Fourth Sunday before Advent 30 October 2016
The Reverend Canon Charles Royden
The context in which we read this passage from Luke this morning about Zacchaeus is a healing service. What is a healing service? A healing service is about prayer and the difference which Jesus makes in any situation. Sometimes we feel that prayer is the only place where we can take ourselves because we have run out of hope anywhere else.
We pray for ourselves and others
- At one level it is fairly obvious that in a healing service we pray for others or ourselves who are physically, spiritually, mentally poorly and we ask for them to get better, in the sense of being healed from whatever afflicts them.
- That healing might come about very understandably in the form of medicine, there might be medical miracles in which we see amazing progress which we would never have thought possible.
- Of course there are also miracles in the sense in which we can see God at work and we feel our prayers are answered in a very special way which perhaps we do not understand.
- The healing might be physical or it might be that we seek healing from emotional or mental distress, past memories, or guilt. Some of these things need to be resolved between us and God.
Healing can of course also mean something else, and perhaps something much more. Even if we become physically better we know that we are in a process of decay which cannot be stopped. So for us in our frailty healing is about a coming to terms with our humanity and answering the deepest longing in our souls. In the words of St Augustine
‘You have made us for yourself and our souls are restless until they find their rest in you.’
Healing is therefore about solving the unrest in our souls and bodies and becoming whole. Christians healing is often referred to as wholeness.
Healing is also among one another
Of course there is also a wider sense to healing, the salvation and healing which we find in Jesus is not just about individuals - it is about communities. Today our world is desperately in need of healing. That might be something which you could say in any generation. However there is a sense in which it should be a special concern for us.
I can travel across Europe and the world, and the world is becoming ever smaller, yet in another sense we are becoming more isolated from one another. Families are split up from one another by distance and divorce and isolation is a significant problem in our community.
There is also much talk in our own society of foreigners and much of this is not welcoming but shows that we are separated from others. This is the opposite of wholeness it is rather about division.
The Gospel reading today is all about this kind of separation, and the tendency to put up barriers and see others on the opposite side.
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.
Zacchaeus was a rich man, not juts a tax collector but a chief tax collector. Tax collectors worked with the Romans to collect taxes and of course the system was prone to abuse. The Jews despised tax collectors as collaborators and thieves.
So you can imagine that Zacchaeus is short of friends. He would be rich in wealth but poor in terms of friendship, surrounded by critics and enemies. He is on the edge of the community. He was not excluded from the community physically like lepers - but he is excluded like a social leper.
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.
Of course he would be powerful, but he was also a short man and so climbing a tree was surprising because it exposed him to ridicule.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
One of the biggest complaints about Jesus was the kind of people that he associated with. For a rabbi he mixed in the wrong circles. In this reading he invites himself to lodge with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector!
The story often goes that Zacchaeus saw Jesus, Zacchaeus felt burdened by guilt, Jesus called on him to repent, Zacchaeus was filled with remorse and repented and received forgiveness. However Zacchaeus does not beg for mercy or express repentance, there is no great statement of faith. The point is that Jesus is willing to see and get alongside Zacchaeus.
You and I are sought by God, we might think that we are responsible for seeking God out but God is seeking.
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
The response of Zacchaeus was joy. We worship God, we honour God, we love God. But of course our faith should also be characterised by joy which overflows to others.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
In the midst of joy there is resentment. Jesus encounters those who society has declared unfit and wants to ignore and he sees them, recognizes them, seeks them out, spends time with them, and in all these ways honours and blesses them. There is resentment at his lavish and generous acceptance.
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.”
It can sometimes surprise us how much good there is in people we feel threatened by or dislike. Perhaps the last thing that any of the crowd wanted was to hear was that Zacchaeus was somebody prepared to give his possessions to the poor and pay people back who had felt cheated. This would have been to rub salt in the wound of their prejudice.
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Salvation comes from the Greek word "sozo" and it means "to be whole-physically, mentally and spiritually." It is the ultimate healing to know that
- God sees us
- God accepts us
- God loves us
- God welcomes us home
And as Zacchaeus found out there are no exceptions, nobody is too far gone !
The crowd did not believe that Zacchaeus was righteous enough to be accepted by Jesus. However righteousness is not the standard God sets for us, but rather is the gift God gives to us. God looks at each one of us and see us as righteous, it isn’t a requirement but a promise.
The God we see in Jesus is all about God’s love. Jesus did not die to make God forgiving but in dying showed us how forgiving God already is. Zacchaeus did not have to change to be loved, he was loved and his response was to change.
The story of Zacchaeus is a really challenging tale. We dare not judge any person hopeless. The qualification which one has to have to be sought out by Jesus is to be lost. We can see from the story that God's people includes those who others would see as outside his grace.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote,
“Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.”
I really like this quote because it highlights one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. God is changing the entire universe by transforming individual people. The kingdom of God is ushered in one man and woman at a time.
This is of course real healing. Knowing that we are loved and welcomed by God is true healing.
Today we need this healing and our world needs this healing. Christians should be at the forefront of those who proclaim the need for acceptance and respect for all humanity.
As Christians we recognises that we are all God’s children and our hearts and minds must be as open to one another as God is open to us and them. We welcome those on the outside by refusing to see them as outsiders but as God’s people and we are all in need of his healing touch .