Sinner or Saint?
Zacchaeus was always one of those Sunday school favorites.
Children remember him for two reasons:
First of all, he is short. He can’t see what’s going on.
Kids identify with this, taking him as a sort of mascot for those who have yet to grow.
And then there’s the fact that Zacchaeus climbs trees, right in the middle of a public gathering.
How cool is that?? I remember some times when I wished I could get above those tall people to see,
not to mention the long concerts and sermons where I fantasized that I could swing from the chandeliers.
Zacchaeus lived what every red blooded kid wished they could do.
But Zacchaeus was not so admired by the people of his day.
He was a chief tax collector.
That meant he was in charge of a cadre of traitorous Jews who collected taxes for Rome.
He was a political enemy, and loathed for it.
He was also rich.
And how did a tax collector get rich in Roman times? By extortion and embezzlement.
By taking advantage of vulnerable people.
By buying himself influential friends.
Zacchaeus was the kind of person that people loved to hate.
The crowd certainly would have called Zacchaeus Public Sinner #1.
But his name means ‘righteous.’
The irony of being called righteous is clear,
because Zacchaeus is the last person anyone would have called righteous.
The crowd’s view of Zacchaeus reminds me of a little novel my son read in 6th grade called,
When the Circus Came to Town.
It’s a story about a small church-going town in middle America
that suddenly sees an influx of former circus performers moving in.
It all starts with the Snake Lady.
Her tattoos and strange clothing put people off—
they expect her to pull out a python at any minute!
They keep a healthy distance and a cool welcome to the newcomer.
Then the trapeze artists move in- four boys who climb on top of the outbuildings of their property.
That’s dangerous! Why don’t those parents keep better track of those boys??
As more and more circus characters move to town,
the people begin to discuss them over their “Lutes for Lent” choir practice
and the Casserole Committee’s weekly cooking for the homebound.
Their general consensus was that these rabble rousers had to go.
I won’t tell you how the story ends, but I will say that the town has it all wrong about the circus people.
Their expectations that the newcomers will bring trouble to their town is completely wrong
in fact, the circus people turn out to be heros at the end of the story
acting with care and compassion when others are too busy judging them to muster those qualities.
It’s an exaggerated tale, but its cartoon quality
helps us to see something we don’t want to admit about ourselves:
that we too have judged someone to be a bad apple, but turns out to be a gem.
The crowd’s view of Zacchaeus as traitor and cheater turns out to be wrong, too.
When confronted by the crowd for being a sinner, Zacchaeus says:
“Half my possessions… I will give to the poor;
and if I have defrauded anyone, I will pay back four times as much.”
It sounds as if Zacchaeus is promising reform for past improprieties;
but the tense of the verbs here is present tense, not future as its rendered here.
Zacchaeus’ words could refer to his current practice:
“Half my possessions… I give to the poor; and if I defraud anyone, I pay back four times as much.”
In this case, Zacchaeus lives up to his name after all—Righteous One
because he makes restitution for any mistakes far beyond what would be expected.
Zaccheus’ story points out the difference between the crowd’s view and Jesus’ view
Whether or not Zacchaeus is righteous at the beginning of the story or not, Jesus sees that quality in him.
Jesus sees him as worthy of his attention and company.
Unlike the crowd, Jesus does not judge Zacchaeus by appearances or stereotypes
but reaches out to get to know him
and ultimately, to love him.
Our job as Jesus’ followers is to model him, not the crowd.
We meet all kinds of people in our daily travels, and even right here at church.
People who challenge our notions of propriety.
People who seem wrong in some way.
It is not easy, but we are to put aside our knee jerk reactions for a minute
and try to think how Jesus would approach this person.
Paul V has a quote at the end of every email he sends:
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about…Be kind ALWAYS.
I think we could also add this:
Everyone you meet has a gift you know nothing about… be interested.
Because the truth we see on Reformation Sunday is that we are all Zacchaeus.
We are all sinner and saint,
we are all heros and in need of grace.
We are called to be Jesus’ welcome in this world.
Psst…. Did you know there’s a sinner in here?
What do you suppose a sinner looks like? I was told we’d know it when we saw one.
Help me find the sinner. Let’s go looking… (out into congregation)
I don’t know, these all look like such nice people. It don’t see any sign of sin.
Wait, I forgot something… (head to sacristy, pull off robe to reveal shirt that says, “sinful” on it.)
Ok, I’m back. Now, where’s the sinner? We’ll know it when we see it.
Oh, my shirt! You are right! And take a look at the back! (angel’s wings)
What do you make of that?
Reformation idea, Lutheran idea-- Sinner and Saint at the same time. simul Justus et peccator
God’s grace in Jesus that saves us, makes us right in the eyes of God
When I was a student pastor, the property manager at the church was a guy named Gus.
He was a gruff kind of guy, and he liked to complain.
The whole world was going to hell in a handbag, according to Gus.
And if you needed something from him, you had to be prepared for a barrage of:
Whaddya wanna do that for? That’s not gonna work! You’ve got to… (fill in the blank for the idiot).
I was scared of Gus.
I didn’t like the way he threw his weigh around, trying to control things.
I didn’t like his view of the world, or his politics, which he liberally quoted.
I wondered how in the world he ever got a job at a church.
But as the year wore on, I saw a different side of Gus.
He cooked the meal for the seniors once a month, and regularly at the shelter.
He spent his summers at Hole In the Wall Gang Camp for kids with cancer,
I learned that if you approached Gus with a problem for his input
rather than your idea for him to implement, he was a totally different person.
Once Gus was one your side, he would go to the ends of the earth for you.