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Sermon for October 30, 2022: Proper 26, 21 Pentecost, Year C (Emily Hyberg, Seminarian)

At first glance, today’s Gospel reading, the story of Zaccheaus, seems like a fairly

straightforward example of Jesus calling a sinner to repentance.

Sure, there are a couple of peculiarities. For one, it’s a story that gives us an unusual level of

detail compared to most Gospel passages. Most notably, we know Zacchaeus’ name,

something we don’t learn in most Gospel stories. We know that Zacchaeus isn’t like the ordinary tax collector from last Sunday; he’s the chief tax collector. We know that he’s rich. And we know that he’s short—which I’m sure he would be thrilled to learn is the thing we remember about him 2000 years later.

Other than those details, the only remarkable thing about Zaccheaus’ story seems to be his

tree-climbing prowess, which honestly, just seems like it’s there to be funny, right?

In the context of 1st-century Roman wealth disparity, Chief Tax Collector probably means very rich. So, we’re not talking about our neighbor who drives a nicer car than we do; we’re probably talking about one of the richest people in Jericho, a major city of the ancient world.1

Can you imagine one of the richest people in San Francisco climbing a tree to get a view of an itinerant healer? Can you imagine Mark Zuckerberg climbing a tree at all? At first read, all of that really just seems to be somewhat humorous set dressing because the real heart of this story is Zacchaeus’ hunger to see Jesus, his hunger for a relationship with God. And, if I’m being honest with you all, when I was first trying to figure out how to preach this

sermon, that hunger didn’t seem all that remarkable. (Pause) I believe strongly that every person is hungry for a relationship with God. In the words often attributed to Blaise Pascal, “there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each of us.” 2

We are all seeking and reaching—and climbing—towards a connection with Jesus.

So, the heart of this story isn’t really all that unique. At first, or even second, or third read, it

seems like it’s just another story about hunger and conversion; repentance and restitution.

But, those details… Those details are not what they seem.

Those details about wealth and stature and trees are actually vital. They tell us something about hunger and God and belonging. That first, surface-level reading about our need for God hides a deeper, more nuanced question about insiders and outsiders, about who gets to be included in God’s Kingdom, Who gets to be a part of God’s heavenly Commonwealth.

Because what the seemingly silly details tell us about Zacchaeus is that he isn’t like the other

followers of Jesus. In fact, the other followers of Jesus don’t think he belongs there at all.

As we learned from Deacon Walter’s sermon last week, Tax Collectors were not popular people in 1st-century Judea. Likely, Zacchaeus would have made his wealth by charging people more than the taxes owed to Rome and then keeping the surplus. 3

This kind of extortion would have placed Zacchaeus at odds with the people around him, and indeed we see in today’s reading that the crowd grumbled when Jesus ordered him out of the tree so that he could dine at his house. Zacchaeus wasn’t one of them. He didn’t belong to the crowd. And here’s where we come to an essential detail that we don’t have in today’s reading. Though today’s Gospel reading tells us that the crowd grumbled when Jesus acknowledged Zacchaeus, what we don’t know is how they reacted to Zacchaeus' repentance, or his big, showy promise to give, or even the crowd’s reaction to Jesus when he declares salvation. Perhaps the assembled people thought that Zacchaeus’ works of restitution were enough to absolve him of his wrongdoing.

But, perhaps they didn’t.

It would be very human to still feel like Zacchaeus had more to do than simply repent and

promise to make good. It’s easy to feel like some people are more deserving of God’s grace and forgiveness than others. We see this at work in today’s Psalm, where the author is “indignant” about the actions of those around him. It is so human to compare ourselves to others and to see ourselves as more favored by God, as more deserving, to see ourselves as an insider of God’s Commonwealth.

Reading today’s Gospel passage, it is easy to assume that all the other people in the Crowd are Jesus’ followers and, therefore, a part of God’s Commonwealth. But we don’t actually know that. We’re probably meant to assume that the crowd sees Jesus declare Zacchaeus’ salvation, and then they welcome him into the beloved community with open arms.

But we don’t actually know that either.

Maybe the crowd of Jesus’ followers never really see Zacchaeus’ repentance or his restitution as sufficient; maybe they never really see him as part of the in-crowd. Maybe they never stop grumbling. If I were part of that crowd, if I had seen Zacchaeus picked out of that tree by Jesus, I would probably still be grumbling.

This very human question: who is in? Who is part of God’s Commonwealth? Who’s worthy of

God’s grace and God’s salvation? This question, in its many forms, is one that Christians have wrestled with throughout the history of the Church. It’s a question that we still wrestle with today.

Maybe that’s why we have a Gospel passage filled with all of these details. The details of this

story certainly show us that Zacchaeus isn’t part of the crowd; they show us that not everyone following Jesus looks the same, or acts the same, or thinks the same.

In fact, the story of Zacchaeus shows us that followers of Jesus… don’t even need to be all that likable to be part of God’s Commonwealth.

If that’s the case, then the details of today’s Gospel reading aren’t just there to make a

compelling story, they’re there to make a point about insiders and outsiders, to ask us about our own insiderness. What makes us part of God’s Commonwealth? Who else gets to be in? Who’s hunger for God is enough?

The details of today’s Gospel reading seem aimed to make Zacchaeus as unlikeable as

possible. He’s a tax collector; he’s rich; his wealth comes from exploitation. He rushes ahead of everyone to climb a tree to see Jesus. Then! He makes a huge, flamboyant display of his own generosity. What. a. jerk.

But that guy, the unlikeable outsider, the jerk, is part of God’s Commonwealth. Jesus said so.

Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he “came to seek out and to save the lost,” and in the process, he

brings an outsider in–to God’s commonwealth; he affirms Zacchaeus’ inherent insider-ness, his inherent belovedness, despite the details of Zacchaeus’s story. All because Zacchaeus was hungry for a relationship with God.

We don’t even know from the reading if Zacchaeus actually made all of the restitution he

promised he would. It is not the details of our own sin that determine our insiderness. It is our hunger for God and our willingness to repent that makes us worthy—makes all of us worthy—of God’s grace and forgiveness, makes all of us part of God’s Commonwealth.

Anyone who tries, anyone who asks, gets to join.

And you know what? Sometimes I don’t like it.

Sometimes I’m a lot more like today’s Psalmist than I’d like to admit. I’m indignant about the actions of others. Sometimes I’d rather keep grumbling than welcome someone into God’s Commonwealth. But the details of Zacchaeus’ story also hide a promise. When I’m at my most human, when it’s me that has fallen short, when I’m the jerk, God can still see my belovedness, my worthiness, my insiderness. That is true of all of us. That is the story of Zacchaeus, the one that answers the questions.

What makes us worthy of God’s Commonwealth?

Our hunger for God

1 Johnson, E. Elizabeth. “Luke 19:1-10: Exegetical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the

Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 4, Season after Pentecost 2: Propers 17-Reign of Christ

(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 261.

2 Probably a paraphrase of a passage of Pascal’s Pensees

3 Johnson, E. Elizabeth. “Luke 19:1-10: Exegetical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the

Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 4, Season after Pentecost 2: Propers 17-Reign of Christ

(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 261.

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