Sermon for Sunday, October 30, 2016 || Proper 26C || Luke 19:1-10
It being Halloween tomorrow, I thought I might dress up in costume today – at least in my sermon. So imagine with me the memories of Zacchaeus the tax collector, as he reflects on the fateful day when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house in Jericho.
They were empty words when I spoke them. I admit that. I had absolutely no plan to follow through with my grand gesture after Jesus left town. I guess I was pretty unscrupulous back then, wasn’t I? Everyone was grumbling about Jesus talking to me, so I made use of the attention. “Look,” I said. “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor.”
I remember looking around at the crowd; not even that stunning display of philanthropy mollified them, so I compounded my worthless pledge. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” That received much more approval. Maybe the crowds thought I was apologizing for my lack of scruples, for my admittedly, shall we say, creative approach to tax-collecting. But I stuck that little word, that little two-letter word “if” in the middle of the pledge. That teeny-tiny word – “if” – that was my bread and butter back then. There’s quite of lot of room to maneuver, to wiggle, when you use the word “if.”
We’ve all heard it. We’ve all used it. There’s the apology that’s not really an apology because of those two letters: for example, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” In this common formulation, the onus is transferred back to the aggrieved party. It’s your problem that you got offended, not mine. Maybe you should grow thicker skin. Yeah, I was a real piece of work back then. I’ve tried since my experience with Jesus to take that word “if” out of my apologies. Now I try to say, “I’m sorry that I offended you.” Now the onus is on me. I’m taking responsibility.
Indeed, that day when I climbed the tree to see Jesus was the first step on my long road to responsibility. I didn’t even know I had taken it until I looked back and saw a change in my life, a branching to a new path, even as I climbed into the branches of the sycamore. Before I met Jesus, my general mode of behavior was entirely wrapped up in seeing just how much I could obtain, no matter the consequences. I never really looked beyond myself. I was the center of my own universe and others mattered only insomuch as to their immediate worth to me.
I worked with the Romans because they were in power, and collaborating was much preferable to being ground beneath their boots. I collected taxes for the empire and for myself. There were a million little ways to enrich my coffers on the backs of my fellow citizens. Most of them can’t read, so I had an advantage right from the word “go.” My favorite trick was what I called the “transport and security” fee. I would charge a little extra to guarantee delivery to the Roman officials. I charged “late” fees all the time. Ah, the “currency exchange” fee – that was a popular tactic. And the money flowed in.
And the more I got, the more I wanted. Never mind that I would never be able to spend it all. I was a single man with neither friends nor romantic prospects. There’s only so much one can spend on fine food and clothing. But I didn’t care. I measured my self-worth by my net worth. And I had no idea how unhappy I was. Nor did I have any notion that my nefarious actions contributed to the unhappiness of others. I really did not have a single self-reflective bone in my body back then. One needs self-reflection in order to take responsibility for one’s actions. Perhaps that’s why I never cultivated that particular ability. I wanted to remain blind to the effects of my amoral life.
Then Jesus happened by on his way to Jerusalem. I was consumed by curiosity for this famous man, who had neither wealth nor even a home. I climbed the tree to get a better view; I know, not the most respectable activity for someone in my place. He must have heard of me because he called me by name and invited himself to my house. I never had anyone over to my house. I never asked anyone because they would have said no and who wants to hear that? But Jesus just invited himself over. All eyes were on me. And that’s when I seized my opportunity to gain some positive public opinion. That’s when I made my worthless pledge about giving my possessions to the poor and paying back people if I defrauded them. There’s that word again, “if.”
But if I had know what would happen next, I would never have climbed the tree in the first place. Thank God I didn’t know my life was about to change, or I would not have let it. The branching of my life began with Jesus’ words, words that were never, ever empty. He reminded me that I was a son of Abraham, that I was part of a great family, one I had forsaken to go it alone. And then he said that he came to seek out and save the lost. That was his responsibility. And my responsibility was to allow myself to realize that I was lost; to allow myself to be saved.
I didn’t start taking this responsibility until I witnessed the events in Jerusalem at Passover. I was there. I was there when he died. I was there when he was mounted to a tree. Were the crude boards made out of sycamore? His humiliating elevation on the cross mirrored my own perching on that tree in Jericho. I did it to catch a glimpse of him, to satiate my own curiosity. It was all about me. And that’s when I realized: his death on that cross was all about me too. And not just me, but every one of the lost whom he came to seek out and save.
How could I return to my life as normal when his selfless act of love and grace laid bare my bankrupt heart? I decided to take responsibility. I decided to make good on the pledge I had made in Jericho. I had defrauded people; I found them all and repaid them. I gave away most of my possessions and walked away from my collusion with the empire. In fact, I started a new charity, educating people like the ones I had defrauded. I would not let them be taken advantage of again. I took that on as my responsibility.
It’s an interesting word, responsibility. The ability to be responsive. That’s what Jesus taught me: the ability to look past myself and respond to the needs and rights of others. Oh God, I pray I can be responsive to your call everyday of my life.