In today’s story, Jesus and his group of disciples are nearing Jericho, which is only 15 miles from Jerusalem. We are nearing the end of Jesus’ ministry and of his journey to the cross. Before we hear our reading today, a reading that is in three parts, I’d like us to look back at the journey we’ve taken alongside Luke’s Jesus.
If you remember way back to January, we heard Jesus outline this ministry, quoting from Isaiah 61: “...the Lord has anointed me...to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What Jesus has been offering along the way is salvation that is open to everyone. But not salvation that is not a “cookie-cutter” approach, but healing is unique as we and our needs are.
With all of this in mind, we now read the first of three parts of today’s lesson - stories that are all about seeing. Or not seeing.
We read, beginning Luke, chapter 18.
Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
It’s the third time. The third time that Jesus has predicted his upcoming passion to the disciples. And yet, as before, they don’t get it. Whether it is that they refuse to see these events coming, or whether it is so far outside the realm of the possible for them to grasp, our text tells us that these things that Jesus is predicting are “hidden” from them. Those who are closest to Jesus - the insiders - do not see. Are we like the disciples? The baptized, the church, the insiders? Unable to see how Jesus might be leading us to new things? To the death and resurrection in this moment?
Our reading continues.
As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
What’s interesting about this blind man is how well he sees! When he hears the crowd and asks what’s going on, they tell him that it is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the one who responds, for the first time in Luke, naming Jesus as the Son of David. A direct reference to the Messiah. It’s no wonder, then, that the crowd shushes him. Because to proclaim Jesus as Messiah is to risk upsetting the occupying powers, who would be threatened by this political threat. Be quiet - they tell the blind man - this outsider, who sees more fully than anyone else.
Yet, he persists. He is not quiet. He is not orderly. After all, in their view, he is already an outcast. So, he begs for mercy more loudly, demanding Jesus’ attention. Notice that Jesus doesn’t immediately heal him, but asks him what he needs. Notice also that the blind man boldly responds. Naming his own need. And trusting, with a deep faith, that Jesus will provide.
Do we see Jesus as the blind man did? As Messiah - as savior of the world? Who can save, or, more correctly, heal us? Or heal the church? Or heal the world? Do we have the faith of the blind man? Do we have his hope? His sight?
Jesus sees his faith. Restores his sight. And welcomes him back into community. He will no longer be an outcast. This is the salvation Jesus provides. Not simply healing, but wholeness and belonging.
And, then, we come to the story of Zacchaeus. In chapter 19.
[Jesus] 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.”
If we thought the blind man was an outcast, Zacchaeus takes the cake. Literally. He is a rich man. We’ve heard before what Luke thinks of wealth and how much harder it is for those with wealth to enter God’s kingdom. In large part, because wealth is a powerful master.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He’s the boss of the tax collectors - the one who has contracted with Rome to collect the tolls that must be paid to use the famous Roman thoroughfares. The tax collectors are his subcontractors. He’s their boss. If tax collectors are despised in Judea, consider how much more Zacchaeus is hated. On top of this, Zacchaeus, who is Jewish, is viewed as a Roman collaborator, ostracizing him even more. And the cherry on top? Zacchaeus is short.
Now, this isn’t an indictment of anyone here who is short. Today, being short isn’t viewed in the same way as in ancient times. Think tall, statuesque, chiseled-featured Roman soldier, and you get it. Zacchaeus didn’t fit that mold. Zacchaeus was an outsider in every way.
But, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Boss tax collector, collaborator with the enemy, rich, short Zacchaeus just wanted to see Jesus. But, the crowd was in his way. So, he climbed a tree. Now this was not a proper move on his part. After all, someone of his wealth and status should simply show more dignity. But, Zacchaeus was more interested in seeing Jesus than in preserving his reputation. Jesus saw that in him. Approached the tree and told him to come down. And then, promptly, invited himself to dinner.
But there’s something else here. A correction that we must make about Zacchaeus. I don’t know about you, but I grew up hearing this story told as a story of repentance. That, after meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus promises to change his ways. But, there’s a problem with that interpretation. Because the verb used in verse 8 is not a future tense verb, where Zacchaeus promises that he will give to the poor or that, if he has cheated someone, he will pay back four times as much. In fact, the verbs in this verse are in the present tense. Which suggests that Zacchaeus is already doing this. And exceeding what the law requires of him: giving half of his money to the poor instead of the required 10%, repaying those who have been cheated twice as much as the law requires. Zacchaeus isn’t in need of forgiveness. Zacchaeus is a model of how the wealthy can use their wealth to serve the kingdom of God.
So, Zacchaeus doesn’t need forgiveness here. What he needs is to belong. To be part of a community that welcomes him. That no longer views him, wrongly, as a sinner. It’s why Jesus invites himself to dinner. To send a message to the insiders that this outsider is welcome in the kingdom of God.
For those of us on the inside, the most profound witness to Jesus can often be heard and seen through an outsider lens. Sometimes, we, like the Pharisees, get so caught up in our rules and our regulations and our way of doing things that we become blind to what God is really doing - what God is doing in our own lives, but especially what God is doing in the world around us. Yet, what God is doing is succinctly summarized in the closing verse of our lesson, in verse 10. “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
The truth is that we’re all lost. We’re all in need of being found. Of being seen. Of being healed. Of being restored to the community. We’re all in need of being saved, whatever that may look like. Salvation, full participation in the reign of God, is what Jesus offers.
This is God’s truth in Luke. That, in Jesus, salvation is offered to everyone. No matter who you are. No matter where you came from. No matter what. Salvation is offered to all, insider and outsider alike. Because this is who God is. And what our God desires. For you. And for me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Preached March 21, 2021, online at Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Readings: Psalm 84:1-4, 10-12; Luke 18:31-19:10