Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian (OLD)

On Mission With Zacchaeus

Proverbs 30:7-9 and Luke 19:1-10

Fifteen years ago an anonymous donor gave our church $1,000,000 to pay off the debt I inherited when I first arrived at this church. I asked our finance department who it was and the donor insisted that I not be told. They did not want anyone else in the church to know. I sent a thank you note that started, ”Dear anonymous donor…”

Every so often over my first few years I would ask our Business Manager if he might get permission from the donor to share with me the name so I could personally thank him. Nope. The donor did not want me or anyone else to know. After a few years, when the donor was absolutely confident that I would maintain his anonymity, he and his wife agreed to meet with me.

I have protected their anonymity and have continued to do so even as they passed into heaven. However, that first meeting sticks with me. I wondered why they were so hesitant to let me know who they were as our $1M donors. They explained that they had been around Rancho Bernardo and our church for a while and noticed how the community and the church tend to treat wealthy people. They had noticed that there is a subtle but personal way that large donors are ostracized and separated from the rest of the community of Rancho Bernardo. They wanted to live out the rest of their lives as normal neighbors in the community. They did not want friends inside the church or at the club to change their perceptions about them. They wanted to be included not excluded.

This is not a unique story. Wealthy people are often excluded in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Communities often snub wealthy people and assume that they want to leverage their wealth to control everyone else. Sad but true.

The pastor picked up the phone. A woman’s voice was on the other end. “Pastor, could you come to our house and meet with my husband? He has a bad heart and I am worried. He doesn’t know it yet, but he inherited a million dollars. I don’t know how to break it to him without risking a heart attack.”   The pastor agreed to come break the news. The pastor sat with the man visiting casually for a few minutes. Finally the pastor mentioned money and inheritance. The pastor asked, “What would you do if you inherited a million dollars?” The man thought for a moment and then said, “To be honest, I don’t need that kind of money, so I would just give it all to the church.” The pastor had a heart attack.

The Bible tells us about a man whose wealth kept him separated from his community. Jesus broke through the alienation and invited Zaccheaus to come on mission with God. Let me review and break down his story from Luke 19.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. (Luke 19:1-4 NIV)

Notice that Zacchaeus is introduced in negative terms: First, he is a tax collector and second, he is wealthy. Both are equally suspicious. A tax collector job in Israel meant he was considered a collaborator with the Roman occupation government. Tax collectors were so despised and assumed to be corrupt that the rabbis taught their congregations it was okay to lie to a tax collector.   His job separates him from his own community.

So does his wealth. They assume he is cheating them. If he has more, that is because they have less. They associate his success with their lack. They see his getting a larger slice of the pie to mean they have to accept a smaller slice. He must have become wealthy at their expense. As a result they ostracize him. They don’t invite him to their neighborhood gatherings. They don’t talk to him on the streets. He has learned to live in isolation.

One more thing in the start of the story. The crowds of community leaders have created a welcome party for Jesus. Jesus is paraded down Main Street. The town elders have likely created a banquet and made plans for how Jesus will spend his day there. They have dignitaries invited to the meal. Places have been carefully arranged according to who should be at the welcome dinner for Jesus. The Mayor will sit directly across the table and then Rabbi will sit next to Jesus. Some key elders from the community have been arranged around the table at suitable distances. It is all planned and arranged. Of course, Zacchaeus is not a part of any of this.

Oh yeah. And Zacchaeus is short, most likely the butt of various jokes. “Hey, Zach, I came to pay my taxes. Don’t stand up. Oh, you ARE standing!” Zacchaeus was the kid made fun of out on the playground. He was the last one chosen for team sports. As the formal parade to welcome Jesus happens, he can’t see over the heads of the crowd, and he is too embarrassed to ask for someone to help him. Now, others might ask for help, “Excuse me, but I can’t see. Could you help me move up front?” But he can’t talk to anyone. They won’t move for him. They may even be purposely crowding him out. If he asks for help they will likely taunt him. “Go buy your own fancy schmancy seat to watch the parade. You have enough money!”

So Zacchaeus runs ahead of the parade to a tree with low branches where he can climb up and look over the crowd to see Jesus.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:5-7 NIV)

How does Jesus know his name? Did Jesus ask someone in the parade about that man up in the tree? Did Jesus already know of Zacchaeus’ reputation before he arrived in town? The spirit of God whispers to Jesus’ heart to break with the planned gathering and go to Zaachaeus’ house for dinner.

Imagine how the town elders felt about this change in arrangements. They began to mutter.

I love that word, “mutter.” I am thinking of an experiment done by a child regarding the dynamic of people cutting in line. This boy set up his camera to record what happened when people cut in line ahead of others. Twenty-five times he sent a rogue person to cut the line. His mom participated. His sister. I think his dad. He recorded what happened.

Twenty-four of the twenty-five times the response was basically muttering. People would not speak up directly to the person who had broken the implied social rules of lines. Instead they turned to someone else in line and muttered about how it was unfair. A few muttered to the back of the person who cut. One person finally spoke up to his mom. “Excuse me, who does your hair? I love it.”

We don’t know how to engage in healthy, honest conversations when people don’t follow the rules we assume have been agreed. We mutter, don’t we? The leaders and people in Jericho muttered about Jesus.

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10 NIV)

Now comes the wonderful surprise that makes this story noteworthy in Luke’s gospel. Zacchaeus appreciates what Jesus has done for him. Jesus has risked his reputation for this tax collector. Jesus is unafraid of Zacchaeus’ wealth. Jesus befriends this lonely man. As a result, Zacchaeus invites his few friends who know what it feels like to be ostracized.

During the party at his house Zacchaeus makes an announcement. He promises Jesus to give back anything that is illegal and to share his wealth with the poor. Jesus beams a huge smile and announces, “Salvation has come to this house!”

Is this simply a stewardship a story about money? Of course not! It is a story about relationship resources being restored in a community that has been wounded by distrust. Zacchaeus has to “work out his salvation” now in the midst of his community. They have to learn how to stop muttering and share honest and sincere conversations about rebuilding the trust. His wealth doesn’t need to be a barrier to friendship. Their anger doesn’t need to keep them stuck in muttering and bitterness. Jesus offers wholeness in a town where the resources are shared with love.       

In his book, The Speed of trust, by Stephen M. R. Covey, he makes the point that low trust in a community costs everyone. When trust is low then everything takes longer and is harder to get done. Just think about our speed of airline check in since 9/11/01. We have more safety regulations and an entire TSA department that costs us all in order to keep ourselves safe on airplanes. We lost our sense of trust, and it costs us all.

When trust is restored in a community, the contentment and joy returns. When relationships are healthy in a neighborhood we all get more done. Relationship trust in the workplaces pays huge dividends.

Jesus was less worried about the financial wealth of Zacchaeus and more concerned for his lack of relationship resources. After Jesus left town Zacchaeus still had to work out his salvation and live into the new relationships Jesus had restored. Yes, there was a need for forgiveness on both sides of the equation. But trust is rebuilt slowly, moment by moment in little acts of faithfulness.

Here is the truth. We all have a sinful tendency to mutter behind other’s backs. We let distrust slow us down and cost the community dearly.

I am thinking about those anonymous donors. They didn’t want to have faced the muttering, so they kept their donation anonymous. Isn’t that sad? Don’t you wish we had been a church that could have appreciated them and not ostracized them? We all need to keep working out our salvation.

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