Out on a Limb
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 30 October 2022 [Yr. C: Proper 26]: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4; Luke 19:1-10
What was a grown man like Zacchaeus doing climbing a tree? More to the point, did he consider his actions as “going out on a limb”?
I was curious about that phrase: “going out on a limb”. On the surface its significance seems self-evident, the truth of which is something any of us who have ever worked with trees implicitly understand. Taken to a metaphorical level, “going out on a limb” means “to make a large assumption; even to risk one’s safety or comfort in an effort to do something positive.” As I say, this saying (“going out on a limb”) most likely developed from the practice of climbing trees, in which the farther away from the trunk (or, in other words, the further out on the limb) that a person went, the more dangerous it was. Of course, the extreme risk (actual or figurative) of “going out on a limb” is to lose perspective and (as another old saying goes) “sawing off the limb you’re sitting on”. In any event, if someone goes out on a limb, they do something they strongly believe in even though it is risky or in the extreme, is likely to fail or be criticized by other people.
So, I ask again: In climbing that sycamore tree, did Zacchaeus “go out on a limb”? And if he did, did he cut off the limb he was sitting on?
To find some answers to these questions, I think we need to pay attention to the Zacchaeus story in ways that move our awareness and appreciation beyond its cute, Sunday School application for small children. This means that we need to take a serious look at Zacchaeus’ story and his encounter with Jesus. Where I am going with this is to recognize what it means to be created in God’s image and likeness. But first, the story.
The Zacchaeus story begins within the context of Jesus’ steady journey to Jerusalem. On his way to that fateful moment, Jesus came to the city of Jericho, “passing through” as Luke puts it. Now the geography matters here. Not only is Jericho the beginning of the upward trek to the City of David; it is also the start of a very dangerous road. (Remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan” and what happened on the road?)
Once Luke sets the overarching stage in one brief sentence, he introduces us to Zacchaeus, and immediately we are cast into the story’s dramatic tension. For Zacchaeus is a “tax collector”, a “chief tax collector” at that, which probably means that he oversaw other tax collectors.
Without pausing to explain the details, Luke moves directly into telling us that Zacchaeus is interested in seeing Jesus, so much so that being short in stature, he climbed a large sycamore tree to see over the crowd and catch a glimpse of Jesus as he paraded by. Perched in the tree, Jesus caught sight of him. Seeing Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus approached the “chief tax collector” and called out to him: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” [19:5b]
What Jesus said was not whispered. Everyone heard it, and not a few jaws dropped at Jesus’ words. Grumblings and murmuring reverberated on the street. Anonymous words of criticism and disgust were lifted up from the crowd against Jesus, a haunting prelude to the jeering Jesus would experience on the cross: “What business does he have getting cozy with such a crook?” [19:8 – The Message]--. Yet, Luke tells us that both Jesus and Zacchaeus ignored the crowd’s threats and that Zacchaeus scrambled down the tree and was most happy to welcome Jesus into his home.
Remarkable; don’t you think? What’s going on? For instance, how did Jesus know the name of the “chief tax collector”? And if tax collectors were such notorious social and political exiles – and they were, why did Zacchaeus risk exposing himself so publicly just to see Jesus? Why didn’t he do the smart thing and keep a low profile – or at least travel with bodyguards? Moreover, Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus if he could come to his house. No, rather Jesus pre-empted the scene, announcing to Zacchaeus that he (Jesus) would invite himself to receive hospitality, as if Jesus were the host and not Zacchaeus. (Where else did Jesus act as the host in someone else’s house and table? Answer: In a small town called Emmaus.)
Luke fast-forwards the scene to a time when the two men were alone. All we know is that Zacchaeus stood in front of Jesus and made a most curious statement. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” [19:8]
Again, what is going on here? Was this a confession offered to Jesus by Zacchaeus as a sign of his repentant transformation? That’s the way it appears; and that is the way most of us have been taught to interpret this story. And there is significant merit in such a reading. But there seems to be more going on here than meets a “they all lived “happily-ever-after” perspective. In any event, Zacchaeus’ words (life-changing confession or not) pleased Jesus to the extent that the Lord made a striking proclamation: “Today salvation has come to this house,” the Lord unequivocally announced, “because Zacchaeus also is a son of Abraham. For the son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” [19:9-10].
Here's the telling question: What if – what if Zacchaeus’ words were not a confession but a testimony, a revealing witness in the presence of Jesus? What if Zacchaeus was revealing something about himself and his practice of Torah to Jesus? Does this change the point of the story from simply story for short children to something for all of us to take to heart? I think so; and this is where in my view the story speaks to all of us being made in God’s image and likeness and what difference this insight makes in our lives.
Here's the deal: Some biblical scholars and scriptural translators (and I rely on their expertise) have noted a curious element of grammar in rendering what Zacchaeus says to Jesus about his giving half his possessions to the poor. In the translation we heard in the gospel’s reading, Zacchaeus tells Jesus that he “will give” half his possessions to the poor; and it seems as if this statement reflects a confession coupled with an apologetic restitution for wrongs done. And this may be precisely the point. Yet, the verb in question that has been translated as “will give” can (according to those whose pay grade surpasses my own) be translated as “have given” or simply a present tense “give”. In which case, Zacchaeus is not confessing a life-changing conversion from thievery to faithful, Torah citizen, but is telling Jesus that even in his impure profession and state of affairs, his discipline is to follow Torah as best he can. His sense of belonging to God – in whatever way Zacchaeus understood this – expressed itself in “giving” not ten percent of his income to the poor, as the Law requires, but five times that. If this is correct, then this discipline entailed half his income given to the poor. More than that, Zacchaeus says that “if” for some reason he is “caught cheating”, [19:8b -The Message],he seeks to repair the damages four-fold.
Just as the jeering of the Jericho crowd presages the mocking of Pilate’s crown-of- thorn-plaiting soldiers and the scoffing of the religiously righteous at the foot of the cross, Jesus’ welcoming proclamation of Zacchaeus preludes his dying with the thief on their respective crosses.
Jesus remember me when you come in your kingly power. [Luke 23:42]
Today salvation has come to this house…
Zacchaeus reveals that he is (surprisingly and as Jesus says) a “son of Abraham”: that is, Torah fidelity is expressed in his quiet-yet-imperfect life, to the extent that what he offers in his gift far exceeds what the Law of Moses requires.  And Jesus sees the deep implications of this. “Today salvation [that is, today “health” and “wholeness” (which is what “salvation” means – not “pie-in-the sky-by-and-by”) – today salvation has come to this house…”
Perhaps … perhaps Jesus saw all this in Zacchaeus in the first place, in the tree, in a kind of “don’t judge a book by its cover” demonstration similar to “seeing” and knowing the guileless Nathanael before they met.
[Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile. Nathanael said to Jesus, How do you know me? Before Philip called you, when you were under the tree, I saw you.]
Perhaps… perhaps Jesus came to Zacchaeus and to his house to confirm that Zacchaeus was indeed a “son of Abraham”, a living part of the covenant with God and all God’s people: Made in God’s image. Perhaps…perhaps what Jesus did for Zacchaeus was to remind the “chief tax collector” that to be irrevocably made in God’s image irrevocably puts him on the ongoing human struggle to be “like” God which allows one to be fully human. And perhaps… perhaps Zacchaeus saw in Jesus’ presence and hosting love what life is truly like in God’s likeness.
Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to get a good look at Jesus. In seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus got a good look at what God called him to see in himself.
As Mya Angelou has written: Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
Thanks be to God. Amen.