Meg Peery McLaughlin
October 18, 2020
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy1 to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give2 to the poor; and if I have defrauded3 anyone of anything, I will pay4 back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I’m so grateful to all the young people who are leading us worship today
and for all the young people who enrich this church.
If you know a child, I hope you’ll ask them to tell you about this guy.
His name is Snape.
Professor Severus Snape.
Who is the Head of one of the houses at Hogwarts,
specifically the house of Slytherin.
Slytherin just sounds slimy.
Snape is always dressed in black.
He hangs out with the Dark Lord and death eaters.
In the movies he’s played by late, great, Alan Rickman.
As we are reading JK Rowlings’s Harry Potter novels, we are all predisposed to hate this character.
And we do.
He’s a slimy little man.
Just like Zaccheaus. That wee little man.
Now, granted, when these most adorable children sing about the wee little man,
we can’t help but swoon. I mean, I know I’m biased toward my own girls,
but who can resist their faces?
But don’t let their cherubim voices fool you,
like Snape, we are predisposed to hate Zacchaeus.
The first thing we hear about him is that
is that he is a chief tax collector and is rich. That’s not a good start.
Tax collectors, who as you may remember, were traitors
—they were jews working for the occupying Roman government.
They were scoundrels too
—they skimmed money off the top to line their own pockets.
You know that character in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Thénardier?
He’s the innkeeper. And he has a practice of making a buck any way he can.
He’s essentially a thief, and a sleazy one at that. He’s the one who sings the song Master of the House. And god bless Charlie Hyland who is going to sing of his corrupt ways.
Charge ’em for the lice, extra for the mice
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice
Here a little slice, there a little cut
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut
When it comes to fixing prices
There are a lot of tricks I knows
How it all increases, all them bits and pieces
Jesus! It’s amazing how it grows!
Well, that could be the tax collector’s theme song.
And Zacchaeus was the chief one. chief one. And he was rich.
And when it comes to the wealthy in Luke’s gospel, well,
let’s just say they don’t fare well.
Jesus starts out by saying “WOE to you who are rich now[i]”
and in the chapter right before this one we hear that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God[ii].”
It is no wonder that people grumble when Jesus invites himself over to his house.
Grumble, grumble, grumble.
You can hear their self-righteous pouts.
Okay. Spoiler alert for current Harry Potter readers,
and for Gospel readers too.
In the final Harry Potter book, book 7,
Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts,
has an exchange with Snape,
where Snape begs Dumbledore to keep a secret.
Keep some personal information about Snape’s life private:
namely Snape’s love, his tenderness, his loyalty.
“I want your word”, Snape says.
And Dumbledore replies,
“My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?”
Dumbledore sighed, “If you insist[iii].”
Well, if I understand this text,
there is a best to be revealed in Zacchaeus as well,
and Jesus comes to show us.
Isn’t what that Jesus is always doing? Revealing the best of us?
Zacchaeus may have been a wee little man,
and he may have had to climb a tree to see Jesus,
but to our surprise,
Zacchaeus was a man who stood tall in this world.
Zaccheaus is the picture of generosity unraveled,
generosity unfurled, generosity spooling out every which way.
You may not have picked up on this at first.
The New Revised Standard Version translates the story in a way I wouldn’t.
The story goes that after the people grumble,
Zacchaeus says “half of my stuff I will give to the poor,
and if I’ve ripped anyone off, I will pay them back four times as much.”
“I will do this”, that’s how the NRSV says it.
Now, here’s the part in the sermon where all the English majors will feel at home.
In the original greek, the verb tense for these lines is called the present future tense.
So, more literally, it’s “I give already, right now, half of what I own to the poor.”
And “I do repay any I have wronged. Right now, that’s my practice.”
I don’t know why the NRSV translates the verb in simply the future tense,
I suppose they interpret Zacchaeus as making a dramatic change.
But I believe a close reading here shows that Zacchaeus was in the practice of generosity,
and Jesus, well he shines a light on it.
Zacchaeus may have had a rough job,
and he may have been wealthy,
but Zacchaeus knew what money was for.
Zacchaeus knew that money was about his neighbor.
Money is always about people.
Zacchaeus had the power to cheat,
he could’ve been the “master of the house”—
but instead he’s the kind of guy who shares his house with others.
Jesus tells him he’s coming over for lunch
and it’s, of course, he says, sure, what’s mine is yours, Jesus,
Because he’s already in that practice.
At UPC our average pledge is $4,400.
Zacchaeus gives HALF of his income away.
That blows my 10%-after-taxes-pledge completely out of the water.
Princeton Theological Seminary is paying $28 million in reparations over the next five years to students of color and curriculum changes.
But that pales in comparison to Zacchaeus.
The Torah, the Hebrew Scriptures,
suggest that those wronged be restored in full with a fifth of its value added to it[iv]—
but Zacchaeus pays people back fourfold.
No wonder Jesus wants to bring this guy out of the closet, or the tree.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, who stood tall,
because he stood for his neighbors,
he used what he had to care for the people around him,
even those around him who apparently didn’t like him very much.
It’s no mistake that this scripture is showing up during Stewardship Season at UPC.
And hear me right,
no way is there an expectation that you’d give half of your income away,
I mean, some feel as if a tithe—10% is too much to ask,
but here me right,
yes way do I think you get this, UPC.
I may new in this pulpit, but anyone can see
that you know, like Zacchaeus, that in the church, money is always about people.
About these precious children who are leading you today,
about fulfilling your baptismal vows to them,
and not just them,
but about the children of color who are getting support for their online learning across the street through the Service Learning Center that you helped launch
and not just them,
but children who live in Habitat for Humanity houses that you help build
and children who live in Haiti, whose teachers are equipped through workshops you enable.
This is who you are, UPC,
Jesus has revealed the best of this congregation,
the part that knows that when it comes down to it,
our money is about relationships, about our neighbors, our community.
And I invite you to participate in this, friends.
If you are new, to begin.
If you have been at level that’s easy, to increase.
Maybe the amount you’d spend on travel (whenever we did that). Maybe 1% of your income.
If you have been giving sacrificially, to continue.
When Jesus said at the end of this story that he came “to seek and save the lost”
I’m sure that everyone thought Jesus was eyeing Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector.
But having been fed at Zacchaeus’ table, full up on his gracious hospitality,
I can’t help but wonder
if Jesus had taken a pause from Zacchaeus’ stories of his neighbors,
if he had leaned back in his chair there,
just perched on two wooden legs and peeked out the window,
I can’t help but wonder if Jesus eyes were on those who were grumbling,
those who were lonely—not even knowing their neighbor,
his eyes were on the one who might not know the joy of generosity
who are lost to it
they were the ones Jesus came to save.
May it be so.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Luke 6:24
[ii] Luke 18:25
[iii] JK Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
[iv] Leviticus 6: 2-5