Friday, July 29, 2011

A God of Transformations: The Dynamic Presence of God in The Gospel of Luke - Part 8

Zacchaeus' Story – Luke 19:1-10

          In our next text, we meet a person who returns to his Source, God in Jesus Christ, in an unexpected and unusual way. No one in the town of Jericho would ever have imagined that Jesus would invite Himself into wealthy tax collector Zacchaeus' house and heart, but that is exactly what happened, and Zacchaeus' life would never be the same again.
          Who was Zacchaeus? What was he like before he encountered Jesus along the road through Jericho? In our reflections on the Gospel of Luke, we have already met one tax collector, Levi, so we know that such publicans were despised by the Jews for collaborating with the Roman government and were generally denounced as thieves who practiced extortion on their fellow Israelites in order to line their own pockets with their dishonest gains. Zacchaeus, however, would have been hated even more than Levi, for the former held the job of chief tax collector, which probably meant that he was the supervisor of the other publicans in his district (19:2). (40) Unlike many of his subordinates, Zacchaeus had acquired significant wealth, making him all the more loathed by the Jews who, perhaps accurately, viewed his riches as the fruit of dishonesty and extortion. Like Levi, Zacchaeus, although a “son of Abraham,” a Jew, was designated a “sinner” and excluded from Jewish worship and community life (19:7,19). As such, Zacchaeus, in all likelihood, did not have much of a prayer life or a relationship with God, and presumably, he would have been far more interested in his worldly activities and material possessions than in Jesus and His “doctrine of universal mortification and self-denial.” (41) Zacchaeus, however, had a curious streak. When he had heard that Jesus was going to pass through Jericho, he thought he would at least go and see Who this Man was. Perhaps he was merely indulging a natural instinct to catch a glimpse of someone famous, but as Jesus approached, something deep within Zacchaeus was already beginning to change. (42)
          What happened to Zacchaeus? What kind of encounter did he experience with the transforming presence of God in Jesus Christ? The crowds were packing in around Zacchaeus on all sides; he was not the only one curious “to see who Jesus was,” but because of his short statue, his line of sight was cut off by the pressing crowd (19:3). Seemingly propelled by a sudden sense of urgency, Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree, hoping perhaps for a true “bird's eye view” of Jesus (19:4). Was he simply responding to the excitement of his fellow townspeople, or was God's grace working in his heart, stirring him to a greater anticipation, a more intense longing for contact with Jesus Christ? In any case, Zacchaeus was motivated enough to forget his pride and risk appearing as a fool in the eyes of his astonished neighbors, for wealthy tax collectors typically did not spurn their dignity by running down the road and climbing a tree, no matter how curious they were about the latest celebrity passing through town. He was well rewarded for his humble deed. Jesus stopped beneath Zacchaeus' tree, looked up, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (19:5). Surprise! No one could have predicted this! Not only did Jesus already know Zacchaeus personally, for He called him by name, He actually put aside His plans to merely pass through Jericho and instead invited Himself into this “sinner's” home! Jesus was offering Zacchaeus a unique opportunity, an unmerited call to intimacy, to friendship, to new life. Albert Barnes remarks, “This was an honor which Zacchaeus did not expect. The utmost, it seems, which he aimed at was to see Jesus; but, instead of that, Jesus proposed to remain with him, and to give him the benefit of His personal instruction. It is but one among a thousand instances where the Saviour goes, in bestowing mercies, far beyond the desert, the desire, or the expectation of men.” (43) The crowd could not believe it, and they muttered among themselves. Why in the world would Jesus choose to stay with this sinful chief tax collector? Did He not realize who this was? Did He not know the miserable reputation of this man who so easily betrayed his own people?
          If Zacchaeus had surprised his neighbors by climbing a tree, he gave them an even greater shock by his response to Jesus' call, for he was no longer the person he had been even a few hours before. How was Zacchaeus' changed by this “chance” encounter with the presence of God in Jesus Christ? First of all, he accepted Jesus' invitation to become His “familiar acquaintance,” to enter into an intimate personal relationship with Him. (44) The instant Zacchaeus heard Jesus' command, he obeyed at once. He “made haste and came down” out of his tree, receiving Jesus joyfully into his home and, as many commentators note, into his heart and his life as well (19:6). (45) Did he realize that he was welcoming God Himself when he offered Jesus his humble hospitality? He probably did not, at least consciously, but he certainly would have been well aware of Jesus' teachings and miracles, of His reputation as God's representative among men. Consequently, by receiving God's “representative,” Zacchaeus was also consenting to a “familiar acquaintance” with God, although he likely did not grasp the extent or significance of his acceptance or of his burgeoning conversion. (46) Our tax collector did, however, realize the need to offer an external sign of the renewal he was experiencing deep within. He stood before Jesus in a solemn attitude of formal, public declaration and proclaimed, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold” (19:8). These words may be interpreted in different ways. Was Zacchaeus telling Jesus that he already gave half his goods to the poor and restored whatever he had extorted from his neighbors? If so, why did the crowd still consider such a generous man to be an infamous sinner, and why would Luke emphasize Zacchaeus' position as a wealthy chief tax collector, a plainly negative character in the eyes of his readers? On the contrary, was Zacchaeus promising that he would immediately begin to make amends for his sins out of gratitude for the honor Jesus had bestowed on him and in recognition of his new relationship with God? Marvin R. Vincent, in his Word Studies, holds the latter view, observing that the original Greek indicates that Zacchaeus was not vindicating himself by boasting about his previous good works but rather taking a vow to give away his wealth and restore whatever (not if) he had stolen. (47) Further, Zacchaeus offered to make his reparation according to the Roman law, which suggested a fourfold restitution, as opposed to the Jewish law, which required the principal plus one fifth more. (48) Why would a Jewish tax collector stealing from other Jews opt for the harsher Roman law unless he really had experienced a true conversion of heart and honestly wanted to show the depths of his internal repentance by a substantial external sign? Otherwise, if he had practiced this kind of restoration for a long time, would he not have chosen to follow the guidelines of the Jewish law, which was all that would have been demanded? Albert Barnes sums up the argument in favor of Zacchaeus' commitment to a new, grace-driven restitution:

"It is not necessary to understand this [verse] as affirming that this “had” been his practice, or that he said this in the way of proclaiming his own righteousness. It maybe understood rather as a purpose which he “then” formed under the teaching of Christ. He seems to have been sensible that he was a sinner. Of this he was convinced, as we may suppose, by the presence and discourse of Jesus. At first, attracted only by curiosity...he had sought to see the Saviour; but His presence and conversation convinced him of his guilt, and he stood and openly confessed his sins, and expressed his purpose to give half his ill-gotten property to the poor. This was not a proclamation of his “own” righteousness, nor the “ground” of his righteousness, but it was the “evidence” of the sincerity of his repentance..." (49)

Jesus accepted Zacchaeus' vow, and implicit apology, and declared in return, “Today salvation has come to this house...For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:9-10). Zacchaeus had been one of the lost, a man separated from God and steeped in sin and worldly pursuits, but now he had become the intimate friend of Jesus and, as such, had acquired a generous, joyful, repentant heart that reached out to others in fresh and unexpected ways. The rich tax collector had discovered a new kind of wealth, the treasures of God.
          What are these divine treasures that Jesus shared with Zacchaeus and that He reveals to us through the tax collector's story? As we reflect on Zacchaeus' experiences, we discover that Jesus desires a relationship with all people, no matter what the state of their hearts or the positions they hold in society. He searches out even the least likely candidate for intimacy and invites Himself into that individual's life, just as He did with Zacchaeus. Looking deeply into the person's soul, Jesus sees what others do not. He responds to the slightest inclination of the soul towards grace, the smallest tendency to turn toward Him, no matter what the motivation, and He showers the soul with mercy and love. This is how He fulfills His mission of seeking and saving the lost. Further, as we reflect on Zacchaeus' story, we notice that God's ways are not our ways. Jesus' behavior towards Zacchaeus was astonishing, at least by human standards. No one would ever have predicted that Jesus would choose to be the guest of a local publican, a notorious sinner. This should be comforting to us, for as St. Ambrose says, “He chooses a chief tax collector: who can despair when such a man obtains grace?” (50) Who can fail to hope in a God Who reaches out to the lost and draws them to himself? Who can fail to have faith in a God Who extends His hand to a sinner like Zacchaeus? Who can fail to love a God Who gives Himself to the broken hearted in order to make them whole?
          How might we reflect on Zacchaeus' story in light of our own experiences and circumstances? As always, we shall suggest a few meditation questions that will guide us in our quest to discover the transforming presence of God at work in us.

1. How are our lives similar to the life of Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector? Are we worldly and focused on acquiring money and possessions? Are we separated from God and other people? Are we lost in some way?

2. Do we seek Jesus? What is our motive for doing so? Are we allowing Jesus to seek and save us?

3. Are we willing to look like fools in the eyes of the world in order to respond to God's grace?

4. How is Jesus inviting Himself into our lives? Are we accepting that invitation with eager joy?

5. Do we acknowledge our sins and failings? Do we seek to make amends for them? Are we offering external signs of our internal conversion?

6. How generous are we with Jesus and with others? Are we attached to our wealth and material possessions, or are we willing to let go of them?

7. Do we receive Jesus with joy, especially in Holy Communion when He becomes a Guest in our hearts?
40. Barnes.
41. Clarke.
42. Gill; Barnes.
43. Barnes.
44. Gill.
45. Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary (e-Sword, Version 7.9.8, 2008); Henry; Gill.
46. Gill.
47. Vincent.
48. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown.
49. Barnes.
50. Navarre, 159.

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