The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 30, 2022
My mother used to say, “You can’t change the spots on a leopard,” meaning she saw some folks as lost causes who are unable to change who they are for the better.
But God says that nothing is impossible for Him; and, because God’s willing to contradict my mother, I guess He’s got the highest authority on everything!
Just about everyone thought that the tax collector Zacchaeus was a lost cause. Because of his complicity with the evil empire of Rome and his long record of cheating even the poor, he was the poster child for unredeemable sinners!
Yet, though just about everyone thought him a hopeless case, Zacchaeus apparently couldn’t bring himself to give up all hope. It seems he had heard about Jesus and how He’d reached out to tax collectors and welcomed them into His circle of friendship. Why, even one of Jesus’ inner twelve, Levi (also known as Matthew), was a tax collector! Now, if Zacchaeus wondered whether Jesus was the Messiah as some speculated, and believed Jesus regularly partied with tax collectors as some alleged, would he not develop a keen curiosity about Jesus – and maybe a wild hope that, because of Him, there was a chance for someone as bad as a deservedly hated tax collector.
So, when Jesus entered Jericho, Zacchaeus eagerly attempted “to see who Jesus was”. Though Zacchaeus was rich and likely carried himself with the aloof dignity the wealthy so readily assume, Zacchaeus was so adamant about checking out Jesus that, when his small size prevented him from either looking over the throng crowding around Jesus or pushing his way through it to get up close to Him, Zacchaeus abandoned his pose of dignity and climbed a tree like a seven-year-old in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
When Jesus walked up to that tree, He looked up and surprised that much-hated outcaste by saying, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” At that the crowd must have gasped in astonishment. For, when Jesus could have picked anyone to honor with a home visit and everyone expected Him to choose one of the city’s most pious and ethical citizens, He selected the worst person. Zacchaeus must have been just as astonished; and, perhaps fearing Jesus had confused him for someone else, he “hurried down” to welcome Him into his home before He realized His mistake. As Zacchaeus led Jesus over to his place, the crowd “grumbled” at Jesus’ poor choice of company.
Luke, who alone among the gospel-writers told this story, gives no details about what thereafter transpired between Jesus and Zacchaeus. But at some point, after the initial shock wore off and Zacchaeus had chance enough to experience firsthand the grace of Jesus, the reality of Jesus’ love must have sunk into Zacchaeus’s heart and touched him profoundly. For Zacchaeus acted as if he felt, not just accepted and forgiven, but also reborn and transformed. Seemingly on an impulse reverberating from the revolution erupting from the depths of his being, Zacchaeus repudiated his former unjust and cruel ways and publicly resolved to do right by all whom he had wronged. While the letter of the law required far less, Zacchaeus, overflowing with gratitude, declared his determination to give half his possessions away to the poor and to pay back four times over everyone he had ever defrauded.
Jesus must have been smiling from ear to ear when, hearing that, He exclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house”, and then declared that this outcaste from decent society was a true “son of Abraham”.
I also imagine Jesus had a twinkle in his eye when, seeing that Zacchaeus might give his tree-climbing pursuit of Jesus too much credit for his transformation, Jesus quickly switched the topic to how “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
For, while Zacchaeus had sought Jesus out by climbing a sycamore tree, Jesus had taken the first initiative and was already seeking out Zacchaeus by passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem where, in just a few days, He would climb another kind of tree, the cross of His crucifixion. Hanging from its limbs, Jesus – out of love for the hopeless – would pay a terrible and enormous cost to redeem Zacchaeus and all the Zacchaeus’s of the world.
Zacchaeus had been an unrighteous evil-doer; but Jesus had made him right at the core. That’s why Zacchaeus, without being asked, made the right response to the gracious gift from heaven of his transformation. Zacchaeus was so grateful for the difference Jesus had made in him, that he was only too glad to act justly and generously toward others. Jesus had changed him from being an exploitative taker into being an expansive giver; and Zacchaeus so loved the new heart and the new life he’d gained from Jesus that he had to actively love others. He was happy to give with an open hand, because he was giving, not out of disciplined dutifulness, but out of exuberant thankfulness – like a formerly unhoused woman named DeDe.
A decade ago, DeDe was homeless and hopeless. Then a church adopted her, facilitated her experiencing the love of Jesus, helped her get and keep a job, and finally set her up in her own apartment.
Until Dede attained full financial independence, the church supplemented her pay from work by giving her grocery vouchers. But they caught her giving away as many vouchers to her old friends still on the streets as she used for herself. An elder spoke with her and said, “Dede, you can’t continue to give vouchers to others; you need to keep them for yourself. Otherwise, you’ll risk running out of food.” Dede stared at him with a look of incredulity and asked, “How come you get to have all the fun? Why can’t I give like you? Why can’t I show Jesus how much I love and trust him by blessing others?”
We would do well to emulate DeDe and Zacchaeus. If we, like them, greatly appreciate Jesus’ gracious generosity to us, we will, like them, happily imitate His gracious generosity to others.
Let us then welcome Jesus into our home, whatever state our home is in, that we might know His love and grow in His generosity!