The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Luke 19: 1-10
Earlier this week, as I was contemplating the gospel appointed for today from the Gospel of Luke, I had one of those moments, those kinds of moments that happen every so often where I thought to myself, “Is there any other meaning I could squeeze out of this familiar text? Is there one more grain of truth?” I grew up talking about the story of Zacchaeus. I learned songs in Sunday school about Zacchaeus. He is one of the well-known figures in the church. People love pointing out his short stature, as if that’s something remarkable. People enjoy doing all these things, and I was truly at wits end. I was thinking to myself, “What can I find that’s new to say about Zacchaeus?” And then I began to dig in the text again, and I found so many times people find that God’s Word is so layered with meanings that as I began to study it, I began to get nervous, and to think there’s no way I can bring this out, and to show all the threads that are in there.
And so today, I’m going to just try to point out these different threads because I think this text is so incredibly important. There’s a reason why we try to teach it to our children, because in so many ways this text encapsulates what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And I’m afraid that I’ll somehow, instead of giving you a sermon, I might just give you this delightful word salad of different images. But salads can be good for you. My father learned that salads were good for you, so he determined that he would eat one once a decade. And that was, he thought, should be enough. Salads can be good.
There are three things going on in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. The first is that it’s a story that speaks to a life and death struggle. Prior to the coming of this parable, or this encounter with Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, there’s this moment in which a rich man comes up to Jesus and says, “What do I do to inherit eternal life?” And there’s a summary of the law, and the rich man says, “I’ve done all that.” And then Jesus says to him, “Go, sell everything you have and follow Me.” And the rich man pulls back and becomes sorrowful. He steps back from that invitation because it costs him too much. And the disciples themselves all threw up their hands, and they say, “What can we do?” There’s always something more to give. “What can we do to be saved?” And Jesus says to them, “For mortals, it is impossible. But nothing is impossible for God.”
So Zacchaeus is a moment of someone who has somehow been able to find his way to salvation, and this is a matter of life or death. And right before the moment in which we encounter Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus pulls “the Twelve” in, and he tells them that He is about to be betrayed and crucified in Jerusalem. And so, this encounter with Zacchaeus happens at that moment right after this. And the next human encounter with Jesus will be when He is on the Mount of Olives in agony. So this text, the story that it tells is about life and death. This is about the choice between life and death, and so it matters. Zacchaeus’ decision matters. It’s also a story of healing. And here again, the threads of the scripture are meant to bring up other parts that happen in the Gospel of Luke.
Because earlier in the Gospel of Luke, there is a moment in which Jesus turns to a woman who is suffering from curvature of the spine. And he tells her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” And he cures her, and she stands up straight. And He’s immediately criticized because He has done this healing of this woman. He has restored her dignity on the Sabbath. And Jesus says to his critics, He says, “Is this not a daughter of Abraham?” And so, when Jesus repeats that term in reference to Zacchaeus, this is meant to be a kind of echo, a kind of reminder to the reader that Zacchaeus is a story of healing. Both the woman because of her physical infirmity, and Zacchaeus because of his social position as a chief tax collector. Both of them are on the outside of that society. And through their encounter with Jesus’ healing presence, they are brought into the center and they become part of the community of the saved. So they are restored and healed. And today’s gospel is a story of healing.
And finally, it’s a story about witness. It’s a story about the way in which we can come to terms with our lives. Zacchaeus has experienced this moment in which he has found all of the material things that make up his life to be meaningless. And in this sense, he is a window, I think, into our own contemporary life. He is a way for us to see ourselves again. A mirror and window into contemporary life. Because Zacchaeus, like so many of us, has tried to find some kind of source of contentment in material things. He is wealthy, and yet he is restless, and exiled, and discontent, and ill at ease. He’s broken, and he wants to be made whole, and the minute he learns that Jesus is coming through Jericho, which is a tony suburb of Jerusalem much like Bloomfield Hills is a tony suburb of Detroit, the minute he hears that Jesus is coming, he sees the opportunity for him to find some deeper source of all the things he’s looking for and the things he has.
And this is a window and a mirror into ourselves, because, I think, the contemporary life is known most of all by its longing. We want more of the things that we experienced in this life. We need more money. We need more love. We need all the things that we are told by our surrounding culture make us happy, and they don’t. In fact, all of these things inevitably break our hearts, the extent to which they occupy the center of our attention. And what we really need is what Zacchaeus finds. And that moment in which Jesus calls him by name, and brings him in by entering his home, Zacchaeus has changed. He encounters and receives that incredible message of what it means to be beloved.
And the love that Jesus shows Zacchaeus is not a sentimental love. It’s not the love of what Zacchaeus might be if he’d only get a little therapy. It’s not a projection of what Jesus believes Zacchaeus should be. It’s the love of Zacchaeus for who he is authentically. And if you were to name the thing that makes Zacchaeus ill at ease, and exiled, it is the fact that he was never fully loved. And now he is loved by Jesus, and that makes him generous. It makes him able to experience true transformation. And hidden in that witness is the sacrament of baptism, believe it or not. Because by calling Zacchaeus by name, there’s a kind of echo of what we do when we baptize anybody. We call them by name, and we name them as Christ’s own forever.
And there’s also in that witness a moment of true apology. By that I mean in Judaism, there were three things that every apology to God involved. There was prayer, there was repentance, and there were acts of charity. And Zacchaeus does all of those things. His climbing up on the tree is a symbolic embodiment of prayer. His receiving of Jesus into his life, and the change it works in him, is a moment of repentance, and a moment of charity and love and generosity. Zacchaeus is in right relationship with God. Today salvation has come to your house. Zacchaeus is a witness to us.
In what ways have you experienced your own struggle with life and death? In what ways have you felt the need for deeper healing? In what ways are you being called by name as God’s beloved in Christ and, therefore, called to witness? These are the questions that today’s Gospel is giving us. And I believe holding all three of those things together is really not a word salad in the end, but it’s part of the complex narrative that Christianity preaches, particularly when it comes to this passage. And I have proof. That art before you today. It’s from a sarcophagus that has a funny provenance. We know that it came from the early 300s, so we know by comparison to 80 other pieces like it, that this is an example of some of the earliest Christian art that was made.
Much of the Christian art that was done until the third century was appropriation. So people would take an anchor that had been used in another cultural ceremony, and wear the anchor on a ring and say this anchor is a symbol of Christ, my anchor. Or you’d use this picture of the shepherd, which was a common Roman picture. Here was an attempt to actually manufacture a complete Christian message, and it’s on a sarcophagus. It was done as a last moment of witness from someone who died in the faith at the earliest days of Christianity. It’s a message from beyond the grave to us. And in it you have this incredible moment of witnessing. So on the far left of the piece you have this part. It’s more of a legend now, but at the time it was a powerful belief that Peter, when he was going to his death, was in a prison in Rome, and water bubbled up in the cell. And Peter immediately took the water and baptized 47 people, both his fellow inmates and the jailers before he went to this death.
And then moving towards the right, you have Peter being arrested, and being brought to his own crucifixion much like Christ was brought to His crucifixion. And then as you move over to the right you see again, Jesus on an ass, entering Jerusalem on his way to being worshipped and then betrayed, and mocked and crucified. And there’s a person placing a cloak before him. And moving still further to the right, you have Jesus over baskets of bread, blessing and making a Messianic multitude out of the bread and fish in the wilderness. And finally, to the far right, you have a moment in which Jesus is raising Lazarus from the dead. So all of these images are meant to be a witness to this Jesus who has come, and through His own death and resurrection, and our participation in that death and resurrection, would experience new life and liberation and love.
And this piece, much like today’s Gospel, had fallen out of circulation a bit. It had become so well known the people didn’t see it for what it was. And in 1909 it was sold to a person who lived outside of New York City, and it sat for 90 years as a lawn ornament in a mansion in Cold Spring Harbor until it was finally donated back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991. And the curators were amazed. Here it was, one of the earliest pieces of Christian art that had been discarded, but now had been found. And the power of the message lived again. And this piece is also like today’s Gospel in that at the center of the piece you have a little man on a tree, and that’s Zacchaeus watching Jesus as He’s on His way to Jerusalem. Waiting for the healing that would come. Knowing that he was engaged in a moment of life and death.
What is your story of life and death struggle? What is your story of healing? What does it mean for you to be a witness? Everything Zacchaeus did pivoted around the discovery of Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who was life, and made him unafraid of death. It was Jesus who was his source of healing. It was Jesus to whom he could bear witness to in everything he did. Amen.