How many times have we heard the story of Zacchaeus? How many times have we sung the song growing up? How often have we listened to sermons on the “wee little man?” It is a classic story of the tax collector – by all accounts a cheater and sinner – redeemed by Jesus. For it was Jesus who noticed him up in the tree, and invited him to come down – “for I’m going to your house today.” As the song goes. And even though the people were angry, and grumbled that Jesus would go to the house of a sinner, Jesus sat and ate with this sinner and blessed him. A story of redemption. Of healing. Another sinner has been saved. It is a story of how Jesus changes people and makes even the foulest sinner clean.
Or is it? What if the story of Zacchaeus is about something else entirely? There is a reason I love it when people read along with me as I read the Scripture. One, you never know when the preacher is going to make something up. You have to keep us honest! (Just kidding.) But for real, there is sometimes in the reading that you notice something, or experience something, or wonder something. This might have been the case if you were following along in your pulpit Bible this morning. If you picked up one of the Revised Standard Versions and read along with it, instead of just listening to me read the New Revised Standard Version. If you did, you might have noticed something, and wondered about it.
Listen (or look) closely at verse eight…”And Zacchae’us stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Do you notice the difference here? All the verbs are in the present tense. Zacchaeus is not saying, “this is what I will do.” But instead, “This is what I do.” The traditional interpretation of this passage is that he is already acting as though he does these things. That interpretation is the reason that some Bible translators change the tense from present to future…”I will do these things.” (as in the NRSV).
But more and more scholars are asking if perhaps the story of Zacchaeus is not what we assume it to be. As Daniel Lose says it, Zacchaeus is not “turning over a new leaf, as much as lifting up an old leaf for all to see.” He and many others suggest that we misread the story when we turn it into a conversion story. It is not what the story was really about in the first place.
So, let me tell you the story today in a new way:
- Zacchaeus was an oxymoron. He was an honest tax collector. In fact, even his name means “righteous one” or “pure one.” He already does what the law code in Exodus requires and gives back four-fold anything he has stolen. Yet, it doesn’t matter what he does, because people assume that he is cheating them. All tax collectors do, right? The people assume that he is dirty. They assume that he is wrong. It doesn’t matter what he says to them – they will assume what they are going to assume anyway. Thus, he is outcast and rejected in his community.
- Short in stature, he climbs in a tree to see Jesus, not because his life as a wicked tax collector is empty and meaningless, but because no one understands who he is or how he tries to live, and maybe, just maybe, Jesus will.
- And he does. When Jesus spots him, Jesus knows something is different about him. Maybe he understands Zacchaeus has been working hard to do it right. Maybe he just hears the jeers of the crowd about Zacchaeus and figures that this man deserves a second look. Not so that Jesus could “fix” him, but so he could celebrate and affirm who he was. After all, throughout his preaching, Jesus has always had an eye out for the misunderstood, the rejected, the oppressed, calling them righteous and pure, even when no one else does. So he walks up to the tree and says, “Hurry down. I’m coming to your house.”
- Of course, the crowd responds predictably. They continue to jeer and judge him, and now grumble against Jesus, because he has gone to the house of this clear sinner. Doesn’t he know that he is a tax collector, so he must be a cheat? Doesn’t he know that eating with such a sinner makes him ritually unclean? Doesn’t he know that God has rejected men like this? But of course, in this version of the story, Zacchaeus is not the bad guy – the crowd is. They are on the outside looking in. Jesus has sided with this man, because he gets it right. He follows God’s law. He is a son of Abraham. With his arm around him, Jesus is saying, “here’s my boy.”
- And finally, supported and encouraged by Jesus, Zacchaeus has his say. He doesn’t speak when he hears Jesus is coming to town. He doesn’t speak when Jesus talks to him in the tree. He doesn’t speak when Jesus follows him to his house. But now, the grumblers and the naysayers finally get to him. Luke says, “Zacchaeus stood there.” This is more than just storytelling. Up to this point, all the verbs in the story have suggested movement. Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem. Zacchaeus runs to the tree. Jesus says, “hurry down.” And he hurries from the tree. Finally, this is the first verb of stability in the passage. Zacchaeus literally takes a stand. And with words of clarity and purpose, he tells them, “I do it right. I always have. I don’t cheat. I follow the law.” In other words, “This is who I am and this is who I have been the whole time.”
- And Jesus pronounces salvation, not on Zacchaeus, but on his household. Because of his righteousness, Jesus has restored his good name. He has made Zacchaeus the example of righteousness in the community, and has publically honored him with his presence. He is not “a man turning over a new leaf, but one lifting an old leaf for all to see.”
It’s a different way of looking at the story, to say the least, but I think it has something to say to us today. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the word on the street is that the Church is irrelevant. We don’t know the culture anymore. People don’t want what we have. We might as well close the doors and go home.
Well, the word on the street is not always right. I agree that the Church needs to do some serious soul-searching. We need to do more listening and less speaking. We need to do less assuming and more asking. However, calling the Church irrelevant misses what God is doing. The Church is the manifestation of God’s work on earth, and there is nothing more relevant than that. Perhaps the Church is changing. Perhaps some of the ways that we have done Church are less relevant. But the Church is more relevant than ever and it’s time for us to be clear about that in our own minds and in our message.
Another observation. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the word on the street is that Baptists are outdated. Using that name, talking about our history, understanding what makes us who we are. We might as well close the doors and go home.
Well, the word on the street is not always right. Of course, I have been entirely embarrassed by some who call themselves Baptist. They have been some of the grace-less and hateful individuals I have ever known. But to me, they are the exception, and not the rule. I think that Baptists are primed to be a significant voice for change in the Church and in the world.
It is Baptists who have always claimed that the Bible is something that must be read and interpreted by all in community, not by a cadre of experts who “own it” and pass down its wisdom from on high. It is Baptists who have always claimed that grassroots, congregational ministry is always better than top-down, holy franchise. It is Baptists who have always claimed that each of us has a sense of spirituality – a connection to God that is personal and intimate and unique. What the world is saying it wants in its spirituality, we have always said. And it’s time for us to be clear about that in our own minds and in our message.
Finally, I don’t know if you have heard, but the word on the street is that First Baptist Church is in trouble. We are crippled by construction trauma. We are hopelessly mired in debt. We are broke. We might as well close the doors and go home.
Well, the word on the street is not always right. I spend a lot of time with other pastors and listening to stories about other churches. Believe me, our church is not a church in crisis, as many are. Our debt is manageable, and our annual giving is about where it usually is this time of year. It is important that we finish our pledges this year, and pledge for the coming year, but we are not in danger of defaulting or failing to pay our bills. We are not broke. We are not in crisis.
But that doesn’t mean that people are not going to make assumptions about us, anyway. It doesn’t matter what we say – people will say what they will say. Regardless of the truth, people will say that the Church is irrelevant, that Baptists are outdated, and that First Baptist is in trouble. But, today, I want us to take a page from the book of Zacchaeus. I want us to stand up and stand firm about who we are. It is important for us to know our purpose and identity and what we stand for. I want us – the people of First Baptist – to look the grumblers and the naysayers in the eye and with the boldness of Zacchaeus, say, “this is who we are and this is who we have been the whole time.”
We were here the whole time – when Quantrill’s Raid devastated Lawrence, we took in those in need and cared for the community.
- We were here the whole time – when the GI’s came home after World War II, we created a safe place for them to worship and rejoin in community and learn. We even built a roller skating rink on the church property to be a place to hang out and to fellowship.
- We were here the whole time – when Lawrence was in the social turmoil of the 60’s, we provided a place where questions could be asked while cooler heads could still prevail. Bob Heacock, in the church’s history, Strength of Stone, described that time: [in the midst of the turmoil, ] “the church was still there and offered hope and fellowship for all who would enter.”
- We were here the whole time – when the boom of the 70’s and 80’s began to move the population center of town west, we moved west, too, in order to continue to offer ministry and mission, and even now we are one of the only food pantries and Head Start centers on this side of town – meeting needs where we are.
- We were here the whole time – when the needs of our community and world cried out, we were here!
So now that we have concrete floors and have some decisions to make about our sanctuary, are we going to listen to the voices around us and fold up shop? Are we going to say that being a Christian doesn’t matter? Being a Baptist is outdated? That we are broke and should just go home?
No. This is our time to stand. As Pastor Meredith preached last week, it is our time to acknowledge the pain and the grief and frustration that we feel, and then, strengthened by our honesty and strengthened by that vulnerability, we stand up. Like Zacchaeus, we stand and say “This is who we are and this is who we have been the whole time! We have not left Lawrence yet, and we are not leaving now. We have been here the whole time and we aren’t going anywhere.”
What happens when the walls come down? We keep doing what we have been doing for the last 158 years! We welcome. We worship. We work. We wonder. We follow the call of the Gospel in Lawrence and around the world and we don’t let a little construction dust slow us down.
We use our building as a base camp, to launch out into the world around us and do the work of the Gospel.
- We teach the story of God’s good news and go out into the world to live that story in a new context and a new reality.
- We give our money to those in need and we work to change structures so that in the next day, the next year, the next decade, there will be less in need and less in pain.
- We stand up together and sing songs of God’s grace and God’s love and we worship the One who knows the world better than we do, but who loves it still, who came and died for it still, and who lives in it still today.
What happens when the walls come down? We stand up to those voices of doubt and fear and skepticism and grumbling and we say “we have been here the whole time!” We aren’t closing up shop. We aren’t going away. We are going to keep doing what we have always done. It’s an old leaf, but it’s a good one. It’s an old leaf – 158 years old as a matter of fact – but it’s worth turning over for all the world to see. So I want us to be proud of our story, be proud of our Gospel, and together, take a stand to live and proclaim that Gospel – today and in the days ahead.