A couple of weeks ago, somebody asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
When Jesus replied, he told the story of the Good Samaritan, who helped a man who was mugged. Then he asked, “Who was the neighbor in that story?” And the reply was, “The one who showed mercy.”
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” That’s our theme for this series.
Last week, we looked at who our neighbors are and what we can learn from them. Today, we’re going to let Jesus show us how he does neighboring.
Luke 19:1-10. He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
Does anybody here have a sycamore tree near their house? Sycamores can grow to be huge trees with enormous limbs. It has the biggest trunk of any tree in Pennsylvania (and the northeast).
I don’t know my trees very well, but I know how to tell a tree is a sycamore: the bark is in big thin patches and falls off all year as the tree grows. When they get old, they might be hollow. There are ancient stories of people finding shelter inside sycamore trees.
A church member told me about this sycamore tree in a park in Mt. Joy (PA). It had a family of owls living in it. That hole is about 50 feet off the ground.
Whenever I hear this story about Zacchaeus being in a sycamore tree (that’s the traditional Zacchaeus tree in Jericho), I think of the big sycamore behind the house I grew up in. My brothers built a treehouse in it. It was just a platform made of old shutters about ten or twelve feet off the ground. You got up there with a rope ladder. It was kind of dangerous, the more I think about it. Did you have a treehouse when you were younger? Why have a treehouse? It’s a place to get away. It’s private.
I think Zacchaeus is up in the tree not just to get a better view, but to get away from the crowd, to be out of sight, to be safe. This story wants to make sure we know that nobody likes this guy.
In your neighborhood, there is the one neighbor everybody stays away from. In your school, there is the one kid that you and most of your friends avoid. That’s Zacchaeus. These days, it seems so easy to put a target on somebody. Maybe you’ve got some experience with being that person.
The people in the crowd would say they’ve got a good reason for the way they feel about Zacchaeus. He’s a Jewish guy who collects taxes for the Romans, the occupying army, which makes him a traitor in the minds of all his Jewish neighbors.
For us, it wasn’t like he worked for the IRS. You may not like the IRS, but IRS agents aren’t thought of as traitors to their country. Not only does Zacchaeus have an unpopular job, he is rich. Think about that – a tax collector, who is rich, and works for the bad guys. Most tax collectors for the Romans made their living by skimming off the top of what they gathered.
So he is easy to hate. Do you get it? He’s up in that tree not just to see over the crowd. He doesn’t really want to be in the crowd either. He probably needs the Romans to protect him from his own people.
Maybe you know a Zacchaeus. The path of his life led him to this place. Maybe, for some reason, he couldn’t get any other job. Does he want this life? Maybe, but he is paying a price for the choices he’s made. Can you put yourself in his place up in the tree? Walk in his shoes, just for moment. Maybe you are a Zacchaeus in some way. There’s a lot of bad water that’s flowed under your bridge, and there’s a lot of inner healing you know you need. You’ve heard Jesus is nearby, you’ve heard stories, and you have to see him.
Jesus, the Son of God, walks along through Jericho. He knows this kind of crowd, so I think he looks for somebody just like Zacchaeus. When he came to the edge of town, he may have asked who the local tax collector was. Who’s the one nobody likes? Who’s got the bad reputation? Who’s the one everybody stays away from? You say that’s him in the tree?
And so, in front of everybody, he calls him out, “Yo, Zacchaeus! Get down out of the tree! I’m staying at your house!” Jesus puts his arm around his shoulder and they walk off toward Zacchaeus’ house.
This is scandalous. It would have made the TV gossip shows. Jesus went out of his way to hang out with somebody that most respectable, well-mannered people wouldn’t have anything to do with. If that’s you, Jesus would love to come to where you live. He’d love to hang out. For everybody watching that happen: you know those people nobody trusts, the ones who don’t fit? Guess who Jesus is going to have dinner with. Guess who Jesus wants you to have dinner with! As he walks off to Zacchaeus’ house, he looks at you, motions with his hand, and tells you to come along!
Jesus’ relationship with Zacchaeus created tension, conflict, some unpleasantness, but Jesus cared more about having a relationship with Zacchaeus than about preserving peace. Jesus has a habit of making comfortable people uncomfortable.
That crowd around Jesus cringed when he looked up in the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down – I’m staying at your house!”
This story is about salvation. How was Zacchaeus saved? First, when Jesus called, he said yes. That’s the first and most important step – invite Jesus in. That’s the game changer, the life changer. If you’ve never invited Jesus into your life, I’d encourage you to do that. It’s a simple prayer.
Jesus must have had a huge, profound effect on him because Zacchaeus gave half of his living to the poor and dedicated himself to treating others fairly. This is what God wants to do in our lives: enter in (at our invitation), change us, and make the world better through us. Salvation has a warning sign on it! God begins making you less selfish!
When he met Jesus, Zacchaeus became a giver. He changed and became a generous person. But the real story of giving is about what Jesus gave Zacchaeus. Jesus gave Zacchaeus respect, gave him self-esteem. That’s what helped Zacchaeus turn his attention off himself and toward others.
God is waiting to do the same thing with each of us: turn our attention off of ourselves and toward others. That is what God the Holy Spirit does in us when we believe.
When God sees us, God looks at the whole package and loves us, no matter who we are or where we’ve been. Throughout the gospel of Luke especially, you will find that there is no such thing as a separation between a person’s faith and their finances. They are intertwined. It’s all together. This is why the church talks about tithing. Tithing literally means giving 10% of your living, but Zacchaeus gave 50%. There’s another story in Luke about a rich young ruler whom Jesus told to give everything away. The point is not what you give, but that it represents your life. A percentage represents a connection to everything you have (which belongs to God anyway).
That whole story is about giving. The Christian faith is all about giving: what we give to God, what God gives to us, what we give to each other.
Like that tax collector in the tree, we come to God in need of healing, self-respect, and a new attitude toward other people. We believe in the living Jesus and God gives us those things. May God say of us, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”
O God, you’ve searched us out and we know that there’s no place to hide from you. You come looking for us by name and you find us. We might be hiding in a tree or in a busy schedule. We might be hiding behind a mask, hoping that everybody thinks we’re something we’re not. And sometimes we don’t care what anybody thinks anymore. We thought we would stand off to the side and let you pass by, but you call us by name and you want to stay with us. You want to be friends. Your love searches us out and you wrap your arms around us. Your love fills us. Change us into people who make your presence known by sharing that love. Help us introduce others to you. Amen.