Zacchaeus for Adults

Sermon preached November 3, 2013
Iglesia Presbiteriana Comunidad de Esperanza
Bogotá, Colombia

I don’t know if this is the same for you, but this story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus was one of the most common in my Sunday school classes when I was a kid… Zacchaeus’ was always featured in the children’s’ Bibles I got from my parents… I learned to sing a little song about Zacchaeus… and I don’t know how many times I colored a little drawing of Zacchaeus sitting in a tree with a smiling Jesus urging him to come down. In this way, my little friends and I identified with Zacchaeus… partly because he was little like us, and also because he liked to climb trees, one of our favorite pastimes.
And from a very young age, I, like many of you, could have explained this story. We all know it: Zacchaeus was short and had to climb a sycamore tree to be able to see Jesus who was passing through his town. When Jesus came to the sycamore tree he calls to Zacchaeus and tells him to come down because he needs to stay at his house. Zacchaeus happily comes down, receives Jesus and repents of his sins. And the story ends with Jesus announcing that Zacchaeus has been saved.
Seen in this way, this is a classic conversion story… with Zacchaeus the sinner, who repents of his sins, being forgiven by Jesus who declares his salvation.
But now, reading this story with adult eyes… and knowing more of the injustice of this world… I wonder if we’ve grasped the full significance of this story.
Could this story be deeper than the version we learned as children? And could there be applications to Colombia today?
At first glance, this story strikes me as strange. It does not develop the way I would have written it. If it were up to me, Jesus would show up with piercing eyes and tell Zacchaeus that his time was up, and he would soon be held to account. Jesus would publically condemn the exploitation and injustice of the Roman Empire. But the Jesus that runs the sellers out of the temple and accuses them of having turned it into a “den of robbers” – later in this very chapter – is not the Jesus we get here. No… Luke’s Christ frustrates me and challenges my expectations. And it’s important to note that the Gospel of Luke is one of the most severe in denouncing the exploitation of the poor. Just look at last week’s text… where the rich ruler is saddened after his encounter with Jesus as he is told he must sell all that he owns and distribute the money to the poor. Why didn’t the messiah say the same thing to Zacchaeus?
But this is not the only thing that seems strange to me about this story. If this is a story for adults as well, then what is a rich and powerful man doing up a tree anyways? Can you imagine Carlos Ardila Lule, Luis Carlos Sarmiento or Julio Mario Santo Domingo[1]climbing a tree on Seventh Avenue to see someone go by?
It just doesn’t make sense.
Could it be that Zacchaeus had other motives for climbing that sycamore tree?
The text tells us that Zacchaeus was not just rich, but also the chief tax collector. In other words, he was Jewish, but had sold out to the Roman invaders and accepted a position that entailed collecting taxes for the empire that oppressed the majority of the Judeans. The text also tells us that when they saw that Jesus would go to Zacchaeus’ house they began to grumble,
“Look… he’s going to that sinner’s house!”
It is likely that Zacchaeus was not very well liked, if not despised, by the majority of Jesus’ followers. Tax collectors had the power to not just collect taxes, but to do it by force. They could call on Roman soldiers to raid someone’s home if they suspected they weren’t paying the Empire all they were supposed to. The so-called Pax Romana was achieved through the sword. And the response of some Jews – known as the zealots – was armed resistance. And a small group of zealots known as the Sicarrii (where the Colombian word “sicario[2]” comes from) sought to rid Judea of the Romans and their lackeys by assassinating them with small daggers they could conceal in their clothes.
Could it be that not just his lack of height, but fear caused Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree?
And isn’t that what the rich and exploiters do today? Isn’t it common to see them with their bodyguards, in their mansions, ranches and armored vehicles[3]? Are these the sycamore trees of Colombia today?
And could it be that this is not just a story about Zacchaeus’ conversion? But the conversion of the entire community? A story of reconciliation and not just personal salvation?
Another clue that something more may be going on in this passage can be found in verse 8 when Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and will pay back four times any amount he has defrauded anyone. If this is a story of Zacchaeus’ conversion then it would be important for their to be a change in his attitude, a repentance for his sins.  Because of this, many Bible translations have verse 8 in the future tense. Zacchaeus says, “I will give…” or, “I will pay back”. But if we go to the Greek we find that the verbs are in the present tense. In other words, it appears that Zacchaeus is not so much saying that he will change, but is defending himself. He’s saying that he already gives half of his possessions to the poor and fairly repays anyone that he wrongs. And if that is the case, then he is a fair man. If it’s not the case, then he’s lying… either to save face with the Messiah or perhaps with the crowd who is listening. Ultimately it is impossible to know for sure which of these three scenarios is correct. The text here is ambiguous.
But what follows is not ambiguous!
Immediately following Zacchaeus’ statement, Jesus says (in verses 9 and 10): “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
And here Jesus breaks with our common understanding of the process of salvation… where we sometimes believe that it is necessary to repent before salvation happens… where God’s forgiveness comes after repentance. Note that this text does not mention forgiveness nor repentance. But the promise of salvation, and straight from the Messiah’s mouth, is proclaimed!
But salvation for whom? This is also very interesting! Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” The word that is translated as house comes from the Greek word “oikos”… which in its most literal sense is house, but can also imply family, nation or community. Another valid interpretation of verse 9 could be, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, this family, and this community, because he too is a son of Abraham.”  In other words, this community is saved when all the children of Abraham are saved… including the oppressors. Salvation –as an act of pure grace- comes, according to Jesus, because Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. He is part of the community. This is an example of radical inclusion. You can’ t exclude him. You can’t make him into your scapegoat[4].
In February of this year in the town of Apartadó, the Colombian Presbyterian Church, at their 66thSynod, passed a public pastoral statement on the “Victims’ and Land Restitution Law[5]”. The statement says, “We reflected on the challenges presented by in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and on how to strengthen our pastoral mission of accompanying displaced persons and giving public testimony that allows us to be a church that shares the Gospel as hope and good news of peace.And the statement goes on to announce the Presbyterian Churchs intention to develop an accompaniment process with victims and in particular victims of land-theft and forced displacement[6].
I have had the honor of accompanying Pastor Sanmiguel[7] on trips to Catatumbo[8] and Pastor Diego Higuita[9] and others in the Urabá[10] region and I have witnessed the very important work that the Presbyterian Church is doing in these regions. I know that the Presbyterian Church is working for God’s reign in Colombia. And I know that your church leaders are deeply committed to peace and reconciliation.
But, the Zacchaeus story still unsettles me… it unsettles me when I think of the future of Colombia… when I think of the paramilitaries, the guerrilla, the drug-traffickers and the state military forces… it unsettles me when I think of the peace processes that are going on.
How many sycamore trees do we not have in Colombia? With oppressors hiding there in the branches? Hiding, but in need of a transforming encounter with Jesus? And yet, we’re all there in one way or another… either hiding up in the tree or below it grumbling about sinners and how much they’ve hurt us. I’m there… hoping Jesus will condemn when he’s clear that he came to save. I’m there wanting to blame others without “fessing up” to my share of the blame.
I relieve that today’s text invites us to remember and to affirm that we love the victims in Colombia, not because they are victims, but because they are daughters and sons of God. And that we also love the victimizers in Colombia, even as we repudiate their acts of violence and exploitation, because they too are sons and daughters of God.
We need to learn a radical new way of coexistence… the FARC[11] and the Colombian government are doing it in Havana.[12] Former paramilitaries and former guerrillas are doing it in the Bellavista Prison in Medellin.
Maybe you and I need to climb on up in our own sycamore tree… maybe we need to see Jesus. Or maybe we’ve been sitting up there too long… and we need to come down and restore community.
If what we want is a changed Colombia… a Colombia with justice and peace… we need everyone to be transformed: victimizers and victims, poor and rich, whites and blacks, men and women, heterosexuals and lgbt, adults and children, saints and sinners. We urgently need this conversion, especially those of us who have caused the worst ills in Colombia: the rich, the white, the men, the adults, the heterosexuals and the Saints.[13]
Thank you God for sending Jesus to show us true conversion… bringing the Zacchaeus’s down from the sycamores and saving all your people. We pray for the salvation and liberation of all victims… and victimizers, of Colombia… and of all peoples of the earth. Thy Kingdom come… May it be so.

[1]  Three of the richest and most powerful Colombians… the equivalent of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Donald Trump.
[2]“Sicario” is a common word in Colombia… the equivalent of hitman.
[3]All quite common in Colombia.
[4]A very veiled reference to René Girard, and mimetic theory.
[5]This is very important legislation in Colombia where the Colombian government recognizes millions of victims of the armed conflict and promises to pay them restitution (either in returning land that was stolen from them, when possible, or money).
[6]The equivalent of refugees, of which there are some 5 million in Colombia.
[7]Pastor of the church where I was preaching.
[8]A very conflicted area of Colombia (along the border with Venezuela) where lots of peasants have lost their land and/or are fighting to keep their land, where the Presbyterian Church of Colombia has started the process they mention in the public statement.
[9]Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia.
[10]Another very conflicted area of rural Colombia (along the border with Panama).
[11]Colombia’s largest guerrilla army.
[12]They are currently in peace talks.
[13]Adapted from a reflection on Luke 19:1-10 by Harold Segura.

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