Primary Scripture Luke 18:31-19:10
Jesus has just about made it to Jerusalem. It has been quite a journey since that day he set his face for the city, but they are now headed into Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. On foot, through mountainous terrain, however… The road gets longer as it winds its way to the city.
We don’t know how many days will pass between their time in Jericho and their arrival in Jerusalem. But our reading made clear that what awaits Jesus there is clearly weighing on his mind.
For a third time, Jesus shares a glimpse into his future: his death and resurrection. And once again, those closest to him are in the dark. Unable to see what he means.
Taken together, these three predictions or teachings paint a fairly robust picture of what is to come. The first time, Jesus says that his suffering, rejection and death will come at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes in Jerusalem. Not as a result of what he is doing, but because of his identity.
The second teaching is much shorter, with Jesus saying that he will be betrayed into human hands. And then in today’s reading, Jesus takes it further. He will be handed over from the Jews into Gentile custody. Those political powers will mock and insult him, physically abuse and ultimately kill him.
At every level, Jesus will be refused; he will be the messiah rejected by humanity so that what is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.
He will suffer and die.
He will rise.
All so that he might accomplish all that he was sent to do…
All that he might seek and save the lost.
And so, all of the interruptions and side trips and all of the interactions that seemed not to be in their itinerary to Jerusalem… They were definitely part of his agenda.
It is no surprise then, as they enter Jericho, that the journey to Jerusalem is interrupted yet again… first by a blind man.
The blind man is a beggar by trade. He sits on the roadside, listening for the sounds of people passing by. He asks, people give, hopefully enough that he can eat.
It’s a pretty straightforward transaction. For him and for those who give.
Almsgiving was a mitzvah – a good deed. Offering the mercy of alms is a way to bless someone and perhaps receive a blessing from God in return.
Everyone knew how the financial transaction worked. There was honor in the giving, and there was shame in the sin that must have caused the blindness, along with shame in the need and in the asking.
The second interruption, was a bit different. As a publican by trade, a chief tax collector in fact, Zaccheus was also familiar with financial transactions. His work was not as much like an IRS agent as we might first assume. The Romans generally did their own dirty work in that regard. They had plenty of mid-level overseers to keep track of what was collected and and military personnel to intimidate (or worse) as needed in the collecting.
No, Zaccheus was a more like a private contractor hired by the Roman government to handle international trade contracts and to collect the customs payments on goods that moved in and out of the empire. These jobs were fairly common in port cities and along the border, and Zaccheus apparently supervised others in this work. He had also been at it long enough to amass enough wealth to be known as a rich man.
If the blind man was at the bottom rung of the financial ladder, Zaccheus was accustomed to the view from the top. Not that his wealth meant Zaccheus was viewed any more positively than the beggar… at least not by most Jews. After all, he was a Jewish businessman profiting from the very empire that made all of their lives miserable. Let’s just say he would not have been invited to many dinner parties.
Tax collectors and sinners… they were regularly lumped together. Though for different reasons, this very rich man and this very poor man were both living on the margins of Jewish religious life.
And on this day in Jericho, neither of them can see Jesus
But they both persist.
And on this day in Jericho, Jesus sees both of them.
He sees the blind man, but not simply his poverty or his blindness
He sees Zaccheus, but not primarily his wealth
Jesus sees them and stops for them because Jesus sees what so many others have not.
Jesus sees men whose hearts see in him what so many others have missed.
Which is why the transaction between these men and the Messiah is nothing like what either of them have grown accustomed to.
For the blind man, Jesus offers mercy. But not the mercy of almsgiving that will allow him to eat for a day or two. Jesus offers mercy that asks the question, rather than assuming the answer. What do you want?
I want to see.
I want to know that I, too, can be forgiven.
That I am a child of God, beloved and worthy of dignity.
Jesus, Son of David, I want you to be who I believe you are.
I want you to be able to do what I believe you can do.
I want to see that… I want to see God’s glory revealed.
Jesus offers mercy that looks like forgiveness. Forgiveness that looks like healing
The faith that the blind man offered up in those words… I want to see… that was faith enough.
Salvation had come.
And it looked an awful lot like healing, wholeness and opportunity.
It looked an awful lot like Jesus.
And as Jesus moved on, the view from the no-longer-blind man’s spot was pretty amazing.
Zaccheus had worked awfully hard to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And he had tossed aside whatever dignity he had to climb up into the tree to get a better view.
When Jesus calls him down to talk, we actually hit some of the limits of translating ancient Greek into modern English. See, Luke uses a verb tense that can be rendered a couple of different ways, because it can mean both in Greek.
The NRSV has Zaccheus speaking in the future tense…
I will give half of my possessions to the poor;
I will pay back anyone I defrauded with four times the amount.
But it is also possible to translate Zaccheus’ words as
I have given away half of my wealth;
I have made things right by returning four times more than what was illegal gain.
A more complete understanding might be I have and will continue…
He may well be saying “I know what people say about me, why people despise me, but this is how I have done my job… this is how I will keep doing it. They really don’t know me.
Scholars much smarter than me and my preaching friends have been arguing about this for quite some time. But regardless of whether he is indicating a new change of heart or explaining to Jesus the truth of what has gone on, Zaccheus has shown a much better understanding of what it means to serve God, rather than serve his own wealth, than 99% of the people Jesus has encountered.
As I reflected on what Luke was hoping to convey, it struck me that the translation we prefer might be shaped by the way we understand Jesus’ reply to Zaccheus.
Salvation has come to this house today…
It’s hard to separate our understanding of Jesus’ words from the understanding of salvation that we have inherited here in 21st century America. Waves of evangelicalism have swept North America since the Puritan fathers arrived and the Great Awakening was stirred. The resulting focus on individual salvation from eternal damnation can make our relationship with God seem like a single transaction: In exchange for a “sinner’s prayer” we receive a ticket to paradise.
This is, in fact, a relatively new doctrine. And it certainly was never the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Like the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus teaches that repentance happens again and again as our hearts are reoriented to God’s will again and again.
Jesus’ work was all about bringing wholeness right then, right there. Offering forgiveness and healing, reconnection into community. Saving their lives in this flesh and blood realm, often by removing any barriers to their being part of a family again…. even as he rewarded their faith in the God they could not see. The God we cannot see.
Doing that work meant being present for people in such a way that he – personally – was their salvation. Before, during and after his death and resurrection.
Being seen by Jesus
Experiencing the reality of God’s love and grace simply by being near him.
That is salvation.
His presence was sufficient to shore up the faith of all who who had ears to hear. All who had eyes to see (even while they are physically blind!)
His passing through town, encouraged the faith of those who wanted to see Jesus badly enough to keep shouting when other would shush them or to make a fool of themselves by climbing up for a better view.
People still long to see Jesus,
to hear a word of hope
to be in the presence of the divine
They long to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
They need to hear assurance of grace and mercy
People still want the healing and wholeness that comes when we are loved and accepted just as we are
OK – Not just people.
Not just they.
You, me, everyone I know
We all cry out for mercy.
What do you want? Jesus still asks
We want to see.
We want to be seen,
We want to be known,
We want to be loved.
Salvation still looks a lot like community,
Salvation looks a lot like the Body of Christ
And where, if not among others who have been in the presence of Christ,
Where, if not around the table…
A table where a rich man like Zaccheus, wearing his purple cloaks would feel welcome
A table where a poor man, who had begged for years in ragswould also feel welcome
Where, if not here are we no longer lost?
Let us pray….