“Jesus Seeks and Saves”
Luke 19:1-10 – September 1, 2019
Do you know anyone who is really unpopular? I mean, so unpopular that people turn their backs and ignore them when they come around? That is just the sort of person we are going to talk about today: a particularly unpopular, even despised person.
The Gospel of Luke chapter 19 tells us of the tax collector Zacchaeus and the encounter he had with the Rabbi Jesus. Jesus had been in ministry for almost three years, and I suspect that He was a celebrity in the Jewish population. Perhaps even of rock-star-status, given Jesus had healed people, cast demons out of people, and performed all sorts of other miracles for the past three years. It’s no wonder Jesus attracted such a crowd wherever He went!
When you or I read about tax collectors during the first century, we might think they were simply unpleasant people tasked with an unfortunate job. Because, someone had to do it! The Roman Empire occupied a huge territory, including the region of what is now Israel and Palestine. The Roman army was the occupying force that policed the region. The conquered Jewish people were a subjugated people. But, that was not all.
No one likes to pay taxes. And, taxes are even worse when they are being collected by an occupying force, like the Romans. Except—the Romans were fiendishly clever. Some of the native population was used to collect taxes. Here’s what happened. The taxation system the Romans used was ripe for abuse. The Roman government farmed out the collection of taxes and sold off the right to do tax collection to the highest bidder. All that was necessary was that the Romans receive their assessed financial amount at the end of the year. Any money over that amount could be kept by the native-born tax collector. And, boy, did they collect the money! As I said before, this was a scheme sure to be abused. Talk about a shakedown racket!
Was it any wonder that these tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews? These Jewish shakedown artists collaborated with the Roman overlords, besides being seen as extortionists for collecting double, and even triple the amount stipulated by the Roman tax assessment.
Some people think the United States tax code is punishing. They haven’t seen anything, compared to these tax collectors who were backed up by the force of the occupying Romans. In other words, just in case any Jewish person was even thinking of not paying taxes, the Roman army could come knocking at the door and drag them off to prison for tax dereliction. What is more, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, in charge of all the other tax collectors in the region. He must have been simply rolling in dough.
There is more, in terms of social consequences. Even though he was very wealthy, Zacchaeus had lost his place in the local synagogue, was not permitted to attend worship services, and was totally ostracized from all “decent society” in town. I mention all this to let everyone know what a scandal it was.
On top of everything else, Zacchaeus was extremely short, and probably felt even worse because of his little stature. New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that “Zacchaeus wanted to stand out to gain recognition, but the result was that he was isolated and rejected. He felt compelled to set himself above people because, alongside them, he felt too small. So perhaps there was a vicious cycle of insecurity, exploitation of others, loneliness, and rejection at work in Zacchaeus’s relationships in the community, or, more accurately, his lack of relationships.” 
But, no matter what, this guy really wanted to see the Rabbi Jesus!
We know what happened. Reading from Luke 19, Zacchaeus “wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So, he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.” Can you just see Zacchaeus, his head and shoulders poking out between the branches of a sycamore tree? What about the Rabbi Jesus? He called Zacchaeus by name! Can you imagine? Calling a hated tax collector by name, and even proclaiming that He would eat dinner at that tax collector’s house that evening?
What a scandal! What a horrible thing for a respectable Jewish Rabbi to do! Can you imagine what all the “decent folk” in Jericho had to say about that?
Yet, isn’t this just like Jesus?
Again and again in the Gospels, especially in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus side with those on the margins, those who are the least of these, those who are disrespected and dismissed. Jesus comes alongside of the down and out and those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world. “While Zacchaeus is rich, he is nevertheless despised by his neighbors, counted as nothing, even as worse than nothing. Yet Jesus singles him out.” 
I follow the social media account Invisible People on Twitter. This account regularly posts articles and photos of those people who are invisible to society at large: the homeless. The vignettes and stories are heartbreaking, on a daily basis. The followers who read Invisible People meet person after person who had a job and lost it, or had a spouse and lost them, or had an extended health reversal and lost their apartment, or any one of a dozen other sad scenarios. These people teetering on the poverty line, or even below it, pull at anyone’s heart strings.
Yet, to many people across our country, any mention of the homeless or those in shelters or camping in the woods because they do not have any other place to stay is certainly similar to mentioning “tax collectors” in first century Palestine. These “invisible” friends are despised by many “decent folk,” many who have money, education, experience, or moderately good health.
These “invisible people” of today are on the margins of society, similar to the tax collectors of the first century. Reading from Luke 19, we get some indication of what the onlookers said: “Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?” 8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”
Jesus responds in typical, loving, caring Jesus-fashion: He lets everyone know that Zacchaeus is just as good as any of the “decent folk.” 9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
Who has a corner on perfect righteousness and standing before God? Which of us is not lost and wandering, at times? Don’t we all need to be found and restored to God’s loving embrace? Jesus has come to seek and save the lost, the wandering, the people on the margins and the outskirts of society, as well as “decent folk.” Jesus has His arms open wide to welcome each of us, no matter what.
Surely it is God who saves me—God has arms open to save all of us. Amen, alleluia.
“The Power of Persistence, Part 3,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.
 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2968 October 30, 2016