I’ve heard the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus for many years. The job of chief tax collector in Jericho offers Zacchaeus great wealth, taken as interest from others. Zacchaeus is despised, but not without cause. In collecting taxes for the oppressive Roman government he is considered to be a collaborator, and quite likely has pocketed wealth at his own discretion. Reading the story again this week, I tried to imagine myself in the crowd, on the streets of Jericho. What would it be like? What would I be hooping for? What would I be thinking and feeling? I invite you to come back in time with me to that day in Jericho.
I’m think that if I was a part of the crowd, I would left feeling bitter about Jesus interaction with Zack. Why am I bitter? I realize it’s because I long for Jesus to notice me and frankly I don’t trust Zack. I’m still waiting for my tax refund!
Can someone really change that fast? Will his vow of generosity and restorative justice last, or is this the euphoria of the moment, the generosity of a man touched by… by what? By an acceptance that he has hitherto never known. In a society where your family ties were of utmost importance, where what you did for a living and who your parents were mattered a great deal, and were a matter of honour or shame, Jesus dares to call Zach, a son of Abraham, in other words, part of the family of God. The strange thing is Jesus seems to trust Zack and his desire for change, so who am I to say he won’t change. Who am I to say that this encounter with Jesus won’t set him on a different path? Who am I? Who am I, blending in with the crowd, longing to be noticed, longing myself to be challenged and yet terrified at the prospect?
In her book,” I’d say Yes God if I knew what you wanted”, Nancy Reeves talked with someone who said they longed to do God’s will but were afraid that God would want them to do the most difficult thing. God does want us to do the most difficult thing, Nancy affirms, and that most difficult thing is to love our self and to truly be our self.
What I notice as I stand in the crowd, and think again about Zack, is that Jesus didn’t wait until Zacchaeus had promised to give half his money to the poor, and quit defrauding his neighbours. He didn’t say, “I know what a low-life you really are, collaborating with the Roman Empire. He just looked up and said, “Zack, I’m coming to your place. I want to be with you where you live.”
A memory came to me as I reflected on this… I was probably about 12 years old, and my family had gone to visit my Mom’s brother and family in central Alberta. We were on a hay ride with some cousins – beautiful Fay, a year older than me and about four of her handsome and gentle older brothers. On the hay ride my younger brother was being a relentless pain- I don’t even remember what he was doing exactly, but I was getting more and more irritated with him, which was exactly what he intended. (*My brother and I get along much better now, I’m happy to say.) But that day we ended up really fighting, and I think he pushed me off the wagon. I was mortified. I was hurt – a bit, but mostly, I was so embarrassed, that when we got back to the farm, I refused to go into the house, but walked by myself out past the barns and corrals. I thought these cousins were the perfect family and I had made a perfect ass of myself.
By and by, my uncle Earl came out to meet me. He didn’t say much, just talked a little about how he loved the smell of the fields in the evening. Mostly we walked in silence. He never mentioned the hay ride, the fight; he never told me I should have controlled myself better, that I was the older sibling and should know better. What his silence said to me was one of the most precious gifts I have ever received. It said, “I love you, and I want to be here with you, just as you are.”
That encounter changed me. It taught me so much about love and grace, it made me want to be loving and accepting and gracious with people. I can’t always pull it off. I don’t always do it well, but it’s a huge part of why I went into ministry. And when I remember this encounter, then I understand how Zack’s encounter with Jesus could change him, could at least make him want to change.
Zacchaeus is a recipient of Jesus’ love; his actions are a witness to the strength of that love – a love that can restore us to community, reminding us that we sons and daughters of Sarah and Abraham; and part of the family of God.
As we are the recipients of love, forgiveness, grace, gentle humour, encouragement, we can be changes by these encounters.
And as we give these gifts, others can be changed and enriched. They won’t all choose to be, but we can choose to offer the gifts.
“The Paradoxical Commandments” were written by Kent M. Keith in 1968 as part of a booklet for student leaders. His words were adapted slightly by Mother Teresa, and I think them worth sharing again, in order that we do not loose heart in sharing our gifts with the world.
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends
and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating,
others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.
Find someone to bless this week. The encounter with grace, love and acceptance may indeed change them in ways you may never know. But bless them anyway. And may God bless you in the blessing. Amen.