Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Ps. 116:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
The theme of “we’re in trouble” really makes it big in the news these days. The election commercials hammer that lesson home – times are tough, my opponent has the moral character of a horned toad, and so you’d better vote for me, or the country will go to rack and ruin. Or those hysteria-breeding news reports, about things that will go very, very wrong unless …. The headlines are full of it: are we sliding into a Japanese-style economic deflation from which there is no recovery? Has the average American become a non-voter who no longer cares who is in charge? Pick an issue – any issue: there is sure to be someone out there worked up over it.
Way back in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a group of people, with similar urgent concerns, came to John the Baptist. Things are really getting bad, they said – maybe they shouted – to him. What then shall we do? John was very straight-forward; you may remember some of what he told this collection of ordinary people:
‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Lk 3:11-14)
Later on in Jesus’ ministry, even rich people began to be curious – they, too, wanted in on this good news, these promises of the good life now, and for all eternity. You may remember this story:
A certain ruler asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.”’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ (Luke 18:18-27)
Don’t we find echoes of the struggles of our own day in these stories? Don’t’ we all want to do the right thing, to find our groove with God, as it were, to live the good life now, to be saved from our fears and worries and hang-ups? To find a connection with God that will last us into eternal life?
Last week we read the story of the very righteous religious man – the Pharisee – and the categorical sinner – the tax collector. We talked about how these two represented two schools of thought – two schools of prayer, as it were – about getting right with God. For the Pharisee, getting right with God meant following all the rules – like that rich ruler. But there is a problem with this: according to Jesus, these folks can no more get into heaven than a camel can fit through the eye of a needle. If following the rules of righteousness doesn’t work, then WHAT THEN SHALL WE DO? This question begins to take on real urgency: how are we ever going to figure this out?
Which brings us to the second school of prayer, that of John the Baptist, echoed in today’s gospel. Zacchaeus didn’t intend to figure out the answer to these urgent questions; he just wanted to see Jesus. But what he discovered was that Jesus just wanted to see him – the rich tax collector, the categorical sinner, the one who no righteous person would be caught dead with, much less talking and eating with. Jesus wanted to see him. Zacchaeus didn’t know he was looking for salvation, when salvation came looking for him.
And then what did Zacchaeus do? He did what John the Baptist advised, and what the rich ruler and the Pharisee could not. He took all his possessions used them in service to God, to the kingdom, to the poor and the ones he might have cheated. He took Jesus into his house – Jesus and his whole entourage of sinners and poor people and women and soldiers and outcasts. Zacchaeus used what some would call “ill-gotten gains” to hold a banquet of abundance and mercy and generosity, to open the doors of his house to everyone Jesus would welcome. Zacchaeus learned that day, when he climbed down from that tree, that by giving away what he had, there would always be enough to go around.
Many years ago, people here at St. Paul’s began holding a banquet for everyone Jesus would welcome. When times were tough, when rich people were worrying about not having enough to go around, you gave it all away. You opened all the doors and welcomed everyone. You learned what Zacchaeus learned, and what the rich ruler couldn’t. Salvation has come to this house, and you are the children of Abraham.