Trying to See Who Jesus Is (Sunday 11/7/10)

Trying to See Who Jesus Is

Luke 19: 1-10

I said last week that Jesus wasn’t too terribly concerned with being “nice.”  When he was traveling from town to town, healing people, preaching, confounding religious authorities and laypeople alike, what do you think people were saying about him?

Again, I doubt the description was “nice.”  You can imagine the religious authorities may have used words like “upstart” or “rebel” or “ingrate” or “heretic.”  At the very least “pesky” or “brat.”  People along the way, people in the crowds who saw something happen, may have used words like “inspirational” and “moving” and “powerful” and “just” and “merciful.”  People who experienced him up close – disciples and those he touched and healed directly – may have said things like “kind” and “tender” and “angry” and “solitary” and “confusing” and “surprising” and “healing” and “freeing.”

Assuming I have some of the adjectives right and in the right places, what sort of picture of the man are you getting?  Would you be able to pick him out of a crowd or recognize him in the post office?

I was wondering this week what Zacchaeus was hoping to see when he climbed up in that tree.  Who he was hoping to see.  Word had spread about this Jesus guy and clearly a large crowd mushroomed around him everyplace he went.  What was the word Zacchaeus heard?  Which word was he hoping to be true?  And how did he expect to hear it by seeing Jesus more clearly from the height of a tree branch?

I wonder if Zacchaeus had heard the parable Jesus told just before he headed toward Zacchaeus’ hometown of Jericho.  We talked about this parable last week, too.  It’s the one with the rich young man who asks Jesus what else he needs to do to inherit eternal life and then after Jesus tells him, he realizes he just can’t do it and he walks away sad (Luke 18: 18-23).  As the man walks away Jesus says to those left standing with him, “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk. 18: 24-25).  Do you think Zacchaeus was hoping to be like that camel?  Did he run and climb up into the tree in order to see the man who dared to hold out hope even for someone as filthy rich as he?

Because Zacchaeus was definitely wealthy and Luke really wants us to know this about him.  In verse two when Zacchaeus is introduced we are told that he was the chief tax collector and that he was rich (Lk. 19: 2).  To Luke’s original audience, this would have been like saying, He founded Microsoft and he was rich.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it would have been like saying, His name was Bernie Madoff and he worked on Wall Street and he was rich. A bit overkill, isn’t it?  Tax collectors were rich and the chief tax collectors were the richest of all.  Tax collection was a system rife with abuse and it was commonly assumed that anyone in that business was corrupt and in cahoots with the Romans, out to make money off the backs of everyone else. Just in case, Luke makes sure that we know that Zacchaeus was just like the others – rich by dishonest means.

Well, if you’ve been paying attention on our way through Luke this fall, you have probably already noticed that things don’t look good for the rich in Luke (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 357).  Lazarus and the rich man, the rich young ruler, the blessing and the woes of the Beatitudes – the rich have not been on the winning team in Luke.

But then there is that word about the camel.  Jesus does not say it’s impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he just says it’s easier for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle.

Imagine what a word of hope this must have been to Zacchaeus as he ran to the tree that day.  He’d heard this a couple days ago when the news reached Jericho and it was the first time he’d considered that there might be hope for himself.  This Jesus guy’s words were remarkable but Zacchaeus knew they weren’t for him.  He’d gotten wind of that Lazarus story, too, and he knew which character he was in that story.  But this – the possibility had been intentionally left open that a camel might be able to fit through the eye of a needle.  This was also too much to hope for but Zacchaeus had heard about everything else this man said and did.

Then just that morning on the outskirts of Jericho that sad blind man, the one who just sat there every day with nothing better to do – this man called out for mercy as Jesus was passing by (Lk. 18: 35-43).  People tried to quiet him down but he yelled out more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Lk. 18: 39).  And this Jesus stopped and asked the blind man what he wanted and then healed his sight because he asked for it.  And before he kept walking towards town, Jesus had said to the man, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you” (v.42).

That’s what he heard about just this morning and he could already hear the crowd in the streets.  Jesus must be nearby.  It came over him in an instant, the sure knowledge that he must see this man, must lay eyes on him.  What do I expect to happen when I see him? Zacchaeus asked himself over and over as he walked toward the center of town.  No answer came, just that sure knowledge that he must and that strange hopeful image of the camel passing through the eye of a needle.

The crowds were thick and the chatter was loud.  He must be close now but all Zacchaeus could see were shoulder blades.  He tried unsuccessfully to push his way to the front of the crowd but he couldn’t see exactly which way was “front” and people were pushing back hard.  All of a sudden he was running.  Running!  If the other tax collectors saw him it would be hard to explain this, he knew.  Running was for children, not grown men, and especially not men of power.  Zacchaeus heard people laughing at him as he ran out of the crowd, ahead on the road out of town.  He knew he was humiliating himself, acting the way children do, or people with no resources.  That’s what they were saying as he ran past and he knew it.  But he had to see.

The tree presented itself, like a stream when you’re thirsty or shade on a hot day.  It was just there, in his way, and he stopped.  He saw the easy branch, the one even he was tall enough to grab onto.  He looked back at the crowd.  He was about a block or two ahead of the procession now.  Just like with the running, all of a sudden Zacchaeus was climbing.  He could see everything from up here!  As the throngs got closer he could he the top of someone’s head and all around the head, other heads pushed in close and expanded out into the crowd, like rings on a lake when a stone is skipped on its surface.

That must be him. That was all that came to mind.  Zacchaeus sat there in his leafy hiding place, still panting and sweating from the run and the climb, watching the top of that head come closer.  And closer.  And the lake-like rings of other heads started to part and go around the tree.  The top of the head stopped, then moved back, and the face of Jesus looked directly up at him there in his tree.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (v. 5).

Almost as quickly as he climbed up the tree, he climbed back down.  He could hear the grumbling from that crowd of heads as he made his way down.   Sinner, they said, as if anyone would refute that.  I don’t even refute that he thought, as he stood now in front of Jesus.

And it poured out of him.  I’ll give half of everything I have to the poor.  And to anyone I have defrauded, I will repay him 4 times as much (v. 8).  He felt light and strange and exhilarated and completely uncertain about what would happen next.

That kind face of Jesus was looking at him.  He had heard everything he’d just confessed to and had not turned away.  He didn’t join in those grumbling words.  He just kept looking at him, right at him.  And Jesus said, “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” (v. 9).

He saw the face of Jesus; he heard what he came to hear.  Salvation!  God came looking for me and saved me. So this is how the eye of a needle feels.

Thanks be to God!

© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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