Fr. Bill Carroll – The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2022
Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Picture Zacchaeus, sitting up there in that tree. He has heard that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. He knows that something is missing in his life. Zacchaeus knows that he needs something—and he suspects that it has something to do with Jesus—but he is too short to see over the crowd. So, he climbs up the sycamore tree, hoping to catch sight of Jesus.
That’s how our life of faith often begins. It is also how our life of faith deepens over time. We discover that we need something, but we don’t know where to find it. And so, we start to look around. Some of us may have a clue about where to look. We remember childhood talks with God, songs from Sunday School, or maybe a few stories about Jesus. But we don’t really know, until we find it, what we are looking for. The Lord has come near, but he remains hidden from view, until he shows himself.
So we climb up that tree (whatever it is) to look. But then, Jesus sees us. He sees us in all our need and longing. He sees us and invites himself over to our house. He wants to befriend us and make us his very own.
That’s how it happens in the story. Jesus doesn’t wait for Zacchaeus to figure it out. He sees him up where he is (up in that tree), and then he calls him down in front of everyone: “Hurry and come down,” he tells him, “for I must stay at your house today.”
When Jesus calls us, his loving invitation comes first. Repentance and discipleship come later. Jesus always takes the initiative and forms a relationship with us first. Only then, when he comes to our house, are we able to name what we need.
And what does Zacchaeus need? Well, he is a tax collector. He has strained relationships his neighbors. He is collaborating with their oppressors. Roman taxes weren’t the kind of taxes we pay—to support, for example, our schools, our roads, our firefighters, and so on. Their tax system was a quota system. They wanted people to pay for the troops that they used to conquer them. And so, they appointed local people and gave them a yearly amount to send back to Rome. Anything over that, they could keep for themselves.
The entire community hated tax collectors, because they abused their neighbors for personal gain. What was more, Roman occupation was not just a political humiliation but a deeply religious one. These pagans were occupying the Holy Land, and Zacchaeus was helping them do it. And so, when Jesus comes under his roof, people grumble about what he’s doing. But Zacchaeus, responding to God’s grace, announces a change in direction: “Look,” he says, “half my possessions, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone, I will pay back four times what I took from them.”
And then, the Lord says to him: “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Today, the Kingdom of God has come near.
It’s a question I asked the children, but I’ll ask it of you as well: How did Zacchaeus feel when the Lord noticed him. And how did he feel when the Lord announced in front of everyone who was grumbling about him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, for Zacchaeus also is a child of Abraham.” Jesus is restoring him to his community—a community that he has abandoned by what he does for a living. Jesus is welcoming Zacchaeus home.
What Zacchaeus needs is what we all need. We all need to be set free from our sin and its consequences. We all need to be invited into God’s community. We have all strained and broken our relationships. And so, we need Jesus to welcome us back home—back into fellowship with God and each other.
That restoration only comes as a gift. Jesus gives us God’s love as a free gift. And that love is so amazingly broad and kind. God’s love is boundless and deathless and free. In the words of a hymn we will sing today, it is “love divine, all loves excelling.” God’s love is the “joy of heaven…come down” to earth. For God pours the Spirit of love into each and every one of us, making us God’s “humble dwelling.” God loves us enough to come to our house and live there. God sends his own Spirit into our hearts. And God’s love is the ongoing work of the “new creation,” which sets us free from sin and the power of death.
In his dealings with Zacchaeus, Jesus embodies the main points of the Gospel. He shows us how it is possible to change our life. Zacchaeus changes his entire direction. And new life starts to happen as the Kingdom of God comes near to him.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus announced the jubilee year, when debts are forgiven and slaves set free. Zacchaeus responds to this message, by giving generously to the poor—and restoring fourfold whatever he has taken from anyone. And so, Jesus announces that salvation has come to Zacchaeus and his household.
No matter what it is that divides us from God and other people, Jesus sees us waiting for him to arrive. He sees us when we are hiding. He sees us, wherever we find ourselves looking and longing and hoping for God. And, before we even think about asking him for forgiveness (while we are yet sinners), Jesus comes to save us.
That’s what God’s Kingdom is all about. Jesus gives us God’s love as a gift. And then, he asks us to collaborate with him to “finish” the work of God’s new creation. “Hurry and come down,” he tells us,. “I need your help today.”