Responding in Relationship

Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 2/24/2019

Redaction criticism is the study of editorial changes.  Scholarship that’s focused on how the biblical writers arranged, organized and even revised their reflections on God, sometimes well after the oral history was written down.  Some of the most cherished stories in scripture likely have redacted endings.

Job’s family and property are forsaken, he curses the day of his birth, testifies in court, and gets cross-examined by God.  After 42 chapters of suffering, in the last paragraph, his fortune is restored tenfold.  At the end of Mark, the women go to the tomb, don’t find the body, and flee the cemetery seizing with terror.  Only later does Jesus reappear, commission the disciples, and then triumphantly ascend into heaven happily ever after.      

Hollywood ending didn’t start in Hollywood.  They have always been part of compelling storytelling.  And while later redactions do nothing to make the work less inspired, they can distract us from everything that came before the grand finale. 

Today’s text is well known because of Zacchaeus, the greedy tax collector’s, grand conversion.  After meeting Jesus, he gives away half of his possessions to the poor and pays back everyone he has defrauded.  But verse 8, the climax of transformation, was likely added after Luke finished his Gospel.

If we momentarily suspend that part of the text, what does the rest of the story teach us about the life of faith?  

Luke 19:1-10 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Congregational Responses:
Jesus goes in search of us first and faith is our response to being found.
We’re called to celebrate, not begrudge, someone else’s undeserved blessing.
Salvation is never just personal, but always communal. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa brought an elderly black woman face to face with the white man, Mr. Van de Broek, who had confessed to the savage torture and murder of her son and her husband a few years earlier.  One of the members of the Commission turned to her and asked, “How do you believe justice should be done to this man who has inflicted such suffering on you and so brutally destroyed your family?” The old woman replied.  “I want three things.  I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”  She stopped, collected herself and then went on. “My husband and son were my only family.  I want, secondly therefore, for Mr. Van de Broek to become my son.  I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out to him whatever love I have still remaining with me. And finally, I want a third thing.  I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive.  This was also the wish of my husband.  And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van de Broek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.” The assistants came to help the old black woman across the room.  Mr. Van de Broek, overwhelmed by what he had just heard, fainted.  And as he did, those in the courtroom, friends, family, neighbors, all victims of decades of oppression and injustice—began to sing “Amazing Grace.”

In ancient Palestine, there were few people more wretched than Zacchaeus.  While Jesus was out preaching, “Blessed are the poor,” Zac was building a third mansion in the hills of Jericho.  While Jesus was turning the other cheek, Zac was hiring local muscle to rob the citizenry. While Jesus was inaugurating the kingdom come, Zac was conspiring with the Roman Empire to perpetuate exploitive taxation. 

Even though Jesus had every reason to protest outside of Zacchaeus’ tax offices, shame him in the synagogue, and refuse any contact with him for frustrating the work of God, Jesus goes off the parade route to call this diminutive disaster of a human being down from his perch of greed and out of his isolation.

On the ground of Good News, Jesus is the one who initiates the fellowship; Jesus is the one who pulls up a chair to the family dinner table; Jesus is the one who unpacks his bags for an extended stay.  In repeatedly moving towards Zacchaeus, not away, Jesus teaches us that the Christian response is entirely relational. 

Even though the work of the Gospel attracts enemies, the life of faith doesn’t include rushing ahead to the happy ending, but rather showing up daily for the hard but holy work of relationship.  Whoever’s thwarting your ministry, invite yourself over.