Big and Small, by Pastor Kinsey
“God loves us all, both big and small!” That’s the good news of our gospel today. Salvation comes to the house of, small-in-stature, Zacchaeus.
I remember when MA-ku first started Confirmation, and I think he was about a ½ a foot shorter than he is today! He is the last of his 4 brothers to be Confirmed. And he’ll always be the youngest brother. But boy, has he grown! Now, on the day of his Affirmation of Faith, his Confirmation day, he’s standing tall – and not just in stature, but in his life of faith too.
Tomorrow is the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church front door. Luther started a conversation that continues to this day. Luther was in the minority in speaking up for reforming the church, but he stood tall in his resolve – and he changed theology, the way we worship, our understanding of faith, and increased bible literacy for a great many, in the last 500 years.
In our gospel reading, Jesus’ pilgrimage and journey these last few months, is finally coming, very close to Jerusalem. He’s down in Jericho, in the low fertile Jordan valley, where the main road to Jerusalem is all uphill. And passing through Jericho, Jesus is drawing a large crowd. It reminds me of the Bud Milliken, or St Patrick’s Day Parade, where local politicians and celebrities walk closely by the crowds, on either side of the street!
There was a man in Jericho named Zacchaeus who came to Jesus’ parade. And he is described as a chief tax collector – with an emphasis on, rich! As a Jew who worked for the Romans, he was required to pay Rome a fee up-front for his whole district, and then would send his own hired guns, the tax collectors who went out to collect the prescribed taxes, tolls, tariffs, and customs fees, from the people themselves, with the aim of not only making up his fee, but making a profit, as large as he could. So, the system was ripe for abuse. And fellow Jews, who assumed that chief tax collectors like Zacchaeus, were cheating to make themselves rich, despised him and all tax collectors. In Luke’s gospel they’re regularly called sinners and outcasts.
And what’s more, Jesus consistently warns the rich, going against the conventional wisdom, that riches are a sign of blessings. He pronounced woes on the rich in the Beatitudes, he called the rich farmer a fool who had sold his soul, and while a beggar, Lazarus, went to Abraham’s bosom when he died, the rich man who ignored him, went to Hades. Jesus concludes then, in the chapter just before Zacchaeus, that it will be difficult for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven, as difficult, in fact, as a camel being able to pass through the eye of a needle!
And yet – Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of his disciples. He lifted up and praised the tax collector who beat his breast, and confessed his unworthiness, as one whose prayer had saved him, in comparison to the boastful prayer of the rich leader in the Temple, who assumed his privileged status would save him. And so, Jesus was labeled, a friend of tax collectors, by his opponents.
It’s obvious that the people of Jericho, know Zacchaeus, their chief tax collector, and their opinion of him is anything but rosy. But that doesn’t deter Zacchaeus from his pursuit to somehow see Jesus! He’s too short to see over the Jericho crowds, so, throwing all caution to the wind, and leaving his pride behind, he climbs a sycamore tree’s long low branches, in wait of the Messiah’s parade.
Soon – in Luke’s story – Jesus will ride a donkey in a Palm Sunday parade we know so well, in Jerusalem, in the last week of his life. But this day, in Jericho, in the low lands, where the air is warm and moist and friendly, Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus perched precariously in the tree – and calls him by name. Jesus knows who he is too! But still, Jesus invites himself to stay at the little rich man’s house – the villain of Jericho.
And so, the parade will conclude with a party, another banquet with a tax collector and sinner. And that’s when the people begin to grumble and complain, out loud! The same kind of grumbling, as when Jesus let the woman who had a questioned reputation pour costly ointment over his feet and wash them with her hair! A judging grumble, a disbelief in such a leader, saying, “ What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”
And Zacchaeus, says Luke, was stunned that Jesus had invited himself over, but he rejoiced to welcome him! And without thinking another thing of it, Zacchaeus blurted out, “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.” Imagine that!
Do we work this hard, to see Jesus, anymore? Are we tentative and frozen, taking on a lowly humble status, thinking that maybe we don’t deserve a look at our king? Are we waiting for Jesus, in the back of the crowd?
Martin Luther was so afraid of a God of retribution, that he beat and berated himself, more than most, trying to make himself good enough to be loved. That was the ethos of the Middle Ages – a long, multi-national nightmare, which Luther finally broke through, in his realization that God saves us by grace alone, through faith, igniting the Reformation in western Christendom.
Luther found in the gospels, the good news Jesus gave the whole world, that God comes to us, as sinners, offering grace and love. God takes the first step in Jesus’ love, given in his death and resurrection, in every parable and miracle of lifting up the lowly, and healing the outcast, and releasing the blind, even tax collectors.
And so, friar Martin was finally able to let go of his guilt. He stood up straight, and let the sunshine of God’s all-consuming love and Jericho-Grace wash over him. No longer would Luther be cowered by a church that itself was fallible, one that sold indulgences on the false promise that money or good works had any effect on – for example – Aunt Minnie’s sins in purgatory. Aunt Minnie, BTW, was freed by Christ, and all she had to do, insisted, was accept and believe that! Run to the nearest sycamore tree, Luther would agree, and risk climbing up in its branches, and you will see the dawning of the kingdom and realm of God, walking toward you, in Jesus.
Zacchaeus was short of stature, and morally small too, in the eyes of those he collected taxes from. But Jesus paraded into his life and turned it upside down! The rich man paid a 50% tax, and a 400% fine – becoming the most generous giver in town! And Jesus declared that, today salvation has come to his house!
Maku has grown in stature, in these years of his pilgrimage to his Confirmation day. A still growing, fine young man! But more than that, a 16 year old who really cares about the world God made, and who is willing to risk identifying as a Christian, and a brother with us, in the faith.
Let us all stand tall in the faith. “God loves us all, both big and small!” That’s the good news of our gospel today. Whether 4’ 4” or 6’ 3”, we stand tall in the eyes of our LORD. Black or white, rich or poor, male and female. “Come now… says the LORD,” according to the prophet Isaiah, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like [sheep’s] wool.” “Today,” says Jesus, “salvation has come to this house! For the Son of Man came to seek out, and to save, the lost.”
Come Lord Jesus, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us!