Today’s story is about repentance: Zacchaeus, the tax collector who repents of his evil ways.
I have a confession to make: I strayed into temptation and sin on Friday. I was out to take in the brisk fall air and changing leaves, when I was caught up in a long procession of cars leading inexorably into perdition.
When I arrived, the people were like lemmings, drawn like moths to a flame. My chest tightened; the crowds made me nervous. I knew I had no business being there, but I joined them in their blind obedience. I succumbed, as Zacchaeus succumbed 2000 years ago, to the power of temptation, avarice, like a sheep led to the slaughter. But I was fortunate; I managed to escape before the worst had happened, and I am able to stand before you today.
Of course, by now you know where I was – at the grand opening of the new outlet mall in Clarksburg! It is a colossus beyond my wildest imaginings, like a small island city marooned in ocean of asphalt. A temple where only money, greed, acquisition, and the latest fashions are worshipped.
The Bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself, but the love of it. That’s where Zacchaeus comes in. As a tax collector for the Romans, he loved money: he built his own wealth on the backs of others, by collecting as much as he could extract from lowly Judaeans. He no doubt used fear and threats…
But something changed in Zacchaeus. He must have heard Jesus preach and teach, maybe at first by accident. But he was smitten, captivated. He began to believe that a new life was possible, one not built on greed and intimidation.
One day, he heard that Jesus would be coming by. He climbed a tree, we’re told, so he could see, because he was of small stature, that is, short. But in truth his stature was small in every way: he was not much of a human being. Anyway, he climbed that sycamore tree.
I think maybe he climbed into that tree for another reason too – that he did not want to be seen. He was still unsure; he was not ready to look Jesus in the eye. What would that involve? What would be required of him?
[Our son Colin: when he had been naughty, we would give him time out. At the beach house where we went for many years, there was a low, scrubby tree outside the kitchen door. Colin would climb up into that tree when he was given time out. At times, he’d just go up there on his own. He had some distance, but he could keep an eye on what was happening too. Maybe that sycamore tree was Zacchaeus’s time out tree….]
Back to the story: Jesus spotted Zacchaeus and called to him to come down out of his hiding place. Jesus acted as if Zacchaeus had already decided to change his life, to repent. Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s house (we don’t know how Mrs. Zacchaeus felt about that!). And then it happened: Zacchaeus did change, he did repent, right there in front of God and everybody. “Look! I’m going to give half my wealth to help poor people. And if I’ve defrauded people, I’ll pay it back fourfold!” Zacchaeus, wealthy chief tax collector 10 minutes ago, is now Zacchaeus, generous man of God. Talk about repentance.
Now I have long suspected that this is not the first time we have met Zacchaeus. Last week, we heard the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple praying. The Pharisee was a self-righteous prig, but the tax collector was feeling the weight of his sinful life, the ways he had hurt people and exploited his position. He simply asked for mercy. I believe that was Zacchaeus. That was the moment he was convicted of his sinfulness. Later, when he comes down out of that sycamore tree, into the arms of Jesus – this is the moment of his repentance, his transformation into a new man, a new human being, redeemed and made new by God!
Because that’s what repentance does for us – we are transformed into new human beings, freed from the terrible weight of our past lives, the weight of competition, self-doubt, regret, climbing the ladder, keeping up with the Joneses, and wondering if we can ever be good enough. When we repent, we turn our lives over to God, and God does an amazing thing – God embraces us just as we are, and loves us.
This is the end of my sermon series on practicing love. It’s also our last Sunday of Creation Season. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music, readings, and visual displays of Creation in the church. I thank the parish artists who lent their beautiful works to line our walls! And I ask your prayers and your efforts to protect and care for God’s good earth, our atmosphere, and our waters, so that future generations can enjoy what we have enjoyed.
It’s meet and right to end on repentance. We all have tracts in our lives where we don’t want God to go, because we’re not proud of what we are or what we’ve done. But repentance can set us free – free to be the men, women, and children God made us to be – free to be lavish in love, magnificent in generosity; free to give freely, because we are so grateful for all that we have received. The most joyful people I know are the most giving, the most loving, the most generous. They have found God’s secret to a great life. I want to be like them!
In case you are still wondering, my day got better after my misadventure at the outlet mall. I escaped that web of seduction with my life and my wallet intact. I ended up at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain – a place of inordinate natural beauty and peace. God was merciful to me, a sinner.