Readings for this Sunday: Genesis 28:10-17, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 19:1-10
Have you ever been found yourself up a tree?
If you look up the expression “up a tree,” you’ll discover it means ‘confused, without an answer to a problem, or in difficulty.” Well… it also could mean intoxicated, but we’ll concentrate on the first definition.
Zaccheus definitely found himself up a tree. My guess is that he was up a tree long before he climbed up that sycamore tree.
We know that Zaccheus lived in Jericho and he was a tax collector – a leader of tax collectors. Jericho was a busy trade town and the tax collecting business was good. Zaccheus was wealthy and influential – at least among the other tax collectors.
He didn’t have much influence around the other folks in Jericho. Tax collectors were hated. We get that – tax collectors are not much liked these days either. But it was a bit different back then. The taxes were paid, not to the local government, or the king, but to Rome. It was a convoluted system with lots of fingers in the pie taking their cut, but basically the way it worked was this: Rome would say how much a local area needed to pay in taxes, and then tax collectors would bid on the contracts. Rome would award a contract to the collector who said he could get the most above Rome’s stated tax. He would take a cut, and Rome would get their tax plus the extra.
Needless to say, this did not make the tax collectors very popular. They were considered little more than thieves, and collaborators with Rome, and sinners. Their very profession put them on the outside of Jewish community, and presumably outside of God’s love.
He was on the outside looking in. He was up a tree.
Was that what made him go see Jesus that day? The news that Jesus had just healed a blind beggar outside of Jericho must have travelled through the city like wildfire. People poured out into the streets to see this preacher/teacher/healer/prophet. Was it just idle curiosity that enticed Zaccheus to brave the crowds? Did a sense that there was something missing in his life which leads him to follow the crowds? Did his longing to be part of the community once again impel him to seek a place in the crowd?
Whatever it was, he soon found himself literally up a tree – trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus over the crowds. And while we will never know his motivation, we know what happened.
Jesus met him, right where he was. Zaccheus thought he needed to climb up to see Jesus, but Jesus was ready to meet him on his own turf – his very own house.
Suddenly we discover a whole bunch of other people who are up a tree – confused, without an answer to the problem of why Jesus would want to associate with such a sinner. The crowd begins to grumble – “I can’t believe Jesus said that!” “Doesn’t he know who Zaccheus is?” “Jesus, really, you’re going to eat with one of the worst sinners in town.”
Jesus calls them down out of their trees too: “This man is a child Abraham, salvation has come to his house. Stop dividing the world in between those worthy of God’s love and those not – everyone is worthy of God’s love. Stop tallying up points “Your sin is so much worse than my little sin.” Sin is sin. Everyone sins and falls short of God’s glory. But it’s ok because God has sent me to seek and save those lost to sin, even you, even Zaccheus.”
There’s something interesting in Zaccheus’ response to the crowds accusation. He says, “I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I repay them four times the amount.” I know the translation we read says, “will give” and “will repay”, but the Greek doesn’t say ‘will.’ If we drop the ‘will’, Zaccheus is responding to the crowd’s accusation that he is a sinner – he gives to the poor, he fulfills the law and then some.
So often we hear this story and think, this encounter with Jesus changed the bad tax collector’s heart and he repented of his evil ways and Jesus forgave him, and he was saved.
And that’s certainly a valid way to look at the story. But stories often have a deeper level and more than one meaning.
What if this is not a forgiveness story, but a healing story. There was a son of Abraham, a child of God, whom the community judged unworthy of God’s grace and mercy. And God came down to them – all of them – and loved them, the unworthy one and the judging ones. And God’s love called them down out of the trees that isolated them. God’s love healed the broken hearts of the unworthy ones and the judging ones and in doing so, healed the heart of the community.
We all spend some time up a tree.
Sometimes, we know our danger, scrambling up the tree for safety.
Sometimes, like Zaccheus, we sense there’s something we need or something we’re missing, somethings just not right and maybe the tree will give us a fresh perspective and a better look.
Sometimes, like the crowd, we don’t even see the problem, or notice our sin and brokenness, don’t even realize that we’re us a tree, even as the branches become uncomfortable and twigs poke us.
What kind of tree are you up?
Jesus meets you there, waiting to heal, to forgive, to restore.
Hear Jesus call – Child of God, come down. I have come to meet you at the table, in the bread and the wine. Salvation comes to this house today, to this gathered community of saints who are also sinners comes healing and grace.