GETTING A BETTER VIEW - Luke 19:1-10
Have you ever dared to look ridiculous? Really ridiculous? I don't mean have you ever tripped walking onto a stage, or worn your slippers to the grocery store or something like that. Those things would presumably be mistakes. They might make you feel a little ridiculous, but you didn't exactly plan them.
I'm talking about planning to look ridiculous. Doing it on purpose. Daring to look ridiculous. Have you ever done that?
There's a certain freedom in it, it seems to me. In some ways it might even be the ultimate expression of maturity, of self-confidence, even of dignity. To be able to dare to be ridiculous and not worry about what anyone else thinks, but just enjoy it. I think of the new Canadian I saw on the Oval one winter, absolutely BOUND she was going to go peak Canadian and learn to skate – and there she was looking like a giant toddler pushing the frame with her skates coming out from under her with every single step. But the grin on her face and peals of laughter… it was glorious.
Because to dare to be a little ridiculous now and again: there's an amazing freedom in it. A freedom from constraint, a freedom from caring what others think. It can be quite marvellous. And for most of us, probably all of us here, maybe it's a freedom that we give ourselves as a gift now and again. Be a little silly, why not? But that wouldn't be the case for everyone.
For Zaccheus, whose story we heard from the gospel of Luke this morning, the willingness to dare to be ridiculous comes from a different kind of freedom. More like the old song says, the freedom that’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Because Zaccheus is already a pariah in the eyes of those around him. They can't think any worse of him if he dares to do something that makes him look ridiculous, because they already think he's lower than a worm. They've already cast him out of decent society -- he's beneath even their contempt. He can be as ridiculous as he wants -- no one cares, no one's watching.
Because Zaccheus is a tax collector. Not only that, but he's said to be a chief tax collector. Not just a briber, a blackmailer, a thief, a cheat, but a supervisor, it would seem, of all the other bribers and blackmailers, and thieves and cheats. Because that's what tax collectors at that time were. Sent out by the Roman occupation government to collect the taxes of the people, by whatever means necessary. And the only salary they took home was whatever extra they could pry out of the citizens. And they definitely pried. Not too difficult when they had the power of a threat of Roman reprisal in their back pocket.
These were not good men. They violated and abused the people around them, and they got rich doing it. They were lower than low and cast out entirely from civilized society. And Zaccheus is one of them. A chief one of them no less.
So the reality is, on that day we're told of in the passage we heard this morning, when Jesus entered the city of Jericho and passed through it surrounded by a great crowd of followers, and Zaccheus decided to dare to look ridiculous by climbing up a tree to get a better view, he really had nothing to lose. No one was going to think any worse of him. They couldn't. He was already at the bottom of the heap.
Though on the other hand, it wasn't a decision that was completely without risk. After all, if you're hated and despised by every person in a crowd, it may not be the wisest thing to climb a tree and make yourself visible. And it's not completely unreasonable, I think, to suggest that in climbing up that sycamore tree Zaccheus was essentially painting a target on his forehead. I mean, that crowd may well have been there to see Jesus, but that doesn't mean they left all their instincts to throw things at the tax collector at home. Human nature being what it is.
So Zaccheus must have known he was making himself pretty vulnerable in climbing up that tree. And yet, and yet, he still does it.
And why? Because, the gospel tells us, he wants to see who Jesus is. Simple as that.
Or is it? Because the gospel’s really not clear. Is it just that there’s a big crowd and he just wants to see “who it is” who’s made all these people gather? Or has he actually heard something about Jesus message and his ministry? Like the fact that this Jesus “eats with tax collectors and sinners.” And maybe that’s piqued his curiosity. Like he’s thinking "This Jesus, so they say, would sit down at a table and eat with me. And no one else would even come close to doing that, except for my own family. So I want to see who this Jesus is."
We really don’t know. Is it just about who the crowd’s there for, and fear of missing out, or has he actually heard something that’s intrigued him? We simply don’t know, but at any rate, up the tree he goes, being "small in stature" the gospel says, and I can appreciate this. A good tree does come in handy now and again. And Zaccheus looks down from his perch to see who Jesus is.
And who is he? He is indeed the one who not only looks up to notice Zaccheus the hated tax collector, but in fact does exactly what the word on the street says he does: he immediately calls Zaccheus down from the tree, by name, he knows who Zaccheus is, he knows what he does for a living, and he invites himself over for dinner.
This Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. That's who he is. Zaccheus climbs up that tree to get a better view and that's what he sees. And it is… the saving of him. Right there. Right at that moment.
Sure, it's not the end of the story. Later on he repents of all the wrong he's done. He promises to more than pay back all the money he's stolen. He promises to more than make it up in charitable donations to the poor. There's no end to the ways he's going to change his living. But that's not what saves him, if you will. It's not what heals his spirit. It's not what gives him new life. Zaccheus didn't have to do all those things to be saved, to be healed in spirit. They weren't some kind of price he had to pay or something. Sure, all his restitution was appreciated, I'm certain of that, but it didn't buy his salvation. It was just the right response.
Because his salvation had already happened. It happened in the moment when Jesus looked up and showed Zaccheus who he was: "Zaccheus, come down," he said, "I'm coming over for dinner."
This Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. That's who he is. And all Zaccheus had to do was dare to be a bit ridiculous. Take that risk to get a better view. And just by virtue of his presence, Jesus gets to answer that unspoken question: "Who are you, are you really what they say you are? Could there really be a place at your table even for me." And so there was. And the brokenness and bitterness of Zaccheus' spirit was healed as he realized it. He was saved. All because for some reason that day, he decided to get a better view.
But I really wonder what the reason was. Was it just a matter of seeing who the crowd was there for? Was it just that he'd heard a bit about Jesus and was curious? Because in both the other times that someone really marginalized and cast out form society comes closer to Jesus to 'get a better view' -- to find out who he is, is he really the one who welcomes sinners and outcasts -- there's a desperation factor. A last resort factor. Both the woman who has suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years, and the Syro-Phoenician woman whos daughter's illness is tormenting her, are desperate when they come to Jesus. Both of them, as they approach to see, to know, more clearly who he is -- is he really the one who will receive and heal even them, even outcasts -- both of them are there as a last resort. Both of them approach speaking words of intense faith and desperate pleading.
But not Zaccheus. There's a real casualness about his story. And though he was obviously curious, at least somewhat, and obviously interested enough to brave a hostile crowd and climb a tree to get a better view, I don't think Zaccheus went there that day expecting anything would happen to him. I don't think he was looking for it. I think it really surprised him.
I don’t think Zaccheus imagined he needed any “saving” at all, when he went up that tree. I don’t think he imagined he needed grace or forgiveness or understanding or even a warm welcome. Even if he’d heard that Jesus “eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners” – I don’t think Zaccheus goes up that tree imagining that’s going to matter to him.
And then it really does. It turns out that inside him there IS this place of need – for friendship, for welcome, for turning over a new leaf.
It’s a funny old-fashioned phrase: “the needy”. Help the needy, feed the needy. We don’t really use it anymore, but I don’t think that’s so much because we’ve recognized a common humanness with those who used to be called “the needy” as it is a discomfort with the notion of being needy at all.
We don’t want to call ANYONE “the needy” because it’s such a mean thing to imply anyone’s “needy”.
But in fact we ALL are. We ALL have places of need – for love and friendship and stability and safety and rest. And if the revelation of Zaccheus’ story is that even the criminally greedy and avaricious rich have their own places of need – and it is – there’s also the reminder here to us that we have our own need too.
And it’s not ridiculous. And if we dare to let it be seen, that’s okay. If we dare to let it be seen not just by God in the darkest hours of our nights, but also by each other, that’s okay. It’s how we’re healed and made well and made whole.
And that’s never ridiculous. Amen.