Have you ever faced an obstacle so significant there was no way you thought you would be able to overcome it? Have you ever placed an impediment to someone’s path to prevent them from something? Today we heard the story of a person that overcame the most significant obstacle he faced, and it radically changed his life.
Let’s face it, life is full of obstacles, and that may not be a bad thing. When faced with those things that stand blocking us, we have a few choices, turn back, go around, or go over but, if what we desire is on the other side, we have no option but to overcome whatever is in our way.
Let’s set the scene of today’s encounter with Jesus.
Jesus is coming into Jericho. It is rather late in his ministry, and he is on his way to Jerusalem. Jericho is in the Jordan Valley on the West Bank. Today it is a Palestinian City with the Jordan River to the east and Jerusalem to the West. It is and was a rather large city, and word of Jesus had spread, and so crowds were gathering on the street to see him.
Zacchaeus is the Chief Tax Collector; he is very wealthy, and, as Scripture points out, he was short of stature. Because of his height, or lack thereof, he could not see when Jesus was coming down the road, so he needed a plan. He ran ahead a climbed a tree, not just any tree but a sycamore tree with low hanging branches, and there, he encountered Jesus.
Jesus, seeing this man in the tree, calls to him, “hurry down, for I must stay at your house.” As Jesus is saying this, all eyes follow Jesus’ gaze, and they see Zacchaeus, the dreaded Tax Collector, and the people start to murmur among themselves, “he has gone to be the guest of sinners!” They were outraged that Jesus would do this. How could anyone want to spend time with sinners?
But what drove Zacchaeus to do what he did? He is the Chief Tax Collector and very rich, and by definition, he is a thief. Tax Collectors worked for the Romans, the occupying force, and as such, they were looked upon poorly. Tax Collectors receive their wages from the Taxes they collected, so the more tax they collect, the more money they make, and the Chief Tax Collector was the richest of them all. But something happened to Zacchaeus, and he needed to make a change in his life.
Last week, we read the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple. I cannot say for sure, but I do not think it is a mistake that these two stories follow on another. I believe that Zacchaeus is that Tax Collector and that he had a conversion experience in the Temple. Now, he needed to see Jesus for forgiveness. So he runs out of the Temple and climbs the tree because salvation is walking down the street.
Zacchaeus makes no confession other than what he makes in the Temple. Jesus sees him in that tree, sees his heart, and knows what is in that heart. The very act of Jesus, calling his name and staying at his home, was the forgiveness and reconciliation that Zacchaeus needs. Zacchaeus makes his penance, he gives half of his possessions to the poor and promises to makes restitution to anyone he has cheated, and I can only imagine that list is a long one. And with that, Jesus tells him that “Salvation has come to this house.” And they go off together.
But what of those left, those that started to murmur amongst themselves? They cannot understand how Jesus can do this; they are so blind in their rage that they did not see the confession and reconciliation taking place right before their eyes. Zacchaeus is no longer a sinner, in the broad sense of the word, of course, but their strict adherence to the law has blinded them to what happened right in front of them.
In a few moments, I will invite you to come to the table that is prepared for you. This communion table that is here before us is a table of radical welcome for all, not just for some. Through this mystery, we come together, regardless of our background or belief, to take the supper of the Lord. I have told you this before, when we pray over these elements they cease to be just simple bread and juice they become holy, and we are being called down out of our trees to break bread with Jesus.
I bring this up because last week, this sacrament was used not as a reminder of the love of Jesus that should bind us together but as a spear that is used to separate those who do not follow a specific set of rules. I cannot say how much this saddens me and disgusts me that this has happened, is still happening. Jesus Christ sat at the table with the man who was to deny him and the man who would betray him, and he served them his body and his blood knowing full well what they were going to do. I do not know where the arrogance comes from that makes people feel they have the power to be the judge of the grace of God!
We are all Zacchaeus with our heads bent low and pounding on our chests, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” We are all Zacchaeus when we run down the street, filled with joy to climb the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by. We are all Zacchaeus when we realize that our lives need to change, and so we repent and promise to do better. But none of this would have happened if Jesus had not shown love that day on the street. Jesus looked up and saw a person filled with regret and offered him a place at the table, he did not shun him or turn his back on him or refuse to help him, he opened his arms wide with love and welcomed him in.
And so today I do the same. If you are Zacchaeus in the Temple, if you are Zacchaeus in the tree, if you are the ones standing there mocking Jesus for taking a meal with sinners I say to you, welcome to this table and through it may you find peace and joy.