November lectionary preview: A glimpse of Jesus
September 24, 2019 by Kevin Park
Sunday, November 3 lectionary preview on Luke 19:1-10
In Zacchaeus, we see someone who got much more than one bargained for. He just wanted a glimpse of Jesus as an anonymous bystander, but Jesus sees him and calls him out by name and he is changed and Zacchaeus responds by radically reordering his life including his wealth. This gospel lection is about stewardship, stewardship of all of life. Through this story we see a glimpse of how salvation works.
Luke identifies Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector who was rich. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Zacchaeus may have been the most hated man in Jericho. Luke’s original audience would have known that Zacchaeus was rich precisely because he was a chief tax collector — a traitor who shamelessly cooperated and worked for the Romans to extort money from his own people, keeping for himself the over the top extra after submitting what the Empire demanded.
Zacchaeus was more like a Bernie Madoff or a Tony Soprano than an affable “wee little man” we learned in Sunday school. Zacchaeus, according to public opinion at the time, would have been the least eligible candidate for God’s favor or grace. When Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he must stay at his house, the crowd grumbled, accusing Jesus of being a willing guest of a sinner.
For some reason Zacchaeus is desperate to see Jesus for himself. We are told that he was short in stature and could not see Jesus because of the crowd. So he repositions himself, anticipating where Jesus was going to pass and strategically climbs a sycamore tree at that spot. His mission was to see a glimpse of Jesus passing by.
This is highly unusual for at least two reasons. First, given his notoriety, someone like Zacchaeus would have avoided the public at all costs except in his official role as the chief tax collector. He certainly would have avoided crowds for the sake of his own safety. Second, it would have been a bizarre spectacle for Zacchaeus to climb a tree. Climbing trees were for children and gardeners, not for chief tax collectors who had their reputations to uphold. Tree climbing would have been an act that would have significantly compromised Zacchaeus’ dignity as someone with a significant title and office endowed by the Roman Empire.
But Zacchaeus risked his safety, reputation, and the possibility of suffering as a laughingstock and climbed a tree. We do not know why he was so desperate to see Jesus passing by. But it was so important to him that he compensated his short stature by anticipating where Jesus would pass, and climbed a tree, perhaps wearing his chief tax collector robe. It must have been an awkward climb. Nevertheless, Zacchaeus radically repositioned himself to see Jesus.
A glimpse of Jesus
We preachers, like Zacchaeus, are desperate to get a glimpse of Jesus every week before Sunday, hoping for insight, clarity, and inspiration to preach. But we have obstacles all around us. Crowds of meetings, visitations, all kinds of administration, concerns over budget, personnel, programs, conflict or possibilities of conflicts, not to mention sometimes debilitating feelings of isolation and loneliness. It’s no wonder that more weeks than we want to admit we miss Jesus passing by because he is crowded out by the relentless demands of ministry.
How can we reposition ourselves, run ahead, anticipating where Jesus will pass, and find a tree to climb? Same question can be posed for our ministries as well. How can we reposition our ministries such that we can see Jesus more clearly? Why are we so afraid to do things differently? Why do we do ministry so predictably, inside a box? What unconventional, creative ways of ministry, e.g. tree climbing, are we not considering? What risks are we afraid to take, as a church, in order to see Jesus more clearly? What will repositioning look like given our ministry contexts if we were to anticipate Jesus and see a glimpse of him? What is crowding us that it is so difficult to move together toward Jesus and do church together?
As Reformed Protestants, we might question whether emphasis on repositioning, running ahead, and climbing trees fall under “works theology” rather than “grace theology.” For Zacchaeus, we do not know why he was so desperate to see Jesus. But whatever the reason, we can affirm that God’s prevenient grace was actively working in him.
Jesus calls out Zacchaeus
Prevenient grace is grace that is active in us even before we are conscious of God. It is God’s grace that goes before us preparing for our encounter with God. Such grace was at work in Zacchaeus so powerfully that he did not let the crowd or what they might think of him or his professional reputation or dignity get in the way of seeing Jesus. How do we discern prevenient grace at work in us and in our ministries? And how can we respond to this divine prompting more faithfully?
Zacchaeus’ plan was to see a glimpse of Jesus passing by hiding up a tree. Verse 5 is clear that indicates Jesus did not spot Zacchaeus by chance but he deliberately and intentionally looked up and called him when he “came to the place.” Jesus stops and calls Zacchaeus by name and calls him to “hurry and come down” and invites himself to his house publicly so the crowd can hear it. Zacchaeus planned on being anonymous, hidden up a tree, but Jesus calls him out in public and becomes a guest in his home, much to the chagrin of the crowd.
However, sometimes, watching things happen high up a tree may be an apt description of our faiths and ministries. Tree top is a great place to see a glimpse of Jesus passing by. It is comfy, cozy, where we can watch the parade above the crowd without being spotted.
But our tree perched spots cannot be our permanent dwellings. As long as we are up a tree, we remain passive observers of the faith and our lives are not changed. This is not where we meet Jesus face to face. But Jesus will call us out and command, “hurry and come down.”
How are we and our ministries still perched up a tree, being more passive, anonymous observers rather than being active, engaged participants doing God’s ministry with Jesus in the Holy Spirit? What would obeying Jesus words, “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today,” look like for us and our ministries?
Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus is striking. He hurried down the tree and was happy to welcome Jesus. After hearing the crowd grumble about Jesus, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” Zacchaeus stood his ground and declares to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” This is a remarkable public promise Zacchaeus makes to Jesus. The crowd, hearing this declaration from Zacchaeus, may have cheered because all of them were either poor or were defrauded by our chief tax collector, or both. They were the direct beneficiaries of Zacchaeus’ public promise to Jesus. His giving to the poor and his act of recompense toward those whom he defrauded were not going to be mere cosmetic financial adjustments to be fudged in the books.
By following through his promise, Zacchaeus would have changed his financial and social status dramatically. Most likely, he would no longer be in the upper echelon among the financial elites. No longer will he live for and serve money and wealth as ends in themselves. He will now serve only God for no one can serve God and wealth (Lk 16:13).
Jesus responds with a blessing and benediction. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (19:9-10) The striking twist here is evident if we compare Zacchaeus with the story of the rich ruler in the previous chapter (18:18-30). Both characters are identified as rich (very rich for the ruler) but similarities end there.
A candidate for grace
If Zacchaeus is the least likely candidate to receive God’s favor and salvation, the rich ruler is the foremost candidate. He is godly, pious, ethical, and engages with Jesus in order to find out how he can be more faithful. When Jesus tells the eager rich ruler to sell his possessions and give to the poor and then follow him, “he became sad” (18:23). His response was not anger or offense but sadness. The implication is that he may have been aware of the power of his wealth had over him. And precisely because he was overcome by that power he could not free himself from it.
When Jesus did not approve the rich ruler and told that it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God, those who heard it were baffled and asked, “Then who can be saved?” (18:26). Zacchaeus, on the other hand, would have been regarded as an unscrupulous sinner who exploited his own people for his personal gain that made him an ineligible candidate for divine salvation.
But although he, too, was rich, when called by Jesus, was able to seize control of his wealth and was willing to recompense his victims four times and give half of his possessions to the poor. Zacchaeus’s radical financial commitment was a demonstration and evidence of his newfound freedom in Jesus. His fundamental world view was changed. He was no longer held captive by the power of his riches. He no longer served wealth but God in Jesus.
Our story starts with Zacchaeus’ identity as a chief tax collector who was rich. The story ends with Zacchaeus responding to Jesus’ call and radically redistributing his finances for the poor and those whom he defrauded. Zacchaeus’ declaration of his radical financial commitment is followed by Jesus’ declaration of salvation for Zacchaeus and his household. Thus, we may be tempted to conclude that this story is mainly about financial stewardship.
But that would only be a part of the story. Stewardship is an act of faith that we as followers of Christ engage as a response of faith to God’s call and grace. Stewardship of all of life, including financial stewardship, is part of the story of salvation. By prevenient grace, grace that goes before us, Zacchaeus repositioned himself to see Jesus more clearly.
But it is by Jesus’ action and initiative that Zacchaeus is called, comes down from the tree, and is accepted by Jesus and engages in deep fellowship with him. Zacchaeus receives and experiences God’s amazing grace. In response, Zacchaeus makes an important decision to distribute his wealth radically, in faith, as a response to God’s grace in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
Stewardship of our whole life, then, is a crucial part of God’s salvation for us. Salvation is not complete until we respond with our lives faithfully to God’s costly grace in Christ, that we strive to only serve God with God’s help. Therefore, our wealth, possessions, and all that we have including our very life are means to glorify God and make visible in this world God’s costly grace demonstrated in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Kevin Park serves as English Ministry Pastor of the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. He is interested in emerging Asian North American theologies and various expressions of theologies of the cross. His current research includes critiquing what he calls “Ornamental Multiculturalism,” and articulating a theology of divine beauty as a key theological resource for multicultural theology and ministry for the North American context. He holds a PhD and Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and Master of Divinity from Knox College. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from University of Toronto.