepared to love this enemy like Jesus apparently was. We read in verse 7 that when they saw Jesus going to Zaccheus’ house, the crowd began to grumble. We even get their specific sentiment, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Now I think there were a couple of dynamics going on here. One is that they just didn’t like Zaccheus at all. So, given the public nature of his sin, they simply judged, sentenced, and wrote him off collectively.
Secondly, it is a peculiar trait of humanity that we want to make ourselves look good by making others look bad. I remember that starting very early on in my own life. Am I a fast runner? Well, as long as I can find someone I can trounce – like my little brother – then I must be. (Never mind that I’m 6 and he is 3!) Am I smart? If I can find a few others that don’t do as well, then I must be. Am I good? Well, I know deep down that I’m not perfect, but if I can deflect attention onto others’ grosser sins it makes me look good.
Seriously, let’s pick apart the crowds’ sentiment just a little further, because any of us could easily have been in that crowd. In essence, they are probably not concerned about the purity laws and Jesus somehow being defiled by associating with Zaccheus. More likely, they are jealous that Zaccheus would get to spend time with Jesus or witness the miracle they had come to see and they wouldn’t. Were any of them a better candidate for a lunch with Jesus? Perhaps in their own mind they were. But was it because they were sinless? No way – rather, they probably thought, “I’m not as bad as that guy; how come Jesus didn’t choose me?”
Is that really how we want it to work? That God will smile on me as long as there is someone worse off that He can frown upon? Ten other good reasons aside, do any of us really think we won’t ever find ourselves in last place? That’s not only not a biblical depiction of God; it’s just a bad idea for a view of religion!
Interestingly, it is not Zaccheus who needs the truth spelled out for him. He knew he needed God and when Jesus embodied grace, Zaccheus implicitly and experientially understood Jesus’ purpose and the salvation being offered, and responded in faith and with action.
No, those who needed the truth spelled out for them were the crowd. And maybe we need to hear it as well. Jesus spells out truth for us in verse 10:
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.
Jesus did not come to stroke the ego of the religious folks, but to seek out those who are weak and wounded, lost and alone, wandering and far from God. He came for the one in last place and for the one who struggles the most. It is interesting and ironic that often those who hear him the best are those who need him the most, and those who have the hardest time really understanding God’s grace and salvation are those who feel like they have their act together.
Lord, give us ears to hear!
Grace/Truth Rooted in Love: flipping our model
Finally, there is significant application for us in this text. We need to flip our model of what it means to be Christian. Being Christian is not keeping out the sinners, but reaching out to the lost as one sinner to another.
I would shy away from using “sinner” because I think Christians have a hard time thinking of ourselves as sinners, and calling those who don’t know Christ a sinner is seldom helpful. I’m not saying that isn’t the truth, it’s just not helpful truth if presented as a separating distinction between me and another person. There simply isn’t a place in the Christian gospel for me to say, “I can’t associate with you because you are a sinner.” That’s not the truth; Scripture declares it a lie when it says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Rather, the heart of Jesus’ mission was to seek and save the lost – to go to all who fall short of the glory of God and show them the glory of God! As we follow after Jesus and participate in that mission, we are to intentionally seek out those who are lost, hurting, wounded, and wandering.
So, I asked you to think about whom God might have you speak to or reach. Is it the kid who sits alone in the lunchroom or on the bus? Is it the mean kid or the rude co-worker? Is it the one at the pool or the club or in the neighborhood whose life is a mess and everyone just kind of talks about them? Or is it the “black sheep” in your family?
Jesus did not come to create an “I’m better than them” religion, but to seek and to save those who are lost. And he often did so by first showing God’s love in unexpected ways – that’s grace. And often, it was and is that grace that is so transformative that people open up to hear truth and experience salvation through Jesus Christ. May we have ears to hear and hearts to follow! Amen.