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Through the Lens of Grace
a sermon based on Luke 19:1-10
by Rev. Randy Quinn

When I was five or six years old, there was a bank robbery in the town where we lived. I was too young to remember it, but I’ve heard my father tell about it - and how it directly affected him. The bank tellers gave an accurate description of a man, including a description of the plaid shirt he was wearing. Within minutes, the police found my father in a store about a block away. He was wearing the same shirt and matched the description of the man who had been involved in the robbery. But when they took him away, he had no idea why he was being arrested.

In those circumstances, protesting innocence doesn’t help. Certainly he was guilty of something! I mean, like my father, I sometimes find myself exceeding the speed limit. Like my father, I sometimes find myself jay walking. Like my father - and many of you - I find myself pressing the limits of parking meters on occasion.

No one is totally innocent. We may be ‘law-abiding citizens,’ but there are some laws we have broken at some point in time. Until he knew what he was suspected of doing, he couldn’t plead innocence. All he could do was tell the truth and hope the truth would be believed.

It wasn’t long before the truth was heard; they realized they had the wrong man and my father was released. (I’ve never heard who the real bank robber was, though.) Have you ever been wrongly accused of something? You may not have been taken into police custody for questioning, but have you ever been blamed for something you didn’t do?

Most of us have. When I was a child, there were countless times when my brothers would do something and I would take the rap. In those circumstances, I tried to plead innocence but to no avail. I was presumed guilty because my brothers said I was. In all fairness to them, I suspect they have often said they took the rap for me - I just don’t remember those times! All-too-often, the perceptions of the accuser cloud the truth and it cannot be seen or heard. Protesting does not change perceptions.

In many parts of the world, Americans are perceived as the cause of poverty and suffering simply because we have enormous wealth. It’s a perception that will not be easily changed because the accusers have already passed judgment.

Americans have been accused of idolatry, of worshipping money and wealth. And some say the terrorists are trying to convict us of the perceived wrongs we have done by destroying the ‘sacred temple’ of the World Trade Center. Whether we worship money or not, we are guilty by association.

Last week I told you about the notorious reputation of tax collectors in the Roman Empire. In a society where wealth was often seen as a sign of God’s blessings, rich tax collectors were looked upon suspiciously.

I suspect if you thought your neighbors were involved in drug dealing, you’d look on their nice clothes and new car as proof of their illegal activities. Your suspicions would affect the way you perceived the truth.

Zacchaeus was the ‘chief tax collector.’ The tax collectors in the area reported to him. He oversaw their operations, and probably made a tidy sum in commissions. Well, that’s making some assumptions that may not be true. We do know he was wealthy. And we do know he was a tax collector. Whether he kept his own record clean or not, he was guilty by association.

We also know he was short. He heard Jesus was coming to town and wanted to see him. But he was too short to see over the crowd.

A week ago, Mariah and I went to a wedding reception. During the reception, the bride and groom started to dance. They were good dancers, and people began to circle around to watch. But Mariah couldn’t see. Her first reaction was to ask me to hold her up - my first reaction was to put her in the front row so people behind her could see. It wasn’t long before all the shorter people - primarily children - were in the front row of the circle and the taller people were in the back row. More people could watch this way than if children were put on shoulders.

I wish the same thing would happen with the crowds gathering around the baggage claim at the airport. As a short person myself, I think I should be in the front row so people behind me can see. Instead, I’m usually behind sixteen people, all of which are taller than I am.

The crowd doesn’t let Zacchaeus through to see Jesus, either. Rather than making it possible for more people to see by letting the short people in the front, the crowd pushes him out and leaves him no other option than to climb a tree and look out over the crowd. Part of the reason for that, I think, is the perception of Zacchaeus as a tax collector. He is guilty by association. No one wants anything to do with him.

Jesus comes and tries to change their perceptions. Zacchaeus, he reminds them, is a child of Abraham. Zacchaeus will serve as a host to Jesus, the very Son of God! That’s more than most of the folks in Jericho could say.

By speaking to Zacchaeus, by treating him as an heir to the promises of God, by joining him in the intimate setting of his home, Jesus attempts to change the perceptions of the crowd. The surprise comes when Zacchaeus claims that he is a man of integrity who is generous and makes amends for errors he has unwittingly committed. He says he gives half of his possessions to the poor! (And while half a fortune is still a fortune, I dare say none of us would claim to be that generous.)

How many of you speak Greek? I’m with you. I don’t either.

So I rely on translators to tell me what this text says in a language that I cannot read. Then I turn to commentators who help me understand the process that the translators went through to determine the meaning of words. From what I’ve read and seen in the various translations, one word in this text is ambiguous. It’s a verb. And the ambiguity comes from the tense of the verb being used.

Again, I remind you, I am no Greek scholar. And what I have gleaned from a variety of sources is that not all scholars are in agreement about it. But the tense of the Greek verb that is translated as "give" can apparently be read in a variety of ways. Zacchaeus could be saying, "I will give" in a future tense, or he could be saying, "I here and now give" in a present tense (which is how the NIV translates the verb), or he could be saying, "I have always and will continue to give half of my goods to the poor". Depending upon which tense of the verb you accept as the correct translation, you will see that Zacchaeus is responding to God’s gracious invitation by repenting or you will see Jesus inviting the community to repent of their perceptions of Zacchaeus.

One is a reminder to us that when we realize the extent of God’s grace we are called to repent and find ways to be generous ourselves. This reading would have me conclude my sermon by saying, "If Zacchaeus can change, so can we" or words to that effect. The other reading would be a call to reflect on the ways we may have judged others based on their outward appearances, judging without knowing the whole story. Now it may also be that Luke is intentionally ambiguous. It may be that in telling this story in the way he did, Luke wants us to respond to God’s grace by changing the way we live and to change our perceptions of others as well.

My own conclusion - at least this week - is that Jesus sees a man of integrity in Zacchaeus who has been falsely accused. He sees in him a kindred spirit. For Jesus is also guilty by association. Jesus is also generous with what he has. And Jesus will also be unjustly and unfairly punished.

To those who have ever been falsely accused, this is good news. For the story of Zacchaeus read this way is a reminder that the truth will prevail. For those who are guilty of no more than generosity, the truth will be heard.

But I also believe this text is a call for us to change our perceptions about the people we see. I believe Jesus is calling us to look at a stranger as a child of God first, a child who is loved as much as we are, a child who needs to be welcomed and included in the household of faith.

When we see others with these eyes, we join Jesus in seeking the lost and inviting them into our fellowship, to be more generous and share a meal with the stranger and recognize Christ in our midst.

This is the table to which we have all been invited. (pointing to the communion table) Come join me in welcoming others to this feast from God’s bounty. Amen.