Sermon: Man Out on a Limb

Luke 19:1-10

Two kittens shut down the B and Q lines of the New York Subway system for about two hours one day a few years back. The B and Q are two of the main lines that run from Brooklyn into the heart of Manhattan. A two-hour disruption will cause a problem, no matter what time it is.

One morning, a Thursday at 11 a.m., two scared kittens were spotted running down the tracks right next to the third rail. That’s the one that carries the power, 600 volts – not transformer power, but enough to use up all nine lives. So, they decided to cut the power to the whole line. And for almost two hours, the commuters and subway officials waited while a few went on a subway safari to rescue the flustered felines. But, alas, the kittens managed to stay out of reach long enough that the disruption was no longer tenable. So, since the kittens weren’t in visible danger, they returned power to the rail and started the local trains and eventually the express trains but issued an alert inviting the drivers to keep a lookout for the strays.

Naturally, in a day of instant commentary on anything and everything, the opinions were many and various. From the animal lover who praised the compassion of the administrators – or questioned why they gave up so soon just to keep the trains running on time (with the inevitable Mussolini quote tossed in) to the commuters who were patient or not, and the conspiracy theorists who speculated that terrorists in catsuits were behind it all, not to mention the anti-government voices who blamed the president at the time for letting the cat out of the bag. Bah-dum-bum.

The argument centered around one point. Were they worth it? And before you get all heated up, let’s make a shift here. We’re not talking about kittens on a subway track. We are talking about a little guy out on a limb.

Zacchaeus is an interesting character. He is not only a tax collector but the chief tax collector. So, as you can imagine, he was not well-liked in his community for two reasons. One, he was the tax man. Two, being the tax man meant you sided with the government over your fellow Jews. We can infer from what is written about these guys that most of them were corrupt and took more than they reported.

I have shared before about my experiences in Romania. I helped run a nonprofit there for a few years and would often visit the various sites we were supporting. After a few years of hitching rides, I decided it was time for me to drive. You think driving here is bad…

Anyway, if you violated one of the many written and unwritten traffic laws in the country, you, as one would imagine, would get pulled over by the police and issued a citation. You paid the fine to the police officer right there. You did not go to court and hope to have it dismissed; nope, it was cash on the barrel head.

They had these little coupon books and would tear out a coupon that would match the fine. So say the fine was $5, the police officer would tear our 5 one dollar coupons and give them to you. Of course, once back at the station, the police officer would have to reconcile his bool with the cash.

You did not always get the correct number of coupons to match the fine. It was a very different situation if you were an American and had American dollars—sort of like Zacchaeus.

So, Luke sets the stage for us. Again, Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. He is the one that would come to your house and take all you had if you owed the government. He was the guy that recruited all the other guys, and he was rich. In Luke’s gospel, things don’t always end well for the rich, so immediately, we get an idea in our minds where this is going. But is it?

Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is coming to town and decides he wants to see him. Most rich people would send a memo and ask Jesus to go to their office to see them, but Zacchaeus does not do that. Instead, he runs, not walks but runs down the street where Jesus is going to be passing by. Keep in mind Zacchaeus, although despised, is still a pillar of the community, and he is running down the street to see some passing evangelist. Then it gets even crazier.

Because, as Luke mentions, he is “short of stature,” Zacchaeus, the great man has to climb a tree so he can get a glimpse of Jesus.

Now, we need to take a brief pause here. We have no idea why Zacchaeus has decided that he needs to see Jesus. Notice scripture does not say he wants to speak with Jesus, get a blessing from Jesus, or anything else. Zacchaeus wants to “see” Jesus. Maybe he is curious about what this is all about. Perhaps he does not want to be left out of the water cooler conversation at the tax office the next day. Whatever his motivation, nothing will get in his way.

Here comes Jesus. People are all over, some shouting, some looking on with skepticism, and Zacchaeus up in his tree. Jesus stops in the road, looks up at this curious little man in a tree, and calls to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus calls him by name and says that he “must” stay at his house. We do not know why Jesus singled out Zacchaeus, but he did right there in front of everyone. Jesus is going to stay in the home of the most despised man in town.

Again, we don’t know Zacchaeus’s motivation. All Luke says is that he wanted to see Jesus. “Trying to see who Jesus was” (verse 3). Why? Was it a change of heart? Was he worried about competition? Was it hope or fear? Or a little of both? We don’t know. And apparently, that doesn’t matter.

Now, this is the real curious part of the story. The transformation, the change in behavior, the giving away of half of what he has, and the desire to pay back four times if, notice he does not admit to anything here if he has defrauded anyone. All of this happened because Jesus said he was coming to dinner. So Zacchaeus came down that tree transformed.

At least there is the appearance of a change. We have to take a deeper dive into the words being used here. Zacchaeus tells Jesus that he “will give” and he “will give back,” but the original text says, “I give” and “I give back,” not future but present. Is Zacchaeus one of the good guys? Is this way Jesus is coming to his house?

The crowd certainly does not think so. They start to grumble when Jesus says he is going to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

The crowd is not happy that Jesus is going to dine with sinners. “He is not worthy of such an honor,” they say. Jesus, stay on course. Stay out of the gutters, off the side streets, out of the trees. Keep to your own kind. His kind, the sinner kind, is not worth bothering with.

But by going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus is saying he is my kind. A child of God. If Jesus ignores him, he ignores you. He did not come to ignore the ones willing to go out on a limb to see him—the ones who put their reputation on the line. The ones who throw proper decorum out the window and, with child-like ambition, climb a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by.

Luke leaves us wondering what was in the mind of Zacchaeus when he ran down that street and climbed that tree. He does not leave any clues about his motivation. Zacchaeus took a chance; he risked it all to peek at Jesus.

No matter what, Zacchaeus is worth it, and so are you. No matter what anyone else thinks, we are worth the effort, the disruption, and the inconvenience of loving.

Now ask yourself this question of this passage: “Where are you in the story?” Are you standing with the crowd, shaking your head at those people who aren’t worth it? Or are you standing next to Jesus, inviting yourself into the homes of those others think are sinners? Or perhaps, are you too out on a limb, hoping for a glimpse of Jesus and a whole new way of living?

By the way, seven hours later, they found those kittens, named them Arthur and August, and decided they were worth it.


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