“The Uncertainty of Surrender”

Luke 19:1-10

In the series “Embracing the Uncertain”

I imagine that, if you grew up attending or helping in Vacation Bible School or in kids’ Sunday School, your mind went in a certain direction when you heard today’s Gospel reading from Luke 19.  You heard about Zacchaeus, and you might have remembered the little song about him.  Join me if you know it (bonus points for doing the motions):

Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in that tree,

And He said “Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today!”

Zacchaeus is one of the most famous people in the Bible, largely because of that song.  Yet his story is so much more powerful.

For one thing, we actually know quite a bit about him, compared to other people Jesus encountered.  We know that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector.  He is the only person in scripture identified with that title.

From the historical context regarding tax collectors, we can recognize how Zacchaeus was viewed by his neighbors.  The Roman Empire taxed its citizens heavily and in a variety of ways.  However, Rome did not actually collect taxes directly.  They contracted with chief tax collectors, who were sort of the district managers of a geographic area.  These individuals paid Rome up front for the right to collect the taxes in a region.  Zacchaeus and other chief tax collectors then hired tax collectors as subcontractors, who would collect all of the various taxes, tariffs and tolls in an area.  Here’s the thing:  Tax collectors often abused their authority and charged more than they should, just to line their pockets and make a profit.  Tax collectors and chief tax collectors skimmed off the top and often became very wealthy through this corrupt system.

Among the Jews, tax collectors were not only regarded as cheats, but as traitors collaborating with the oppressive Roman Empire.  They were working with and for the enemy and were hated and despised by their own people.  It’s interesting to remember that one of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew, had been a tax collector.  Zacchaeus was a pariah to his neighbors.

From the scripture, we also know that Zacchaeus was rich and that he was short in stature.  We know that he and a crowd wanted to see Jesus, though we don’t know for certain why he wanted to see Jesus.

Maybe Zacchaeus felt guilty for his past sins and bad choices, like many of us do.

Maybe he was seeking meaning in life, like many of us are.

Maybe he was curious to get a glimpse of this rabbi he had heard so much about, like all of us who live in our celebrity-focused society.

Whatever his reason for wanting to see Jesus, he couldn’t see over or around all the other people gathered to see Jesus.  But he would not be stopped.  So much did he want to see Jesus, that he was resourceful and persistent.  When he couldn’t push his way to the front of the crowd, he ran ahead, found a tree and climbed up it to get a better view.

In his day, it was considered undignified for grown men either to run or to climb a tree.  It simply wasn’t done.  Further, men of wealth, power and importance would never climb a tree.  Yet Zacchaeus put aside his dignity and his position of influence in society, all in the hope of seeing Jesus.

Zacchaeus went seeking Jesus when he climbed into that tree.  But I think he wanted more than simply to see.  It seems that Zacchaeus wanted not just to catch a glimpse of Jesus or even to know who Jesus was.  He didn’t want a favor from Jesus.  He wanted more:  Zacchaeus wanted to know Jesus for himself.

The Apostle Paul was someone else who longed to know Jesus.  That might surprise you. I mean, after all, Paul was so committed to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the Roman world that he risked his reputation and his life, suffering ridicule, harassment, imprisonment and beatings and ultimately gave his life serving his Lord.  Surely someone like Paul must know Christ very well.  Still, in Philippians 3, he wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).  Paul said he longed to know Christ more than he already did.

Scholar, preacher and author Fred Craddock says that two of the qualities upon which a life of discipleship can be built are, one, an intense desire to see Jesus and, two, overcoming risk and ridicule to follow.[1] Both Paul and Zacchaeus demonstrated these two qualities.

So Zacchaeus climbed the tree and waited to see Jesus.  But, to his surprise, as Jesus approached, Jesus was already looking at him and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).  Zacchaeus thought he was going to seek Jesus, but Jesus had already been searching out him.

In our United Methodist emphasis on God’s grace, which is God’s favor that we don’t earn or deserve, we recognize that God is the one who seeks us, rather than the other way around.  We call it prevenient grace.  It is the grace that comes before we are able to acknowledge or understand it.  It has been working in our lives since we were born.  It is always searching for us, calling to us, working to win us over.  Even though we long to know Christ and discover a personal relationship with God, it is God who has been reaching out to us all along.  It’s the God who stands there as we are striving to pull ourselves along and climb our way toward God, saying, “Stop climbing. Get down. I’ve come to you.”

Zacchaeus did come down and hosted Jesus that day, despite the complaints of the people that Jesus was hanging out with a sinner.”  In response to the grace he’d experienced, Zacchaeus repented and changed his lifestyle.  He surrendered his life, and Jesus announced, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9).

Patricius was someone whose life changed when he heard God’s voice calling to him.  He was a rebellious teenager in a wealthy and privileged family living in Britain in the fifth century.  Though his grandfather was a priest, Patricius never accepted Christianity or knew God.  He was kidnapped and taken to be a slave to a clan chief in Ireland.  For six years he tended his master’s sheep and prayed to God, hoping to find meaning in his life.  One day, he heard God calling him.  He escaped, returned to his family in Britain and studied Christianity, becoming a priest.

In response to a vision, he returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary.  Over the next 29 years, God’s grace sustained him through hardship as he shared the faith and baptized some 120,000 Irish people and planted 300 churches.  Today we know him as St. Patrick, a young man whose life was transformed by God’s grace.[2]

When Patrick found himself alone and suffering in a strange land, he began to realize that God knew him and saw him. He had an opportunity to surrender his life and start over.  When Zacchaeus saw how Jesus looked at him with kindness and compassion, he knew his life was about to change.  This was the moment for a fresh start.  It can be like that for you, too.  Jesus is calling you to stop your hurrying, worrying and scurrying.  Get down out of your tree and surrender your life so he can lift you up.

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[1]Fred Craddock, “Salvation brought to Zacchaeus,” Interpretation, vol. Luke, 218-220.

[2] Philip Freeman, “The Real Story of St. Patrick,” OUPblog, 09/02/2014.  https://blog.oup.com/2014/09/real-story-saint-patrick/.  Ted Olson, “The Real St. Patrick,” Christian History, August 2008. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/real-st-patrick.html.  David Kithcart, “Patricius: The True Story of St. Patrick,” CBN.com. http://www1.cbn.com/patricius-the-true-story-of-st-patrick.

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