Sunday, November 3, 2013

a little bit of repentance

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘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.’~Luke 19: 1-10

I'm not preaching today, so more a reflection than a sermon on the Gospel reading. This is one of the passages almost everyone remembers from their childhood, as the image of the short man having to climb up a tree to see what's happening is particularly vivid. 

But that cute image tends to obscure for us what Zaccheus was: a chief tax-collector. As I've mentioned before, what's being talked about is not the old-days equivalent of a civil servant. The word translated as 'tax-collector' means tax-farmer ... The word we are translating as 'tax-collector', tel-own-ayes, actually means 'tax-farmer' … he was a person who essentially put in a bid to raise a certain amount of taxes for the authorities … and what he raised above that he got to keep for himself … worse, he was a Jew who not only associated with foreigners, he was collaborating with the Romans, the foreign occupying power, to squeeze money out of his fellow Jews. 

And Zaccheus was the 'arche-tel-own-ayes' the chief tax-collector. Many of those we hear referred to in the gospels as tax-collectors would have been minor figures, maybe manning a toll-booth as St Matthew did. But Zaccheus was the 'big man' - the one who actually took out the contract, the one who really put the squeeze on to get money out of people. To be such a one in the Israel of that time would have required a neck of solid brass, to be someone who feared neither God nor man as he pursed wealth and power.

And yet, Jesus welcomes him in and it changes him. 

And note well what happens before Jesus speaks. Zaccheus repents of his ill-gotten wealth. He will give half of all he has to the poor. And he will make generous reparations to all he has cheated. It is only then that Jesus declares that salvation has come to his house. Jesus loves him while he is still a sinner; but he is only offered salvation after repenting of his sins.

And the lesson for us is to also welcome the sinner; more, to love them. But not to tell them their sins are meaningless, or that God doesn't care about those sins, or that there is no consequence for sin. That isn't love. Love is helping them achieve salvation as Zaccheus did. And that means showing them the way to repentance.


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