Guest of a Sinner

November 10, 2019 / 22nd Sunday after Pentecost / Richard E. Holmer

First Reading: Job 19:23-27a; Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; Gospel: Luke 19:1-10

Guest of a Sinner

The story is told of a rabbi who put a question to his students. He asked them: “How can you tell the moment when the night ends and day begins?” One student replied: “Is it when it is light enough to tell a sheep from a dog?”

“No,” said the rabbi.

Another offered, “Could it be when it is light enough to tell a fig tree from an olive tree?”

“No, that’s not it either.”

“Then when is it?” they all demanded to know.

“Dawn arrives,” said the rabbi, “when you can look into the face of another human being – even a stranger – and see a brother or a sister. Until then, it is still night.”

Jesus Christ is the Light that has dawned on our darkened world. And Jesus is the Savior who sees us as we are – and recognizes us as his brothers and sisters. To be seen, to be known as a member of God’s family, is to be saved. In this world, so many persons are overlooked. They go about their days unseen, unacknowledged. They are unnoticed, certainly not loved. Every society seems to have its “untouchables”, those deemed unworthy of attention, consideration or inclusion. Among those who get ignored are: the poor, the incarcerated, the disabled, the immigrant, the very old, the failures. Such persons get lost in the shuffle of everyone’s busy lives – busy with getting and spending and looking after their own needs and wants.

Jesus had an eye for the ones who are overlooked, ignored or even despised by most others. Jesus was good at seeing persons who were disregarded. In his day, such persons included lepers and persons with various disabilities and maladies: the blind, the lame, epileptics. Also Gentiles, persons who were not a part of God’s chosen people, the Jews. And women. Women had such little status that at times they were treated as property. And even children. Remember how the disciples tried to keep children away from Jesus, thinking they were not worthy of his attention. Jesus said, “Let the children come – and he blessed them.” Time and again, Jesus fixed his eyes on those who were overlooked by most others – seeing them with eyes of love.

+ + + +

Zacchaeus was a man who was ignored by everyone – not because he was poor – but because he was rich, because he made himself rich by collecting the Roman taxes from all of them. Zacchaeus was probably the wealthiest man in Jericho – and also the loneliest. When news came that Jesus would be passing through town, Zacchaeus went to see him. I’m pretty sure that being short wasn’t the only reason that Zacchaeus had to climb a tree in order to get a look at Jesus. I picture all the townspeople along the road turning their backs to Zacchaeus, linking arms, and refusing to let him get a place where he would have a view. They had to pay their taxes to him, but they didn’t have to do him any favors. So Zacchaeus took his undignified position up in a sycamore tree.

He wanted to see Jesus, the man so many people were talking about. Then something else happened: Zacchaeus was seen by Jesus. Now upon seeing him, Jesus might have said to him: “Zacchaeus, you better stay up in that tree because you are a corrupt, blood sucking tax collector – a collaborator with the Romans, and nobody here has a good word to say about you.” Instead, Jesus says: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” (like they were old friends, or something)

I believe it’s safe to say that Zacchaeus was saved by being seen by Jesus – by being recognized and acknowledged by Jesus. If Jesus had ignored the little man up in the tree, Zacchaeus would have eventually climbed down and gone back to living his same old wealthy, lonely and despised life. Yet Jesus did see Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into his home – into his life. The story is cut a bit short at this point. All we are told is that the crowd grumbled and said of Jesus, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” We don’t know how long Jesus stayed with Zacchaeus. We have no idea what they may have talked about. But we do know what Zacchaeus had to say after meeting with Jesus: “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.”

What brought about such a change? What in the world happened? Jesus saw in Zacchaeus what no one else could see: A tax collector, yes. And also a son of Abraham, a child of God, a brother. Jesus saw one he was willing to die for, (and soon would). To be seen by Jesus, not with hatred or resentment or envy, but with love and grace was a transforming experience for Zacchaeus. Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus believed this to be true.

+ + + +

You may recall that before this encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus was approached by another rich man. That man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus invited him to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come, follow him. But the man turned and walked away – very sad, for he had many possessions.

Zacchaeus freely chooses to do what the other rich man could not bring himself to do: he chose to be generous, to give half of his wealth to the poor – and to reimburse anyone he had defrauded. Being truly seen by Jesus caused Zacchaeus to realize that he was not alone and despised by all – that he belonged to God. And because he belonged to God, so did all he possessed. His gratitude for salvation moved Zacchaeus to great generosity. All because he was seen by Jesus.

+ + + +

How and when have you been seen by Jesus? Jesus isn’t passing through town so that you or I could climb a tree and get noticed. Nevertheless, I can assure you that you have been and will be seen by our Savior. At your baptism, you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Likewise when you brought your children to be baptized we prayed, asking: “Look with favor upon the father and mother of this child.” At confirmation, hands were placed on your head, and you were prayed for by name in these words: “confirm her faith, guide her life, empower her in her serving, give patience in suffering, and bring her to everlasting life.” Each week at this altar, Jesus says directly to you, “this is my body, given for you, this is my blood shed for you.” You most certainly are seen by Jesus!

Salvation has come to you. For this reason, this hopeful prayer will be offered when you are finally laid to rest: “Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” Friends, Jesus sees us and acknowledges us and saves us.

We, too are children of God. Salvation has come to us. Because Christ sees us, can we open our eyes to see the ones we tend to overlook? We know how Zacchaeus responded to being blessed by Jesus. How then shall we live? How will you show your gratitude?