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Sermon ~ How to Belong

Content

Luke 19,1-9
How to Belong: He is also a son of Abraham

Sunday, 3 November 2013
UCSA Glengowrie

1.

For me as a German migrant to Australia, locals here at times seem to be a strange lot: Some of you may have heard me complain that I sometimes find myself in a situation where I seem to be getting no answer to the question I asked. People here seem to avoid making a commitment.

On the other hand, when I studied English as Second language at TAFE SA in 2007, our teacher introduced us students — all mature-age professionals — to two major features of Australian society: The “Cultural Cringe” and the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”.

I’m sure you know what I am talking about. “Cultural Cringe” characterises a phenomenon in the last century that, if you wanted to be recognised as “a Someone” in the world of academia, arts or business, for instance, you had to go overseas either to the UK or the USA. Achievements here in Australia were valued little, if anything: In the Anglo-Saxon world, Australia was considered the backburner between Royal Britain, the mighty US, or even the political sister nation Canada. To become a “Somebody” here in Australia, it seems, you needed a degree or some kind of recognition from one of these English language sisters and brothers.

This seems strange because the other phenomenon also applies here in Australia: the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. I think we have a poppy plant growing wild in our front garden, and Liz told me not to touch it. So I watch it growing, and it is indeed a proud, tall green plant with a big flower. It clearly stands out. So why Liz, a true Aussie, would not weed it out is a mystery to me.

The “Tall Poppy Syndrome” indicates that you better not hold your head up too high, as it may be chopped off! I sometimes refer to it as the “Convict Syndrome” because as a convict, you would try to avoid anything that might bring attention to your wardens. You would certainly attempt to be as invisible as possible, either from fear of retribution by the frustrated minor prison officer, or to avoid being sought out to do menial jobs, which you hate. So, you better shut up and keep as low a profile as possible.

2.

Our sermon text today tells a completely opposite story.

Kleiner Mann — ganz gross!” This German idiom was the first thing that came to mind, when I read our sermon text a few weeks ago. I don’t know of an equivalent translation, but it means something like “A little man wanting to be grand”. In Germany, you will often hear the expression when we had to deal with government officials, like a tax officer who claims superior authority — while at the same time he is hardly more than a screw in the machinery of the government administration.

Certainly, you know our story today inside out, after many childhood Sunday schools. But have you ever really examined the text in detail?

Like so many stories in the Bible, this little piece has a number of unusual twists and corners which are often overlooked in favour of the tax collector’s miraculous change of heart.

I would like to mention at least a few. For instance, were you aware …

  • that Jericho, located at the west banks of the Jordan River and just north of the Dead Sea, was the place of the Israelites’ return from bondage in Egypt, led by Joshua, the successor to Moses? It therefore is one of the oldest cities in Palestine?
  • that the meaning of the name Zacchaeus is “pure and righteous”?
  • but that the poor man must have been quite short, even tiny — if I take serious the Greek New Testament lable “mikros”?
  • and that in Israel at the time of Jesus, the profession of a tax collector — or from the Latin: a publican — was almost in the same league as that of a prostitute, and as a tax collector Zacchaeus was seen as a traitor in support of the Roman occupiers?
  • that, according to this story, Zacchaeus was aware that he was an outcast, a man who was despised by the people around him, and that in the eyes of Jesus he was a sinner?
  • that Jesus invited himself to lodge for the night at this rich man’s place?
  • that this chief tax collector repented and offered to repay many times what he had taken unlawfully from the people?
  • that this story about Zacchaeus is just one in a series of similar stories in the previous chapters, all talking about the repentance of sinners, and about mercy and compassion for the weak?

I was struck, however, when I read the final verses of our Bible text. Jesus says to the the people around him:

“Today salvation has come to this home, because this man is also a descendant of Abraham, and the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” (19,9-10).

This statement, I thought, was remarkable. It went against everything we would imagine a publican or chief tax collector to be at the time, and yet it is so close to reality. Let’s have a closer look at the person.

By all accounts, the poor rich man must have been an outsider all of his life. Born perhaps a cripple, or at least much shorter than other men around him, he would have been an outcast from childhood. We know nothing about the person apart from the few lines in this story, so I can’t say why and how he chose the profession of a tax collector. Zacchaeus, named by his parents as “the Pure and the Righteous”, must have been aware of the consequences of this role.

I suppose being rich in the way this story suggests did not help him either. His friends would have been all the wrong people, that is, all those who were not part of the Jericho crowd. The New Testament Greek uses the word “ochloi”, meaning the teaming mass of people, the workers and farmers — those of whom the rich are genuinely afraid — and why they build fences, engage the police against them, and of course exploit them in whatever way they can. Those people whom the powerful fear as potential revolutionaries.

And yet, our bible text this morning describes this very outcast as someone whom Jesus recognises, at whose house he wants to lodge for the night, and where salvation has come.

A few pages earlier in my bible, there is another reference to a tax collector (18,9-14). In a parable Jesus describes two men going to the temple to pray — a Pharisee and a tax collector. While in his prayers the Pharisee praises himself as being more pious than his neighbour, the tax collector acknowledges his sins. “This man,” Jesus concludes, “went home again justified; the other [the Pharisee] did not. For everyone who raises himself will be humbled, but anyone who humbles himself will be raised up.”

3.

So, what do we think about the powerful and the rich, and those who are corrupt and exploit the people, the poor? Does Jesus side with them? This question left me rather puzzled.

But the final verse of our text seems to put it again into perspective:

The Son of Men has come to seek out and save the lost (v10).

… Save the Lost … This may really give us the clue.

In Biblical Greek, the “seeking out” has a much stronger connotation than the just “looking for something” in our text: It comes close to the hunting of prey by a lion. So does the meaning of “to save”: safe or rescued from danger, to preserve from injury, destruction or from evil of any kind; to rescue from danger as in to save a house from the flames. Our translation of this verse, therefore, is rather low-key.

 

There is dramatic urgency behind this harmless sounding line of the last verse.

For the people in Israel, of course speaking Aramaic, this line may have invoked images as, for instance, in the prophecy to Ezekiel (chapter 34):

(2) Woe to you shepherds of Israel
who have been feeding yourselves and not the sheep.
Shouldn’t shepherds feed the sheep?

(3) You’re eating the best parts, clothing yourselves with the wool,
and slaughtering the home-grown sheep without having fed the sheep!

(4) You have not strengthened the weak, treated the sick,
set broken bones, regathered the scattered, or looked for the lost.
Instead, you’ve dominated them with brutal force and ruthlessness.

(5) Since they have no shepherd,
they have been scattered around
and have become prey for all sorts of wild animals.
How scattered they are!

This brings me back to my initial fascination with our text today. There is this man of small stature, of a profession greatly despised by his fellow people, rich but with the wrong friends — and he knows it all. He is aware of his being a “tall poppy”, standing out everywhere and from anyone. He is alone. The friends he has are not really friends caring for him, they are rather competitors in the business of ripping off the poor, the working people, the “oxchloi”, as Luke calls them.

But like his fellow tax collector praying in the temple and beating his breast for all his sins, Zacchaeus knows well that he is lost — to his own life, to his people, to his God.

And Jesus invites himself to lodge in the house of this man!

It is interesting to see the word play acting out here all over again: Luke quotes Jesus with the words, that “Today salvation has come to this house” (v9), using the same root of the word that described the dramatic rescue earlier. Through Jesus the Saviour coming to the house of the sinner, salvation and healing is brought to this oikos, the household of the chief tax collector of Jericho, with all his family and servants.

Even more important, then, is that Jesus, the Son of Men, with his words brings back into the fold Zacchaeus, this “pure and righteous” man, as he was named by his parents. “This man too is a son of Abraham.”

 

Our story does not tell us more about what happened afterwards in this house, but I can see, even hear, Zacchaeus changing his life. After so many years, this grown up man of worldly powers who was hated and despised because of his job as a tax collector, and mocked because of his size, was acknowledged for the first time ever as having come back home. For the people of Israel, to be considered a son of Abraham, the father of the multitude of these people of God, was to be safe under the salvation of their God. The Psalmist, whom we heard earlier this morning, knew it well:

Psalms 32:4-7 ISV

(4) For your hand was heavy upon me day and night;
my strength was exhausted as in a summer drought.

(5) My sin I acknowledged to you; my iniquity I did not hide.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave the guilt of my sin!

(7) You are my hiding place; you will deliver me from trouble
and surround me with shouts of deliverance.

 

Jesus, the Son of Men and Son of God, brought back life to Zacchaeus; he made him a real person again, a son of Abraham. Through Jesus lodging for the night at his home, Zacchaeus found his own home again — his place in the fellowship of his people, and the believers.

Amen.

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