19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10 NRSV)
Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday. It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door at Wittenberg. He came to believe deeply that no one could earn their way to salvation and eternal life through good deeds or buying indulgences. He believed that salvation was a free gift of God’s grace. It cost him his career in the Roman church when he was excommunicated four years later.
Thus began the Reformation Age, one of the great emergence’s of Christianity. In fact, it wasn’t the first and it isn’t the last. According to author Phyllis Tickle (“The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why” (Grand Rapids, Baker Publishing Group, 2008) we are part of a great emergence today. The first was when Jesus walked among us with his powers of transformation. Roughly 500 years later Pope Gregory the Great was the visionary of conversion to the pagans and influenced modern education. His writings were extensive and still powerful reading today.
About 500 years after Gregory the Great came the Great Schism: Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church went their separate ways. Then Martin Luther with his 95 Theses in 1517. About 500 years later we find ourselves in our own emergence. Social and cultural and religious upheaval marks this Great Emergence. We are caught up in this boat of Christianity hanging on for dear life, waiting out the storm to pass, desperately wishing and hoping to get back to normal.
Each of these 500-year events were difficult. It entailed change and we don’t do change well. People lose their lives; cultures react negatively; cultures clash; people become angry, saying and doing bad things in a desperate attempt to keep the status quo. Sound familiar?
Scholars are split on the translation of verse 8b of our scripture passage today. Some Bible translations read, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8b NRSV) However, other translations and scholars argue that Zacchaeus is already doing this action. “”Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.” (Luke 19:8b CEB)
I think we can make a case for either translation, but let’s look at the second one. Suppose Zacchaeus is an ethical tax collector? We knows he’s rich. We know he collects taxes and has a great deal of power. We also know that he was trying to meet Jesus. We know that he isn’t very popular with the crowds.
Notice how they elbow him out of the way when he tries to approach Jesus. He finally has to run ahead and climb up a tree in order to see him. Aren’t we up a tree looking for Jesus? Aren’t we trying to make our way through the crowds? Bumped by this one who doesn’t believe the same things we do? Nudged aside by another who is too busy climbing the social or career ladder? Left out by those who look different from you?
We would see Jesus and do anything we can, including climbing a tree, to do so.
The crowds disown him. Yet, if he’s the ethical man he claims to be, what’s going on? The crowds don’t know him or what he’s doing. What if he is the tax collector who slips in a little extra when someone comes up short? He’s the one who keeps the other tax collectors in line by refusing to allow them to extort money from the poor. He does it quietly and not many know or care about his ethical activity. So they ostracize him without even knowing him. He’s a tax collector and he’s rich. That’s all they need to know in order to toss him aside to the fringes of society.
How are we the crowds today? In our society where the loudest voice is heard; where fear and anger is rampant; where spinning the truth is more interesting; how do we ostracize others to the fringes without even getting to know them? A friend of mine recently said she’d like to invite a Muslim to visit our small community and speak to her church. My response was fear. Not in meeting with a Muslim and entering into conversation. I’ve studied Islam and read the Quran. I’d like to hear more.
Truthfully, I don’t have the nerve to push the boundaries and risk being ostracized myself. I don’t want to shake hands with Zacchaeus in public, but I’ll meet with him privately so I won’t be shamed. We’re the crowds when we judge others without getting to know them.
And that’s part of this Great Emergence in which we’re living. Change is occurring at the speed of sound and we can’t keep up with it. Not all change is good and there’s little time to figure out how our faith in Jesus speaks to each aspect of change in our lives. Do we erect walls or build bridges? How can we be relational when we can only see the sin? Is the use of power bullying? Is it a sign of weakness to seek peace?
Zacchaeus had had enough. He was doing the best he could in a difficult situation and when he climbed up that tree it was in search of Jesus. Maybe Jesus could shed light on his situation. And he did. In fact he did more than shed light, he offered a blessing. Salvation came into the household of Zacchaeus that very moment.
Are you climbing trees these days? I suspect we all are. Maybe it’s time to pick up our Bibles and study them for ourselves. Maybe it’s time to quit listening to just anyone telling you what the Bible really means. Maybe it’s time to slow down this Great Emergence by entering into study with others who are asking the questions and seeking answers that aren’t necessarily easy and may even convict us.
Call it what you want, God is at work tipping us out of our comfort zones and challenging us to think; to be less angry and more inquisitive; to gather information from a variety of sources; to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree. God is at work nudging us into new challenges and opportunities and ideas.
God is at work. And whether you find yourself up a tree or mixing with the crowd, Jesus will find you.
I hope and pray that you will answer the call and become a part of the solution.
All glory and honor be to God.