2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he;
He climbed up into a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Lord came riding by he looked up in the tree;
he said Zacchaeus, you come down, ‘cause I’m coming to your house for tea.
I remember singing that song when I was in Sunday School. I always liked Zacchaeus, as I expect most kids do. Kids can identify with not being able to see over the heads of bigger people. We liked this little guy who climbed a tree, even though we didn’t know very much about him. We liked the fact that it was the little guy Jesus wanted to spend time with. I expect, though, that if we’d known more about him, we wouldn’t have liked him nearly as much.
Today is the closest Sunday to the Feast of All Saints: the day when we honour the faithful people of the church past and present. And Zacchaeus is the head-liner for this year’s celebration. He’s the star of the show – but a very unlikely one.
It’s probable that nobody really liked Zacchaeus. I don’t know how much you know about tax collectors, but they were despised by their fellow Jews. First of all, they worked for the Romans, the oppressors of their people. Second of all, they were considered ritually unclean because of their regular contact with Gentiles. Third, the way the system worked is that they would pay the Romans the taxes due for their region up-front, then collect that money back from the people, with a percentage fee for themselves. There were no checks and balances on how much they collected. They could take whatever they wanted from the people, and there was widespread corruption in the system. The fact that Zacchaeus was rich suggests he probably cheated a lot of people. Fourth, the taxes were all flowing out of Judea to Rome, with none of it benefiting the local people. Few like paying taxes, and the tax man is bound to be very unpopular in such a situation. This is not a man anyone in the village would want much to do with. He was an outsider, a thief, and a scoundrel. And this is the man Jesus had supper with that day! Why?
The Scriptures tell us that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. That word “see” is important. Luke tells many stories about blind people being given their sight back, who in the process recognize that Jesus is the Anointed One of God, the one who has come to transform and redeem their lives. Jesus repeatedly refers to people who doubt him or his ministry to Israel as being “blind”. In the gospels, “seeing” means more than looking at Jesus with our own two eyes. It’s about understanding who Jesus is and being changed by it. So Luke tells us that Zacchaeus didn’t just want to look at Jesus, he wanted to understand who Jesus is. Jesus responds to this wish to understand, by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house. We don’t know what happened on the way to Z’s house or over dinner itself, but we do know that over that short period of time Zacchaeus really did “see” who Jesus is – and his life was completely changed by the encounter. He promised to give back anything he had stolen four times over. He was filled with joy at the freedom he had found in Jesus.
Zacchaeus is a saint for today, because he saw who Jesus was, and chose to follow him in faithfulness. He did what the rich young ruler in the story that precedes his couldn’t do. He gave up his possessions in order to gain the kingdom. Zacchaeus is no plaster saint with a golden halo and a spotless record. He’s a guy who had really messed up his life and the lives of a whole lot of people, but who saw the light of Christ and had his life transformed because of it.
The thing about being a saint is that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a perfect past or present, a perfect family, a perfect character, a perfect anything. Because we don’t make ourselves into saints. God does. It is at the invitation of Jesus Christ that we are able to be transformed into sainthood. It is God who allows us to join the parade of saints marching through history and into the future. One of the Old Testament prophets (Habbakuk) says that “the righteous live by faith”. And the apostle Paul as well as this anonymous author who writes in his name, would go even farther than that: they would say that we are made righteous by faith — that faith is a gift only God can give. It is God who makes us into saints – into people who inspire others by our faithful witness. And God has a habit of choosing pretty unlikely people.
A few years back I read a book from our church library called “The Adventurers”, and came across it again this week. It’s a series of short stories about “saints” past and present – people who provide an example for us of Christian living. I read about Elizabeth Gurney, a rather flighty, wealthy, irresponsible 18 year old who became a reformer of women’s prisons. Some of you may be familiar with the Elizabeth Fry society, named after her. Then there was a guy named Pietro Bernadone: another rich young person who sold everything and gave it to the poor. Everyone in town thought he was completely mad – but the church knows him as Saint Francis. There was Bob McLure, a United Church minister, medical missionary and former Moderator who served in China, India, Borneo, the Gaza strip and elsewhere. There was Eric Liddell, a 22 year old science student and Scotland’s fastest runner, who risked his reputation, his career, and the honour of his nation when he refused to run an Olympic race on a Sunday. There was Harriet Tubman, a slave who showed other slaves the pathway to freedom. Hopefully you’ll hear more of their stories one of these days. None of these people started out as anyone out of the ordinary. But through their faith in the living Christ, they were able to be powerful witnesses to the gospel of Christ, and to the way Christ envisioned the world….
A stewardship resource published by the United Church says this:
Sometimes we forget that God is constantly involved
in caring for creation.
Sometimes we sit back with complaints and grumbling,
not really believing that God’s love makes things different.
Sometimes its easy to sit with the scoffers,
to go along with the crowd and sink into ourselves until
we cannot see a way to contribute to good things.
Thanks be to God for that bright sound
to remind us there is another way.
It is a great parade of everyday people
whose courage is the willingness to get up
and share the goodness of God’s love in Jesus.
Look, there they go!
Gentle and strong,
all ages and stages of life:
the challengers of hurt and wrong…
The comforters of those who feel loss…
The ones who pray for the sick and the poor…
And then follow their prayers with actions
of support and giving…
Look, it’s a parade of
those who encourage the gifts of others…
those who say and live their thanks…
Those who bring understanding and respect….
Let’s march with the saints,
into new days ahead
where life grows abundant
with love that is shared in the spirit of God’s goodness.
We join Zacchaeus and Elizabeth, Pietro and Bob, Eric and Harriet, and all the unlikely saints who go before us and surround us now. We march with the saints, as witnesses to the power of God’s love to transform you and I, and therefore, the world. Amen.