Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Luke 19 1-10 Zacchaeus and the Day for the Lord

What sort of tree do you have in mind when you hear the word sycamore? Those stately trees that send their seed-heads spiralling into our rose beds every summer? The sycamore of the Bible is no such tree. It is in fact part of the fig-mulberry family. Amos the prophet is described as “a dresser of sycamore trees". The fig sycamore produced rather puny fruits that were used as fodder for cattle: unfortunately they were a little slow to ripen, so Amos’s job — for he was a herdsman — was to pinch the neck of the fruit to encourage it to ripen earlier so that it could ripen in time to be of use to the cattle he kept

That was his job as a prophet, too. His job was to pinch Israel, for its time to be picked off had nearly come. Amos was the great preacher of social justice among the prophets. He launched out at every redoubt of privilege: priests, princes, judges, rich farmers, merchants, all get a right old lashing from his tongue. I like to think of Amos, climbing along the branches of the sycamore trees, pinching these stalks, bringing to ripeness his sycamore figs, thinking every time he did it, ‘Ha! Zebulun the crooked corn merchant man, you’ll soon be getting the same treatment. Yes, Amaziah the priest, your time is coming too, you’ve corrupted the people long enough, you’ll soon be ripe for feeding to the cattle!’

It is nice to turn to the New Testament to see who the other habituĂ© of the sycamore trees was: what a contrast! Zacchaeus, the rich con-man, the swindling tax official who oppressed the poor, collaborated with the Roman government, shocked the town by his venality and sticky palmed corruption. In short, the very sort of person Amos preached against. What is he doing up in Amos’s favourite tree? I can only believe Luke has mentioned him being in that particular tree deliberately to make some significant theological point. Luke’s gospel is focussed on the role of Jesus as the spirit filled prophet. Right at the outset in Mary’s song the sort of programme that Amos proclaimed is affirmed: He has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

The centre piece of Luke’s gospel is the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. This incident in Jericho is the last before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem itself. It is also unique to Luke. It is clear, then, that Luke attaches particular significance to the story, especially when Luke ends the story with one of the crucial sayings of the gospel. ‘This day salvation has come to your house, Zacchaeus’, says Jesus.

Into which category did Zacchaeus come? The story of Zacchaeus suits Luke so well because it is so ambiguous: Zacchaeus is rich. He was a senior tax officer. But as a tax-collector he was also an outcast in the town: indeed he might have been up the tree not only because he was short, but also because he was afraid of being lynched by the crowd. He was, then, in one sense among the poor in that he was an outcast (like the lepers, prostitutes and gentiles); he was also, though, one of those who might be put down from his seat in that he was mighty, powerful, an oppressor. Zacchaeus does not neatly fit into the comfortable categories of the amateur sociologists who draw up evangelisation programmes. He is an odd-ball. But this story shows the transforming power of God in Jesus, the coming of the kingdom, the world turned upside down by the spirit, in graphic clarity.

First, Jesus sees the man, hidden though he is in the tree.

Second, Jesus invites himself under the man’s roof and into his life.

Third, the man responds to this invasion of his life willingly.

Fourth, the man is utterly transformed, from one who robs the poor to feather his own nest into one who is prepared to sell his house and give half the proceeds to the poor.

Fifth, by this action indeed the life of the poor in Jericho is transformed too.

Sixth, he will accept all the consequences of his life of crime and make restitution according to the law. Thus indeed law and prophets are fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. The day of salvation is declared. The Nazareth manifesto is finding fulfilment.

The first ripe sycamore fig has fallen from the tree, not to be destroyed but to be saved. Amos’s message was: Repent before it’s too late — the Day of the Lord is coming with dreadful consequences. Jesus’s message is also ‘Repent! Today is the day of Salvation’.

So Luke underlines the word of prophet and Lord: no-one is beyond the pale; salvation can come to any house; it was a message that Luke was to rub home in one more dramatic story unique to him. There were once two other robbers in a tree: not hiding from anyone; not there of their own choice; they were nailed up there in just punishment for their misdeeds. One says to Jesus, “If you are the Christ come down out of your tree and then save us as well”. But the other confessed his sin and asked that he be included in the kingdom.

‘This day’, Jesus said, ’you will be with me in paradise.’

Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to make the first move. He invited himself into his home.

When people responded to Jesus’s call, things happened. We are used to hearing that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk: the gospels are full of those stories. But here is a unique one: the poor are provided for. We, in the rich west, must remember that in some ways we are like Zacchaeus. We have become wealthy by robbing the poor in other lands. Of course we did not personally do it, and the whole business is extremely complex; but there is little doubt that our industrial and financial base was built on the swag of Empire; that the present world economy is organised for the benefit of the rich. It is of some comfort that Jesus came to Zacchaeus’s house: under the terms of the preaching of Amos the rich (especially the corrupt rich) might not have much hope. But Zacchaeus’s response to Jesus was to make restitution to those he had robbed. By so doing he made it clear to everyone that the transforming work of God was alive in his heart, and that the day of salvation was here.

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