Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Matthew Potts, Sunday Service Oct. 30, 2022The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

In the name of God who has made us and who has saved us and who sanctifies us. Amen.

If you've been with us here in the church this fall and have been following the lectionary either in the church or at your home church or somewhere else, you know we've been on this journey with Jesus. Jesus departed Galilee and he is on his way to Jerusalem and he's talking a lot about rich folk. Since the first Sunday of the term, I preached about this because Jesus keeps bringing it up. And last week was Noah's exception if you were here, we had the tax collector and the Pharisee who were making their prayers. Then of course we had the continuation of some of those themes with the story about Zacchaeus today.

Next week, if you come back, and I hope you do, for All Saints, we'll hear Jesus say in the gospel of Luke, "Woe to the rich." You can see what I'll have to say about that next week if you come back. Most of the time the theme has been very much along the lines of woe to the rich. Jesus kind of giving it to the rich, telling them to come into new relationship with God and with the world. Today is a little bit tricky, because something else happens with Zacchaeus. It doesn't follow the pattern that arises so much elsewhere in Luke, last week with a tax collector who goes away justified. It was lifted a little bit. But here with Zacchaeus we see this radically different example, something that seems all together different from what he's been saying throughout this gospel.

Let's talk about Zacchaeus for a minute. If you remember last week I talked about tax collectors. Tax collectors were a particularly despised group of people in ancients Judea. They were Judeans who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes. And the way it worked is the Romans went to them and the tax collectors gave them the fee and then they had to go collect to make up for what they had lost by giving it to the Romans and also whatever else they wanted to add on. They would often hire kind of rough guys, henchman, to help them collect and they could collect as much as they wanted. They often became very rich. They were seen not only as wealthy, but also as betrayers. This is Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. He's very rich, we're told. He's good at this. He's good at collecting and he makes his money.

There's actually a straightforward interpretation of this scene in the Ministry of Jesus, which is great, and fair enough. Zacchaeus is unable to see because we were told he's too short. He climbs up into a tree and Jesus sees him and then without Zacchaeus repenting or apologizing or anything, Jesus recognizes him and reaches out to him and says, "Zacchaeus, I want to come to your house tonight." And at the house, Zacchaeus stands up, everyone's grumbling calling him a sinner, and Zacchaeus stands up and says to Jesus, "I will give half of what I earn. I will return fourfold where I have been dishonest." He makes amends.

What we see in that dynamic is God's love for us reaching us before we even repent. God notices us and loves us before we offer apology. It's that love for us that transforms us so that we are saved. That is so that we do justice. It's important here that the salvation is not God's love for Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus already has that. Jesus notices him. Salvation, the Kingdom of heaven, as it has said so often the gospels, just looks like what God envisions for the world sharing. We have this lesson from Isaiah where God says through the prophet, "I don't want your sacrifices. I don't want your burnt offerings. I want justice for the widow and the orphan. That is the Kingdom of heaven. That is the Kingdom of God."

And if we read the scene this way, Zacchaeus already loved by God and transformed by that love to realize some small portion of the Kingdom of heaven through his own giving. That's a good lesson. I think that's a good way to read this story. And I could just stop now and go sit down. We have time left, so I won't. I have a couple more things I want to say about it. But if the rest of this sermon falls apart after this, remember that, because that's true and that's good and that's right. But you who have heard me preach before know I like to complicate things, and so I'm going to complicate things a little bit. I think this lesson is more complicated than that. As good and true as that lesson is, I think there's something more complicated going on.

What I'm about to say is not in opposition to that reading, just maybe in addition to that reading. What else is going on here? First, and this is more just interesting, I had to say it. It's not clear that Zacchaeus is the one who is short. The Greek is actually unclear as is the English. It says Zacchaeus could not see because he was short. It's possible that Jesus is a person who's short. It's interesting to me, not just because it's interesting, but because our tradition has been so confident, that Zacchaeus was the short one, I think it might lead us to ask some questions about who we recognize as a savior and who we don't. What a savior looks like to us. That we assume that Zacchaeus must be the one who is not tall and striding through the crowd.

But then the other thing, and this is maybe the more vexing or problematic or complicated detail from the Greek, these verbs that Zacchaeus proclaims, I will give half of what I have earned, I will repay fourfold. In the Greek, those are not in the future tense. They're in the present tense. Zacchaeus says, not I will do this, now that you have seen me, now that these people are grumbling around me, now that I've been recognized by you, now I will out of repentance and amendment, now I will give, I will repay. That's not what he says. In the Greek Zacchaeus says, "I do. I do this already. I do give half my income. I do repay fourfold when I cheat people."

This isn't a thing where suddenly his behavior is changed, at least not in one sense. In fact, in the authorized version, the King James version of this translation, it is in the present tense. It's a kind of theological move of our translators in this version to say, "Oh, this must be future tense. This must be something he anticipates doing." What's the difference here? If this is something he already does versus something that his encounter with Jesus is going to lead him to do?

If it's something he already does, it means that maybe this is not just a story about the power of repentance, not just a story about amendment of life, although it can be those things also. In fact, this story about Zacchaeus is tightly bundled with the two stories that come before it. We don't hear them in our lesson today, but they share themes and actual words with the two scenes that immediately precede it. So what are those two scenes just quickly?

First, right after Jesus has said this thing about the tax collector being justified from last week, a rich young ruler, a rich young man who's in charge of folks comes to Jesus ... again with the rich. The rich young ruler comes to Jesus and says, "Teacher, what must I do to be saved?" And Jesus says, "You know the commandments. Do those." And the rich man says, "I do those already." And Jesus says, "Good. Oh, but there's one more thing. There's always one more thing. You follow all the commandments that's good. Now go and sell everything you own and follow me."

And the rich man becomes sad and turns away and Jesus becomes sad and says, "It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle." And then after that, Jesus is just about to enter Jericho. In today's lesson when Zacchaeus is in Jericho right after the rich young ruler is turned away or turns himself away, Jesus is about to enter Jericho and there is a blind person by the side of the road and the blind person is told that Jesus is near. The blind man cries out and says, "Jesus have mercy on me." And gets Jesus's attention. Then Jesus comes and looks at him and says, "What do you want me to do?" And the man says, "I would like my sight restored." And Jesus restores his sight.

Now, I'll return to the rich young ruler in a minute towards the end of the sermon, but I want to focus on these two figures who are in and around Jericho, the blind man who asks for Jesus to see him, who cries out so that Jesus will recognize him and pay attention to him, who wants Jesus to come close to him. Because that's his first request. He doesn't cry out saying, "Jesus, restore my sight." He just wants Jesus to see him, to pay attention to him, to get his attention. I wonder if that's not what Zacchaeus is doing as well. Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, but he also wants to be seen by Jesus. He's the wealthiest man in the district and he's acting in a very undignified way. He's running around and climbing up trees. One of the commentators I read said that this would've been considered very undignified behavior for a wealthy man in this age running around and climbing up trees. He's doing a very conspicuous thing. And this very conspicuous thing gets Jesus's attention and Jesus looks at him and says, "Okay, I'll come to your house for dinner."

The language of the text also repeats this over and over again. There's a word in Greek which is translated as look or behold. When Jesus comes into Jericho, he says, "Behold." There was Zacchaeus. And when Zacchaeus says he's going to give his money away, he says to Jesus, "Behold, here is what I'm going to do." Look at this. Look at this. Look at this. Over and over again in this passage, people are calling for Jesus to look at them, look at me, see me. It's not just them trying to see Jesus, it's asking for Jesus to see them. Being seen by Jesus, being captured by Jesus's vision, something about this is where salvation happens. So what do I want to do with this?

What does seeing and being seen have to do with salvation? Let me tell a little story. A some of you know a lot of my family is in Japan. My mom is from Osaka, Japan. Osaka, Japan is one of my favorite cities. I've had the pleasure of visiting there many times in my life, not recently because of the pandemic. But about 20 years ago I was there with my mom and we were visiting family. I just love to walk around. It's such an amazing city. It's like 16 million people, far smaller than Tokyo. The third or fourth largest city in Japan, but still this massive city. It's a great place to walk. To go for walks. There was this particular pair of neighborhoods in Osaka that I liked to visit. I'd get on the train and go off by myself and go to these pair of neighborhoods called Namba and Umeda. Umeda, this is the happening place in Osaka, Japan.

One day I was walking in Umeda and I was on this overpass above a giant intersection, cars everywhere. And rather than have people try to cross the street, they built an overpass. A pedestrian overpass. It's like a hub with a network of walkways going every direction. I was crossing this space and right in the center of this walkway, there was a man who was begging. Now, as I said, I haven't been to Japan in a while, so I can't speak for the present, but at the time, there were not many pan handlers in Japan. This was a relatively rare sight to see, especially in this part of the city. And people walk fast in Japan, there's lots of pedestrian movement, lots of walking, and he is by the side of the road and I was just kind of caught up in the crowd. I glanced him as I walked by and I kept walking. Went back home.

I'll confess to you, that that man stuck with me. Because I hear Jesus's teaching in the Gospels, and I hear him say in the Gospel of Matthew, "When you do this to the least of my children, you do it to me." I know that I had seen, at least if this teaching is true, I had seen Jesus and I'd walked right past. I went back out for a walk the next day, and this time I put some 100-yen coins in my pocket, just in case I walked by anybody again. I went to the same overpass and I went up the step and it went over, and lo and behold, this guy is there again. Crowd's moving quickly, change in my pocket, him kneeling there beside a small cup, a small bowl actually. As I walked by, walking quickly, keeping up at the crowd, I reached down in my pocket and I dropped a handful of coins, maybe $5 worth of yen coins, 100-yen pieces into the bowl and kept walking.

But the momentum of my toss and my speed hit the bowl, and the bowl flipped and change scattered everywhere over this overpass. And this man in English, he had noticed the way I look ... in English, started saying thank you as he got down on his hands and knees and started walking, crawling around these fast moving footsteps, gathering up change. I was mortified and embarrassed, and I confessed to you friends that I kept walking.

The traditional interpretation of this story is that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. We see Jesus. I see Jesus in our world. I know where Jesus is. I see him in the least of these. We see him when we walk outside of this church, into the neighborhood, into our lives. We see Jesus. We see where Jesus is suffering. The question is, are we ready to be seen by Jesus? To invite him close to us for conversation? To be happy When he invites himself to dinner? Jesus invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus's house and Zacchaeus says it's happy to receive him. Are we ready to do more than just the good deed and then scurry off on our way? Are we ready to be seen by Jesus? To be held accountable to this one to whom we are accountable?

It's difficult to keep the gaze of someone to whom you know are accountable because you are accountable to them. But this is what happens. Zacchaeus wants more than the glimpse. And Jesus looks right at him, and Zacchaeus invites him, welcomes him to his home and has dinner with him. I said, I would return to the rich young ruler from earlier in the Gospel of Luke. The rich young ruler, when he turns away from Jesus, the gospel makes a point of saying that Jesus looked at him. Behold he looked right at the rich young ruler, but the rich young ruler turned away. He couldn't accept that gaze and walked away from him.

But Zacchaeus doesn't turn away. He is happy to be seen, to be the friend of this man Jesus. When the rich young ruler walks away the disciples say, "Who can be saved? If this one can be can't be saved? Who can be saved?" It's telling and important that at the end of our gospel lesson today, Zacchaeus has found salvation. Zacchaeus can be saved. The blind man outside Jericho can be saved. Indeed, it's not about us seeking Jesus out. The end of our gospel today says that Jesus is seeking us out. Jesus is looking for us.

Behold, behold the one to whom I have been called. The question is ... we see Jesus, we see where Jesus is in our world, we see him every day. The question is, when he looks for us, will we climb up a tree so that we can be seen? Will we welcome him home when he invites himself to supper? Will we be there to look back at him when his gaze catches our eye? Our salvation depends upon it.