Aug 25 2010

Saved (Unstuck) by Who Jesus Is

“And he sought to see Jesus, who he is . . . “
— Luke 19:3

The Gospel lesson for the last Sunday in October is the familiar tale of Zacchaeus. Many of us know from Sunday School that “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he”. The song was a delightful way for children to begin to learn this story that Luke has strategically placed late in his gospel narrative, with Jesus rapidly approaching Jerusalem on the last leg of his journey to the cross. And the first way that we learn something is often what sticks in our minds, even where there is more.

Luke 19:3 actually goes something like this: “And he sought to see Jesus, who he is, and was not able, because in stature little he was”. Notice that it is not entirely clear which of the two named characters is actually the “little” one”, though we have traditionally imagined it was Zacchaeus. What if it is Jesus who is so small in stature that Zacchaeus must climb a tree to see him over the crowd? I like the possibility – it challenges our assumptions that “big” and “powerful” necessarily go together.

And Luke 19:10 reminds us that “the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost”. Not the virtuous, or the achievers, or the excellently religious folk, but the lost.

I don’t know the particulars of Zacchaeus’ actual height (or Jesus’, for that matter), but we are told that he is the “chief tax collector” and “rich”. His status within the larger community, however, is less impressive: He is known as a “sinner”. He is someone judged as unworthy of Jesus’ presence and attention. In fact, when Jesus reaches out to the tax collector, the grumbling and judgment of the crowd fall on Jesus himself.

At the heart of this narrative is a story of the distance between two people, the tax collector and the Son of Man, and how that distance is bridged. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and calls him by name. Jesus doesn’t just behold a “tax collector”. He sees a person – a person on the margins of communal belonging. Jesus draws close in the knowledge of this human being, and wants to be a guest in Zacchaeus’ home, to enter more deeply into Zacchaeus’ life and the fullness of his story. It is in their sharing that Jesus identifies Zacchaeus as a child of God’s promise, quite apart from what anyone thinks. Jesus not only breaches the defined boundaries, he willingly shares the judgment being heaped on the “sinner”.

Sin is distance. It is not always a distance we have created or intended for ourselves. But it is real. Being “lost” is not necessarily about wandering off or losing our way; biblically speaking, being “lost” can mean being crushed or labeled, cast out of the community or not knowing where you belong. It can mean being trapped, stuck. Zacchaeus, from his “lostness”, has sought “who Jesus is”. Not just to see Jesus physically or understand his teaching intellectually, but to see and experience “who he is”.

Our friend Michael Hardin has translated “Son of Man” as the “True Human”. Indeed, it is the truth of Jesus’ humanity that transforms our lives; the same truth that Zacchaeus receives joyfully. He not only encounters Jesus in the deepest sense, but he is blessed to see in himself what Jesus sees. Stature measured only in unbounded love.

Jesus acts to save, to release, to un-stick. Zacchaeus will no longer just be the “chief tax collector”, the “sinner”, the “wee little man”, or the “lost”. Jesus will no longer be obscured by the crowd, for the man from Jericho nor for any of us, even we who often belong to “the crowd”! Good news for all who have been distanced.

As we continue to consider what church might look like in the future, what constitutes faith community, let me suggest something essential: Entering into the story together and risking encounter with the radical humanity of Jesus. Anywhere and everywhere. With the One who promises to save, to un-stick, us.

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