God’s Extravagant Love

LUKE 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.  He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.  So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.  I must stay at your house today.”   So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.   For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

July 30 – Congregational Church of Easton

Today’s story of Zacchaeus is charming, isn’t it?   I remember it vividly from Sunday school, and imagine many of you do too.

I’m going to tell it again – twice.  I’ll tell it two different ways.  You can read the story differently, depending on how you translate Luke’s Greek.    One way of telling the story says it is the tax collector who needs to repent.  The other way says it is the crowd members who need to change.

Either way of telling the story makes the same point:  God’s love for us is extravagant.  And God is constantly taking the initiative to make us aware of how extravagantly we are loved. 

Here’s the usual way of telling the story:

Zacchaeus is a rich tax collector.  Tax collectors became rich by overcharging people for the amount they owed and pocketing the difference.  Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, so he is also able to help himself to some of the other tax collectors’ profits.  People hated tax collectors and would have nothing to do with them.

Luke says, “…he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him.”  — This is the part that kids love — climbing that tree to look down as this famous teacher and healer passes by.

Then Jesus notices him up there.  He makes eye contact with him and tells him to come down.  Jesus then astonishes the crowd: he invites himself to dinner!  Here’s the verse:

“Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”

Listen to the urgency in Jesus’ voice:  I MUST stay.  Jesus says in the last line of the story, “The son of man came to seek and save the lost.”  So he MUST stay in Zacchaeus’ home.   

Put yourself in Zacchaeus’ shoes for a minute.     [Pause]         Imagine Jesus talking to you.     He’s saying, “I see you, _________,  I really see you.”          “I see you, too, _______ _____________; I see who you are.”  “I see you,  ______________________.  I MUST spend some time with you.  My ministry is about you – all of you — making you whole.”

How does it feel to imagine that Jesus feels compelled to see you, to wipe away your tears, to comfort all your fears and to connect you to the healing, whole-making, saving love of God.  How does that feel?

Feels pretty good, right?     Jesus takes the initiative.  He sees who we really are and follows us home.  Yes, God in Jesus takes the initiative and finds us, just like he did with Zacchaeus.  God’s love for us is extravagant!

But this really irritates the crowd.  In this way of telling the story the crowd members are good people who assume that this short, rich, tax collector is bad.  They assume he’s been taking a big cut off of the tax money he collects.  Since most people were poor, Roman taxes were a huge burden, so the crowd grumbled when they saw Jesus going off to have dinner with a tax collector.

Everyone was extremely status conscious in those days.  You wouldn’t have a meal with someone unless you considered her or him to be a worthy person.  By inviting himself to dinner, it meant Jesus approved of this fellow!  Of course the crowd grumbled!

Do you hear the good news in this? 

Stop for a minute and think of something you’ve done in the last year – or last week – something that you’re not proud of.                      

I have one in mind, do you?  

This story is saying that Jesus and God believe we are worthy, even before we say we’re sorry and ask for forgiveness for the things we’re not proud of!      I keep going back to my favorite passage from Paul in Romans: “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, is able to separate us from the love of God….”    We are worthy!

Such good news!

As the story continues…

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.” 

If Jesus’ love for Zacchaeus was extravagant, his dinner partner that night is pretty extravagant, too!    Repaying people four times the amount that he’s cheated them?!!    Giving the poor half of his possessions?!!

Zacchaeus’ extravagant giving – giving back far more than Jewish law demanded of him — is a mirror image of Jesus’ extravagant acceptance of him.

Jesus ends the story by saying, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.”       Now, the grumblers in the crowd are Jews.  They are sons and daughters of Abraham.

Jesus says Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham as well because he wants the crowd to accept Zacchaeus, just like God does.  He wants to bring this tax collector back into fellowship with his neighbors.  This is another example of God, in Jesus, taking initiative.  God takes the initiative to restore community!

OK.  That’s the usual way of telling this story.  The traditional interpretation is that Zacchaeus is saved because he promises to return money to people he has cheated.   To be saved is to be restored to right relationship with God and one’s fellows.  What looks like repentance on Zacchaeus’ part is why Jesus saves him.

And, as I said, there’s another way to read the story.  If you translate the Greek slightly differently, it is Jesus’ followers in the crowd who are the sinners, not the tax collector!

It turns out that “Zacchaeus” in Hebrew means “righteous,” “clean,” or “innocent.”  That’s one clue that something unusual is going on here. 

Another clue is that the words “give” and “repay” in the Greek are actually in the present tense.  Many translations use the future tense: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back ….

In contrast, the King James Version and many other translations use the simple present.  Those translations say it is Zacchaeus’ USUAL practice to give and pay back.  Here’s the King James:

Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.

Translating it this way, Zacchaeus is the generous one, despite his bad reputation.  It is the crowd who is ungenerous.  They have sinned because they’ve made false assumptions about Zacchaeus and excluded him from their community. 

Jesus turns people’s assumptions upside down.  Remember when he says, the first will be last?  Yes, Jesus challenges our common sense assumptions.  Commentator Marjorie Proctor-Smith agrees.  She says,

Jesus is once again turning our world upside down, confronting us with our assumptions about who is good and who is evil and demonstrating for us the tricks we play in our minds….  Like the crowd murmuring about Zacchaeus, it is easy to be blinded by our prejudice of ‘those people’ and find ourselves accusing the very person or people we should be emulating.”[1]

So, maybe “the lost,” whom Jesus has come to save, are you and me when we talk about “those people.”  Maybe we are the lost when we make negative assumptions about people who are not like us.  Maybe we’re the sinners when we look down on those who seem different than we are.

Let me tell you a story about “those people” which came from a book our Bridgeport interfaith group had been reading several years ago.  Christians, Muslims, and Jews participating in the Bridgeport Council of Church’s Interfaith Coalition read a book called Sacred Ground by a Muslim interfaith organizer, Iboo Patel.  Patel tells a story about an important New York City Imam who tried to develop a Muslim Community Center in lower Manhattan. 

In December, 2009, The New York Times reported that Imam Feisal had found a building for a “…500 seat performing arts center, a gym, a restaurant, a library, a swimming pool and a prayer space.’  It was to be a facility not unlike Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center or like a big YMCA.  The building for the proposed Muslim Community Center, called Cordoba House, was not far from Ground Zero.  And this was 8 years after 9/11.

The idea for the center was welcomed by both Jewish and Christian organizations.  Significant funds were raised, and it seemed to be moving forward nicely until a conservative blogger wrote a piece calling it a “Victory Mosque at Ground Zero.”  Iboo Patel writes,

The language was picked up by the New York Post and started getting traction on Fox News….  The lieutenant governor of Tennessee said that Muslims could well be part of a cult and thereby undeserving of First Amendment rights.  Political candidates from Nevada to North Carolina started making their opposition to “the Ground Zero Mosque” a core part of their campaign strategy. [page xix]

Needless to say, Cordoba House was never built, and the demonization of Muslims has continued apace.  Muslims continue to be “those people.”       WE may be tempted to think of the folks who demonize Muslims as “those people,” as well!

So much of what we watch on television or we read in the paper divides the world into good guys and bad guys.  The second way of reading today’s story says, “don’t do that.”  Don’t presume that people are bad just because they see things differently or worship differently than you do.      And, even when you do start thinking about “those people,” you are forgiven. 

God loves Zacchaeus and God loves the crowd members who grumble about him.  God loves Muslims AND God loves Evangelical Christians. 

Extravagant love.  Extravagant forgiveness.  Jesus loves the crowd just like he loves Zacchaeus and you and me.  God loves us in all our imperfections.  Either way that we translate those Greek verbs, today’s reading in Luke is a story about extravagant love and God taking the initiative to make us whole and to restore community.

Thanks be to God who loves us extravagantly and who challenges us to be like Zacchaeus and be extravagant in our giving to the poor!  Thanks be to God who forgives us when we make assumptions about other people being unworthy of God’s love.  We pray that God will heal our nation and restore all of us to community.   Amen

[1] Journey with Jesus.net  http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20131028JJ.shtml