“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.”
Jesus is on the move. It’s a journey that, according to Luke’s account of the gospel, began back at the mount of transfiguration. Immediately following Jesus’ encounter with the Father, along with Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John, we’re told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Lk 9:51). From that point on Jesus is on the move. Progressing closer and closer to his destination. The cross and the tomb.
Just moments before entering Jericho Jesus had reminded his disciples “we are going up to Jerusalem” (Lk 18:31). Now, he stops. “Zacchaeus... I must stay at your house today.” The shock for the crowd, and for us reading this story today, is who Jesus chooses to stay with – a “sinner.” Jesus is “welcomed” by a sinner, into his home, for a meal.
Who does Jesus welcome to his table and to whose table is Jesus welcomed?
In the context of Luke’s gospel this story fits with three other stories of rejection and welcome. Families bring the children to Jesus but it’s the disciples who try to stop them. But Jesus calls for them. He welcomes them. One of my favourite moments every Sunday is when the children come out from Sunday School and gather with us all at the table. Watch their faces; the joy, the simple trust, the excitement. Us adults take it all so seriously but the children don’t know the customs and the “right way” to eat at Jesus’ table. They just come with simple expectation and faith. It's no wonder Jesus used children as an example of how to receive the kingdom of God (Lk 18:17).
Then there is the blind beggar sitting by the roadside at the entry into Jericho. He calls out to Jesus to get his attention but other people around him try to silence him. He’s persistent. He calls out even louder – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops. He listens. He heals. And the blind man sees, follows, and praises God.
In between those two stories of rejection and welcome is the story of a rich ruler. He comes to Jesus wanting to inherit eternal life. There are many parallels with the story of Zacchaeus and this unnamed man. They’re both wealthy. The call to give away that wealth to the poor is echoed in both. As is the theme of “salvation.” What is different for the rich ruler it is that no one else hinders his progress to Jesus. He has free access to ask Jesus his question. Those around him know and respect him because of his status in society and no one gets in the way… except himself. When Jesus instructs him to “sell all you own and distribute it to the poor” he became sad.
“That’s too hard. That’s… impossible.”
When we come to Zacchaeus Luke gives us some insight into this man’s life. He’s wealthy, but he’s not at all popular like the rich ruler. Being wealthy gets you status in society but how you make that wealth is very significant. We have popular rich people in our society – celebrities and sports stars. Entrepreneurs who work their way to the top. We also have unpopular rich people as well. Those who exploit their workers, or the environment, or the tax system for their own personal gain.
Tax collectors worked for the enemy – the Romans. Yet, they were not necessarily Romans themselves. Tax collectors were recruited from amongst the Jewish people to collect taxes on behalf of the Roman empire. And this made them very unpopular. So despite Zacchaeus being a ruler, and wealthy, he’s an enemy of the people. So the crowd collectively exclude him from the procession; blocking his path to get access to Jesus.
But Jesus has already shown an affinity to tax collectors in Luke’s gospel. In 5:27 one of them, Levi, even becomes one of his disciples. Immediately after this Levi throws a party for Jesus, his followers, and all of Levi’s tax collector friends. This draws the attention of the religious leaders who question why Jesus would “eat with tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 5:30). It’s the same accusation that the crowd makes when Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house and is welcomed by him. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (Lk 19:7).
So, why does Jesus welcome tax collectors and sinners? Why does he eat with them?
These were particularly important questions because of the significance of religious purity in Jesus’ time. You see in order to participate fully in the worshiping life of first century Judaism, particularly as it related to the Temple and sacrifice, a person was required to be as pure as possible. The purer you were the greater access you were given into the Temple. The entire Temple was constructed around this idea of purity; with the Most Holy Place in the centre reserved for the most pure person only (the High Priest) and that only on one day a year, outside of which was the court of Israelites, then the court of women, then the court of Gentiles, all of this sits within the city of Jerusalem (the Holy City), which is situated within the “Holy Land.” Purity was gained by getting as close as possible to the centre of Jewish life; the temple, but paradoxically you also needed purification to move in closer. Access to the temple was restricted based upon things like gender, physical health, ethnicity, recent sexual activity, whether women had been menstruating recently, and so on. This is why the stories of Jesus’ interaction with the bleeding woman, the woman who washes his feet with her hair, the healing of the demon-possessed man who lived amongst tombs and pigs outside of the holy land; these stories are scandalous because Jesus is breaking the purity code in all of them. And here he is, once again, eating with a sinner. Doesn’t he know anything about purity? If you eat with a sinner you sit at the same table as them, you get your food from the same plate and your drink from the same jug. You’re going to catch their sinfulness!
We’re just beginning to emerge from two years of Covid-safe restrictions. We know what “social distancing” means. Well this is social distancing at a religious level. Don’t go near sinners. They will pollute you and that will mean you can’t go to the temple. You can’t go to worship. You will need to be purified, recognised as pure by a priest (remember this from the story of the ten lepers just recently?), and then, and only then, you can be welcomed at the table.
So, why does Jesus welcome tax collectors and sinners? Why does he eat with them?
In short, Jesus is turning this world upside down. He is demonstrating that holiness is gained, not through getting closer to the centre of the Temple, but through getting closer to Jesus. It is not that Jesus will catch sinners’ sinfulness by eating with them, rather, sinners catch Jesus’ holiness by eating with him. No longer is the Temple the centre of the religious life of God’s people; now, the centre is Jesus.
For Zacchaeus, the transformation was immediate and obvious to all. This short-statured man, previously hidden away by the crowds and forced to humiliate himself by climbing a tree, in stark contrast to the rich ruler who walks away from Jesus sad, now he stands tall amongst the people. He gives away half of his possessions to the poor and repays any fraudulent taxes he’s taken four-fold. He goes above and beyond the expectation of the law which required only a repayment of the amount taken plus 20% (Lev 6:5; Num 5:7). What seemed impossible to the rich ruler became a spontaneous and joy-filled response for Zacchaeus and nothing, not even his money, was going to get in the way. Salvation came to his house that day.
Today, as we prepare ourselves to eat with Jesus at his Table, let us come with joy; receiving the kingdom of God like the children do. Let us join with the blind beggar and those around him in praising God for all he has done. And let us respond to Jesus with open hands, open hearts, and even open wallets; not letting anything, including our wealth, get in the way of our connection to Jesus. For in him, and through him, we are made whole; we are made holy. May we each find that this day salvation has come to this house, to our house.
Will you welcome Jesus today?
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