I know we’re all sinners, but you need to understand this about our Gospel today: as a tax collector, Zacchaeus was considered a very bad man. I’m not taking a personal potshot at him, of course, but in Jesus’ time, in Roman-dominated Palestine, a tax collector was a collaborationist, someone whose work helped to support an enemy occupation force. He was aiding and abetting a foreign power. Imagine what the neighbors thought, as Zacchaeus took their money to pay the enemy!
Even worse, a tax collector was less like an IRS bureaucrat of our own day, and more like an extortionist or a member of an organized crime mob. The tax collector got paid from what he managed to take from the people, providing some great motivation to grab as much as he could, so the occupation troops and the tax collector together had a pretty good protection racket. The front man put the squeeze on, and if the victim didn’t cooperate the soldiers came by later and broke his legs! “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
I think it’s fair to say that Zacchaeus was far more than unpopular in the town of Jericho: he was probably despised, and rightly so. He’d become rich, scamming and skimming his way ahead of his peers. Remember what he says in our reading today, “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” (Lk. 19:8). If I have defrauded anyone? Tax collecting must have been pretty lucrative if Zacchaeus could afford to give away half of what he owned, and recompense his victims at such a rate.
I’m laying it on a bit thick to give us a sense of how scandalous it was for Jesus to reach out to this despised person. As the people of Jericho grumble, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (Lk. 19:7). They’re surprised and taken aback. We may sometimes think about Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation as an outreach to the poor and the sick, the disadvantaged and those who are in need. All true, as miracle after miracle attests.
These miracles of compassion and healing cast Jesus’ ministry in one light, but his association with Zacchaeus gives us a better sense of what Jesus was willing to risk by his ministry of reconciliation. Guilt by association: this man’s a sinner, and you must be too! Jesus accepted Zacchaeus’ hospitality, implicating himself in many eyes in Zacchaeus’ crimes against the people.
This story also has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. In a polarized world, reaching across the aisle to our political opponents may be the closest we can come to understanding the barriers this story reveals to us. In our day, these are the people who are demonized, whatever camp you find yourself in. In a hyper-politicized and morally censorious context like ours, we’re increasingly unwilling to interact at all with those we disagree with. We may be willing to reach out to the underprivileged, may even feel good about it, but what about our political opponents? This may now be “the unforgiveable sin.”
As we’ve heard in our Gospel, Jesus was willing to stretch himself in exactly this way, in the service of reconciliation. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:9-10). The prophet Isaiah plotted his path centuries before: “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich” (Is. 52:9); “he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (Is. 52:12). Jesus reached across the aisle, the gap between heaven and earth, in order to be one with us (remember, we’re all sinners). He actually became one of us in order to reconcile us to God. As the prophet says, he poured himself out to death.
Our confirmands now know what it is they are getting into, by their willingness to re-affirm their baptismal vows and to receive the laying on of hands. Jesus engaged in risky behavior in reaching out to the lost, and he gave his life for the sake of others. Part of what we re-commit ourselves to as a congregation today is to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Pick your least likely neighbor, the one you really despise, and start loving! It’s the toughest and least heroic work you can find, but it is the way of life and peace. It’s the way that Jesus’ shows us in our Gospel today.