Luke 19:1-10 (CEV)
1Jesus was going through Jericho, 2 where a man named Zacchaeus lived. He was in charge of collecting taxes and was very rich. 3-4 Jesus was heading his way, and Zacchaeus wanted to see what he was like. But Zacchaeus was a short man and could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree.
5 When Jesus got there, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down! I want to stay with you today.” 6 Zacchaeus hurried down and gladly welcomed Jesus.
7 Everyone who saw this started grumbling, “This man Zacchaeus is a sinner! And Jesus is going home to eat with him.”
8 Later that day Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “I will give half of my property to the poor. And I will now pay back four times as much to everyone I have ever cheated.”
9Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today you and your family have been saved, because you are a true son of Abraham. 10The Son of Man came to look for an to save people who are lost.”
Mind The Gap
In London, England, the underground trains have a wonderful pre-recorded voice that comes on and reminds you to “mind the gap”. It means, “pay attention to the space between the train and the platform – don’t get your foot stuck in it or your suitcase wheels caught in it.”
It’s good advice on a train.
It’s also good advice when we’re reading the Bible, because there is so much that happens in the gaps of a story – and today is one of those times.
Today’s story is about a tax collector who is very rich.
It’s also about a man who has been ostracized from his community – shunned for this collaboration with the Romans and his role as a tax collector.
And back in the day if you were a tax collector you would be unlikely to have many friends, because your neighbours were the ones you had to gather taxes from – taxes that were punitive enough on their own, before the tax collectors overinflated the numbers to line their own pockets.
So to the people hanging out in the village that day, the tax collector’s desire to see Jesus must not have seemed fair. I mean, what right did he have to connect with their rabbi? What right did he have to take up Jesus’ precious time? What right did he have to take the honour of hosting Jesus from the more deserving members of the inner circle of the community?
Maybe part of why Zacchaeus ends up in a tree is because he’s short, but I’ve always thought that the bigger part of it must have been the press of the crowds actively pushing him back from the road, or maybe even his own shame and separateness demoting him from any perceived place at the front by the road.
And yet in spite of all of this, Luke tells us that he climbs up into the tree because he wants to see Jesus.
And when Jesus tells him that they’re going to have lunch together, Zacchaeus welcomes him.
It hardly seems right to the people watching.
I can almost hear the “how dare he?” go through the crowd. The grumbling that ensues must have followed the party back to the house. To eat with someone in the Middle East is to confer honour and favour on that person. It is a promise of protection – a promise not to harm – so Jesus is effectively promising favour to this traitor as far as the crowd was concerned.
Because as far as they’re concerned, Zacchaeus does not deserve this. As far as they’re concerned, Zacchaeus is too far gone for any right to grace. As far as they’re concerned …
But then there is a gap in the story.
Something happens between Jesus’ foot crossing the threshold into Zacchaeus’ house and ‘later that day’. We’re not told what it is. We’re not told what was said or what was done. We don’t get to be flies on the wall of this party.
But we can imagine. Luke has invited us in before, and so we know Jesus’ ways. We know that he doesn’t strong-arm people. We know he doesn’t berate or harangue them. We know he doesn’t force or coerce them.
Over and over again through the eighteen previous chapters of Luke we have covered, Jesus’ way of responding to people who want to welcome him is gentleness and compassion and love. It is stories and parables. It is presence and healing.
In fact, it’s the words of the writer of Psalm 40 – King David – come back to life again:
1I patiently waited, Lord,
for you to hear my prayer.
You listened 2 and pulled me
from a lonely pit
full of mud and mire.
You let me stand on a rock
with my feet firm,
3 and you gave me a new song,
a song of praise to you.
Many will see this,
and they will honor
you, the Lord God.
Because out of his greed and loneliness – out of his years of selfishness, or anger, or pain, or trauma, or whatever had driven him to this place in the first place – out of the lonely pit full of mud and mire, Zacchaeus appears to have found a new way to live. A new place to root himself. A new story to tell with his time and his money and his possessions.
He promises to give away half of what he has to the poor, and to repay by four times anything he has cheated someone out of. Furthermore, Zacchaeus doesn’t seem forced into any of this – it comes out of him like a joyful song, just waiting to be sung in response to the love he’s experienced.
And all because of what happened in the gap.
- Are there any people who you think don’t deserve to join Jesus for dinner?
- Are there any people who you think have less of a place at the table?
- Any you would exclude from communion or church as being ‘beyond’ hope, or ‘beyond’ the right to experience grace?
- What do you think happened over that meal?
- How do you think Zacchaeus’ life was changed?
- What would it mean to experience that kind of love and grace and hope and forgiveness yourself?
- What would it mean to offer it to one of the people you thought of in the first few questions?