Luke 19:1-10; Ephesians 1:11-end

4th Sunday before Advent

St Barbara’s; 30.10.16

Rev Tulo Raistrick

When I was 12, a new kid arrived in our class. Our class got on pretty well with each other; there was the occasional teasing and falling out, but on the whole, we tolerated each other. But this new boy was different. He boasted about how much better he was than everyone else – better at sport, more intelligent in class, more money and electronic gadgets at home. Many of those boasts were patently untrue. Fairly quickly the whole class grew to dislike him and ostracise him. No one wanted to sit next to him; no one wanted to play with him. And he pretended he didn’t care, just turning up the volume of his boasting and unpleasantness. Imagine then our anger and outrage when one day our teacher singled him out for particular praise. In front of everyone he was congratulated and encouraged – it seemed so undeserved. We were furious.

A couple of decades later and I was working in an office in London. There was good camaraderie amongst people. People supported each other and encouraged each other in their work. But then someone new arrived in the office who hadn’t bought into the same culture. He was more willing to do political manoeuvrings, to play people off against each other, to promote his agenda over that of others. He was disliked, because he didn’t play by the same rules as everyone else. Imagine then the feelings of bitterness and frustration when the CEO chose to support his project above everyone else’s. It didn’t seem fair.

Turn those feelings up a few notches on the dial and I begin to get a sense of how the people of Jericho would have reacted when Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree to have lunch with him. Of all the people in the whole city Jesus could have chosen, he chooses him.

Zacchaeus was not only a hated tax-collector, someone who made his living by taxing people as much as he could get away with, who was a collaborator with the Romans, ensuring the Jewish population were paying for their own oppression, who was happy to be religiously unclean and contaminate everyone else, but he was a chief tax collector. Other tax collectors may have been forced into tax collecting through destitution, but chief tax collectors were those who had chosen to do the job, who were good at it, who were willing to stick two fingers up at everyone else. They were hardened, calloused, uncaring of what anyone else thought or felt.

So when Jesus calls him out of the tree, no wonder the crowds begin to mutter. Many lining the streets would have known of Jesus’ habit to single out complete strangers and invite himself to their home for lunch. To be given the chance to offer such hospitality was a great honour, like it would be if the queen said she wanted to have tea at your home. Many would possibly have been hoping – would he ask me?

And yet he chooses Zacchaeus, one of the most hated and despised people in the city.

It is a message of wonderful hope and wonderful challenge to each one of us. Its a message of wonderful hope because if Jesus would reach out to someone like Zacchaeus, he will reach out to someone like me or you. None of us are beyond the pail. None of us have lived such bad lives, none of us have let him down so badly, that he won’t invite us to join him, he won’t embrace us with his love. There are indeed times when we can feel dreadful about ourselves, feel unworthy of any love. But take heart from Zacchaeus – none of us is beyond God’s love.

But there is a wonderful challenge too. If that is true of us, it is true of everyone else too. No one we meet, no matter how unpleasant, awkward, irritating, or worse, abusive, violent, malicious, is beyond God’s love either. How we respond to them must reflect how God responds to them. With love, with grace, even as we may rightly oppose what they do. That type of love may be misunderstood by others – Jesus’ actions towards Zacchaeus certainly were not appreciated by many – and indeed there is the risk that they may be misunderstood too by the person you are reaching out to. But it is how we can follow Christ in our daily lives.

It may be worth pondering, “who can I reach out to today with God’s love, even if in doing so I may be misunderstood by others, and rejected by the one to whom I reach out?”

If Jesus challenges us by his actions in this story, there are a couple of things we can learn from Zacchaeus too.

Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ unexpected invitation is extraordinary. With seemingly little encouragement, he takes immediate steps to repair the wrongs he has done others. With the exactitude of an accountant  he sets out what he will do: give half of his money away to the poor, and pay back those he has wronged four-fold. Old Testament law required that if you wrongfully took money from someone you should return the amount owed plus 20%. Zacchaeus is twenty times more generous!

Zacchaeus points us to two important principles.

Repentance involves restoration. When we mess up, when we do wrong things, when we fall short of the standards God has for us, saying sorry is important, and that’s why confession is always an important part of our worship. But it is not enough alone. We need to, where we can, make amends, bring healing where we have hurt, repair what we have broken.

I have often been struck by the effectiveness of restorative justice programmes, where criminals, as part of their punishment and rehabilitation, have to put right the damage they have caused. In doing so, they often come face-to-face with the victims of their crimes, and begin to see their actions from another’s perspective. I can imagine how as Zacchaeus went round Jericho meeting with those he had cheated and paying them back, it must have been a process of two-way transformation. Zacchaeus would have seen first-hand the impact of his previous actions – the homes struggling to cope barely above the bread-line because of the extortionate taxes he had imposed. And his victims would have seen in him an extraordinary change brought about by his encounter with Jesus. Imagine if the Inland Revenue called to tell you you had been overtaxed, and not only would you get paid back four-times the amount, but the individual calling you was selling his own car to pay for it. You would be seriously impressed. That’s how it would have been for Zacchaeus’ victims.  When confession involves restoration, it can be amazingly powerful for all concerned.

Next time we confess our sins, let us think, “what can I do to put things right?”

And secondly, Zacchaeus shows us that there are some things more important than money. Two weeks ago, we read the story of the rich young ruler. He had enthusiastically asked Jesus what he must do to follow him, but when Jesus told him to give away his wealth to the poor, he walked away sad, unable to do so. Zacchaeus, in contrast, responds to Jesus’ generosity to him by being generous in return, giving away a large amount of his money. Its not done to earn Jesus’ love; its done to give thanks for it.

In doing so, he gains a different type of riches, a new life transformed by Christ. As St Paul put it in his letter to the church in Ephesus that was our first reading this morning, “the eyes of our heart have been enlightened that we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” On such things, no price can be set.

Zacchaeus discovered that in holding only lightly to possessions one could be freer to respond to the abundant riches in Christ. As we pray and reflect about our giving and stewardship, it is not a bad reminder to have.

So this story about Zacchaeus has much to say to us today. I wonder what God may be saying to you today?

Do you need to hear again that Jesus reaches out to you, whoever you are, no matter how you feel about yourself?

Do you need to respond to someone else with the same generous love Jesus showed Zacchaeus?

Is there a situation or a relationship where you need to go beyond saying sorry and put something right in action?

Or is he prompting you to hold your possessions lightly and look to the needs of others?

May God guide each one of us as we respond to him.