Text: Luke 19: 1-9
He 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 past one week I have witnessed the mushrooming of ‘Campus Confessions’ on Facebook where groups linked to schools and universities have an opportunity to be anonymous and confess anything possible. I saw one group that invited in this way “You have a dark secret? You want to get it out of your system. You have come to the right place. Confess as much as you like without being known.” This trend has alarmed the police, college and school administration alike. But it is a big rage among the teenagers and youths. The reports of ‘Times of India ‘says that this trend is here to stay which and has helped Facebook to get an edge over Tumblr. Psychologists say that it is a very urgent need for people to have a forum for Catharsis. These pages of campus confessions give opportunity to people to remain hidden. But why do people have the urge to confess? Counselors say that the human heart can’t deal with the guilt of secret shame. Such forums give them the comfort of confessing their guilt with a guarantee of not being judged. They crave to confess their hidden aspect of the self.
In this context we see Luke introducing a person who preferred being hidden. In a place called Jericho he tells us about a Tax Collector called Zacchaeus . The story of the short man Zachy was my favorite story as a kid. A cartoon illustration of Zachhaeus climbing the Sycamore tree is still fresh in my mind. To understand why Zachy loved to hide we need to learn a bit of the background of Israel. John Ortberg says that there were few professions in Israel that were considered immoral. They were Gamblers with Dice, Usurers, Pigeon Trainers (as Pigeon racing was a form of gambling) and Tax collectors. Now why the Tax collectors profession was considered immoral? One would know that Israel was under Roman Imperialism and extracting money out of their colony was a main stay of Roman system. One of the historical document has an edict which says “Do not appoint Roman tax Collectors. Let Barbarians be the tax Collectors.” Let me divert a bit before we go further. How did the word Barbarian come to be used? Kancha Iliah a dalit Scholar says that Greeks and Romans were the first to invent the technology of shaving. Therefore if one looks at any Greek or Roman Statue, the alpha male is one who is “Clean Shave Gillette” look. Since only Romans had the access to the technology of shaving only they had the clean shave privilege but the people of the Countries under their imperial rule had long flowing beard. Now in latin “Barba” means beard. So Barbarians simply mean people with beard. So technically I am a Barbarian. How Nice. Well it is the politics of the language that associated barbarians with being uncivilized.
Coming back to the point is that Barbarian Zachy was a Tax Collector who was also seen as an agent of the Romans. Zachy was despised as a traitor by society at large. A devout Israelite would not let the hem of their robe to be touched by a tax collector. One can say that Zacchaeus with his short physical frame thought that only money could bring him prominence and security. He was good at it and also that he must have been totally corrupt by fleecing people. The money is there, he was the chief tax collector, he had huge power. But then why did this man want to see Jesus? John Ortberg says that he was intrigued by Jesus as this Jesus had a Tax Collector as a Disciple (we are talking about Matthew). That was a huge message for this person who was a social scum. He did not want to be seen in public. But he also did not want to miss meeting this Rabbi who has a man from his profession as a disciple. His urge to be hidden was so deep that he wanted to see Jesus from a distance and therefore he climbed the tree. He did not want to face people along with Jesus, whom Zacchaeus had cheated. Jesus comes closer to the tree and Zacchaeus gets a closer look. But when he is looking at Jesus, Jesus looks at him. He stops. Guess what? Jesus not only calls him, He also knows his name. He calls out “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” (vs 6) The people are shocked that Jesus calls out a corrupt traitor who is a tax collector. Vs 7 says that people walking with Jesus are unhappy and start to grumble that he is going to dine with a sinner. How can Jesus do that? Does he not know his background? What is funny is, the people who were walking with Jesus were more spiritual that Jesus was. I feel that people in the church reject people that Jesus would accept. It seems we are more spiritual than Him.
Zacchaeus knows that his life does not measure up to have a communion with Jesus. But he now encounters Grace that he never has seen . He was a misfit till now. Lived in guilt and always felt literally and metaphorically short in front of people. When he encounters grace, his hidden aspects of the soul are touched. His hidden sinfulness becomes exposed in front of Jesus who comes to his home without any preconditions. Coming home and dining made him feel accepted. The power of grace opened his heart that he not only confessed his sins but also was ready to pay back four times the amount to those he had defrauded. According to law he just had to pay back 20 percent. His repentance produced generosity which was hidden due to his guilt. He realized he was blind in his urge to become rich and therefore decided to give half of his possessions to the poor. We can see all the people who with reluctance accompanied Jesus to a fraud tax collectors home. When Zacchaeus said all this they might have wished that Jesus sees through the fake claims of a tax collector who can never be honest. But they get scandalized hearing Jesus say “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (vs 9) Salvation? Son of Abraham? They had too much to take for a day. But Zacchaeus because of the Grace received from Jesus Christ, was healed and received forgiveness and transformed his life of hiddenness to walk with Jesus. He received salvation.
Today as followers of Christ we have become too judgmental in our approach. We have become more pious and Spiritual than Jesus. Our Church is restricted to the Believers. There are many inside and outside the church that need the grace to come out of their hidden ways of life. But we have chosen to be judgmental so as to exclude them.
I will end the meditation with the famous Story of Ernest Hemingway that sums up the urgent need for grace and forgiveness. In his short story “Capital of the World”, Ernest Hemingway tells about a Spanish father who wanted to be reconciled with his runaway son. The despairing father missed his son so much that he placed an advertisement in the local newspaper. The advertisement read simply, “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.” The father drove down and was anxious whether his son Paco would meet him. He was not sure. With a million thoughts, the Father reaches the Hotel. But the father was shocked at what he saw. There were eight hundred young men named Paco waiting for their forgiving fathers! Paco is a very common name in Spain.
We all long to be forgiven and experience grace. Confession here is when Jesus has taken the initiative to reach out to us. To give communion to us. He accepts us the way we are. We do not need to remain hidden. His Grace transforms us. He has reached out to us so that we can reach out to many spreading Grace, Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church