the less traveled road
A sermon preached on June 28, 2020 by Pastor Ken Carrothers
In Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten he states, “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School.”[i] Fulgham’s comment notes how much Sunday School about life. It reminds us of God’s grace, love and promise and often somewhere in the midst it includes a story and song about a man named Zacchaeus.
In Sunday School we learned that Zacchaeus was short and nobody liked him. And because of these two things, he had a climb a sycamore tree to try and see Jesus, who was passing through, for the crowd wasn’t going to do him any favors. And then in a great twist, Jesus walking down the street comes to the tree, and as we heard in the song he looks up to see — a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. And Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m coming to your house to stay, I’m coming to your house to stay.”
It is a catchy little song that my family and I have been singing all week. But pretty soon you realize the song doesn’t get into any of the details. The song just glosses over everything. So rather than spending the sermon singing the song over and over again, let’s walk back through the story and pay attention to the details that were missed.
The first thing we learn is that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. That means he was a Jew, who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. This means he was seen as a traitor to his people. A marked man. A sinner of ill-repute.
Luke also tells us, Zacchaeus was rich, which surprises no one. The immediate assumption is his wealth came through ill-gotten gains. For the common understanding was that Roman tax collectors became rich by extortion and embezzlement. They would take advantage of the poor, exploit the elderly and do what they could to get ahead.
And beyond being a wealthy, corrupt traitor, Zacchaeus was short. So short in fact that he couldn’t see over the crowd, which forced him to do something utterly undignified for a man of his status. Because the crowd would not yield, Zacchaeus was forced to run ahead and climb a tree, as a young child would, to wait for a glimpse of Jesus. He had to work for it.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and here is the Gospel surprise — the Good news — when Jesus saw Zacchaeus, he told him to come down for he would dine with him that day. Zacchaeus got way more than he bargained for. He wanted to see Jesus and yet Jesus saw him. The crowd predictably grumbled that Jesus goes to be the guest of a sinner, again.
Luke loves this theme — Jesus engaging with sinners. It has been prevalent throughout all his travels and perhaps never more so than when in chapter 15 Jesus told the stories about the lost sheep, lost coin and prodigal son. Indeed, “the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Likely as a result of hearing the grumbling, Zacchaeus justifies himself and as we heard Jeff read, says he will give half of his possessions to the poor and repay fourfold all the people he has defrauded. One assumes that would be a long, long list of angry tax payers.
Getting into the story a little deeper than the song one reads that Zacchaeus is a sinner who is converted from his sinful ways on the spot. Zacchaeus promises to repent and make amends for all the wrongs he has done.
And while that makes for a nice story, the challenge that comes with this reading is that it seems like this is the example of what it looks like to follow Jesus. Some people might say it this way: you climb the tree, you give away everything, you welcome Jesus to your house and into your life… you do all these things — then and only then, God will offer you salvation.
It is easy to read it that way, but I wonder if there might be another way to interpret this story? And as I sat with this text I learned there was and it has to do with the way in which certain words are translated — specifically the verbs in Zacchaeus’ response to the crowd.
You see upon closer examination the verbs Zacchaeus speaks are not in future tense. They are not something Zacchaeus is committing to do in future, but rather they are all present tense verbs. In other words, Zacchaeus is saying, “Lord, I already give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I defraud anyone, I pay them back four times as much.”
I realize this is a different interpretation than we are perhaps used to hearing, but it does show up in a few different English translations. Zacchaeus is pushing back on the crowd, in essence telling Jesus, “I’m not who the crowd says I am. They think they know me, but they don’t.” For the crowd demonized Zacchaeus, but Jesus praised him. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”[ii]
Robert Fulgham said we learned everything we need to know on the sandpile of Sunday School, which might be true in most cases. But for this story I want to go with a different “Robert’s” thoughts. Robert Frost wrote in his poem The Road Not Taken, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
What I like about the less traveled interpretation of future tense verbs is that the story becomes less about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, and more about the crowd who would rather demonize a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions. Because if I’m honest I can find myself in the crowd a whole lot quicker than I can relate to Zacchaeus. But even as I am hear the condemnation, I remember the Good News: Jesus says, “for the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost” which is me and the crowd.
And hope comes when Jesus delivers the line “for he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus reminds the crowd that Zacchaeus cannot be pushed away. He too is a human being. He too is a child of Abraham. He too is one of them. Jesus will not write people off. In today’s language we would say: Zacchaeus matters.
Does that mean the lives of the people in the crowd don’t matter? Of course not. That’s another false assumption — that by saying one life matters, that all others don’t. But here’s the thing — Jesus is reminding the crowd that until they can articulate and embody through their words and action that Zacchaeus matters, they can never truly say that everyone matters.
Jesus reminds the crowd and us that no one can be written off. Before you can have all, you must have the specific. That is the gift and promise of Jesus’ radical application of God’s love to Zacchaeus, to the crowd and to us. For let us remember the Gospel comes to transform us by helping us recognize our own shortfalls, complicity and sin — and to powerfully and even offensively announce the grace-given forgiveness for all— in hope that we might embody and live in a way that shares our common identity as God’s beloved with all the Zacchaeus of the world. Amen.
[i] Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten (Villard Books: New York, 1990), page 6.
[ii] Luke 19:9b-10 (NRSV)