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Scripture Reading: Isaiah 1:10-17

Show and Tell

I was in a waiting room this week, and I saw this picture Sports Illustrated cover: The Power Issue of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Sports Illustrated called him the most powerful man in sports – and he may well be – but the article noted that most NFL players don’t like him. At the beginning of this next reading, Zacchaeus seems to be in a position like that: powerful and disliked.

Scripture Reading: Luke 19:1-10


What does it take to be a “big man,” whether on campus or in a village? The “big man on campus” is popular, athletic, highly sociable. Maybe he has the right amount of money. To be sure, he has a kind of “respect” and lots of influence. In anthropology, there’s a tribal structure focused around a “big man,” whose role is to give away resources. His ability to give gifts to people shows his importance.

In these communities, the “big man” regulates social cohesion. With all this stuff, his job is to keep the community in balance. It’s kind of like being the lord of the manor, responsible for everyone’s welfare. The big man’s power often gets ahead of his responsibility. He can come to see gift-giving as his right to tell the community what to do, for instance to choose the color of the carpet they buy for the sanctuary. This may especially be true when the big man’s status comes from his resources or money; a wealthy recluse is not actually a “big man.”

It looks like Zacchaeus wanted to be “big,” but he was emphatically not. He had evidently made the choice to pursue wealth by siding with the world power. As a Roman tax collector, he had made himself a pariah. We should remember, as we make this historical translation, that the Roman tax collector was not your typical MDOR or IRS employee. He was a contractor, who had bid to provide a certain revenue to Rome, and he could keep any excess collections as profit. However, you would only call it “profit” if the taxes themselves were legitimate. Most of the people of Jericho would call Zacchaeus’ take something more like ill-gotten booty; they didn’t see the Roman empire as a legitimate government of their country. So we know from the song that Zacchaeus is short; I think Luke means “little” in the metaphorical sense too. So maybe we’re not talking so much about Roger Goodell, but more about car-dealer and fraudster Denny Hecker.

Jesus raises people’s hackles for eating with Zacchaeus. It just isn’t socially proper to hang out with a scoundrel like this. Well, Jesus does this a lot. It’s a big piece of what gets him killed, and it’s how he demonstrates his resurrection. It continues to be part of the church’s life, the life of this group of people who hear Isaiah’s call back to care for the widows, the orphans, and the oppressed – and all who are lost.

When Jesus goes to eat with him, Zacchaeus chooses new dining companions for himself. He gives his money away four times over. Let’s just stop and do the math here: he promises to give half his money to the poor and repay any fraud four times. But it’s all fraud, at least in a sense, so this repayment will never get done. What Zacchaeus does is Gospel brilliance: he puts himself in perpetual debt, at the mercy of the people he had once extorted. Well, suddenly he’s no longer isolated, because he knows very well who these people are.

Zacchaeus’ story is not ultimately about money. Not even our conversations about money are ultimately about money. They’re about relationship, about whom you will eat with. At the beginning of the story, Zacchaeus had chosen money over people, but now he goes back and chooses the poor instead. This is effectively Jesus’ project: again and again to give us new people to sit with. Like Isaiah, he calls us back from excessive concern for doing everything just right, and toward sharing life with each other. When people sit and share with each other, salvation – wholeness – comes to that house.

So it comes among us too, when we hang out with the poor and with people in need. When we make room in our lives for people who otherwise “don’t belong.” When we open our tables, our homes, and our lives to people different from ourselves. When we choose generosity and gift-giving over power and acquisition. Then, salvation comes to this house.