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
Ive 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 doesnt 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 couldnt plead innocence. All he could do was tell the truth and hope the
truth would be believed.
It wasnt long before the truth was heard; they realized they had the wrong man
and my father was released. (Ive 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 didnt 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 dont 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. Its 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 Gods blessings, rich
tax collectors were looked upon suspiciously.
I suspect if you thought your neighbors were involved in drug dealing, youd 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, thats 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 couldnt 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
wasnt 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, Im usually behind sixteen people, all of which are
taller than I am.
The crowd doesnt 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!
Thats 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? Im with you. I dont 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 Ive read and seen in the
various translations, one word in this text is ambiguous. Its 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods bounty. Amen.