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A gospel that surprises – Part Five of Lent

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Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 2, 2017

Luke 18:31-19:10 and Psalm 84:1-4,10-12

“A different spin on Zacchaeus”

A local bar was so sure that its bartender was the strongest man around that they offered a standing $1,000 bet. The bartender would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass and hand the lemon to a patron. Anyone who could squeeze one more drop of juice out would win the money. Many people had tried over time (weightlifters, longshoremen, and many others) but nobody could do it.

One day this scrawny little man came in, wearing thick glasses and a polyester suit. In a tiny, squeaky voice, he said, “I’d like to try the bet.” After the laughter had died down, the bartender said okay, grabbed a lemon and squeezed away. Then he handed the wrinkled remains of the rind to the little man.

But the crowd’s laughter turned to total silence as the man clenched his fist around the lemon and six drops fell into the glass. As the crowd cheered, the bartender paid the $1,000, and asked the little man, “What do you do for a living? Are you a lumberjack, a weightlifter, or what?” The man replied, “I work for the CRA.”

This morning I want us to get better acquainted with a man who worked for the RRA (Rome Revenue Agency). He was a tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus. He is one of the better known personalities in the New Testament. Every child in Sunday school is familiar with him. Perhaps every Sunday, somewhere around the world, the little song is sung:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,

A wee little man was he;

He climbed up in the Sycamore tree,

For the Lord, he wanted to see. 1)

Let’s venture for a moment into the world of science fiction or comic books. There you will run into the multiverse. It’s the belief or theory that there isn’t one universe, but hundreds or thousands of different universes all taking place at the same time. There is the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger where he talks about a cat being placed in a box with a small amount of a radioactive substance, a hammer and cyanide. Without going into the whole theory, as long as the box is closed, we don’t know if the cat is alive or was killed by the poison. In theory, the cat could be both alive and dead at the same time. This experiment has been used to explain multiverses because you can be a famous singer in one universe or a serial killer in another one all at the same time. There is that famous episode in Star Trek where Kirk is transported to mirror universe where the peaceful Federation is now the Terran Empire. Characters who were good in the main universe were sadistic in this new one. And of course, there is Spock who in the mirror universe is sort of evil and you can tell because he now has a goatee.

Let’s consider thinking about multiverses in dealing with a tension in today’s text. There are two different understandings when it comes to the tax collector named Zacchaeus.

For years, Zacchaeus was the short man who had dinner with Jesus and gave money to the poor. It’s a classic story of redemption, of a “bad guy” who became good. But in recent years, it has been revealed that there is some tension when it comes to the verb tense in verse 8. Verse 8 reads: “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

This passage in the original Greek is in a present tense. It could mean that Zacchaeus was already giving his money to the poor. But the present tense could also be indicating a future action meaning he will do this. Dan Clendenin explains it this way:

“Even though the verbs are in the present tense, the typical way of reading of this story follows scholars like Robert Stein and translations like the NRSV and NIV. They render the present tense verbs as a “futuristic present.” That is, Zacchaeus the sinner repents and vows that henceforth he’ll make restitution.

The second option follows commentators like Joseph Fitzmyer and translations like the KJV and RSV. They render the verbs as a “progressive present tense.” In this reading, Zacchaeus is a hidden saint about whom people have made all sorts of false assumptions about his corruption. And so he defends himself: “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.” 2)

So which one is it? Is it the story of corrupt rich man that pledges to do right? Or is it a story of affirmation, of Jesus blessing Zacchaeus for the work that he is doing?

What if it is both; that like Schrodinger’s cat, Zacchaeus is in a superpositions state: both sinner and saint.

We often say that Christians are both sinner and saint. A saint in this case is a forgiven sinner, and we seem to be always both forgiven and still imperfect on this side of heaven.

I don’t know if Zaccheus had already been making amends or would promise to do it. What I do know is that he was both sinner and saint, one that was part of a corrupt system and trying to atone. Jesus called this flawed man a “son of Abraham” one that belongs in God’s kingdom.

The good news is that we aren’t that different from Zacchaeus. We are sinners and we can’t hide that fact. But in Christ we are forgiven, we are redeemed by Christ and sent to act with justice and grace toward others.

One doesn’t need the multiverse to understand that. 3)

Another thought: William Barclay, in his classic commentary from 1955 on Luke, when he gets to the story of Zacchaeus, tells an awful but ever so relevant story of several women who were present at a meeting and each was giving a glowing testimony. There was one woman, however, who kept grimly silent. She was asked to testify, and she refused. She was asked why, and she answered, “Four of these women who have just given their testimony owe me money, and my family and I are half-starved because we cannot buy food.” A testimony is utterly worthless unless it is backed by deeds which guarantee its sincerity. It is not mere change of words that Jesus Christ entices us to, but a change of life.” 4)

Ultimately, Jesus was regularly offering insights into the way we deal with money. We are confronted with the question, “What is my relationship with my money?”

  • From sermonsearch.com
  • Daniel B. Clendenin at “Journey with Jesus – A weekly webzine for the global church, since 2004”
  • Dennis Sanders at “Come Sunday Lectionary Reflections”
  • William Barclay, The gospel of Luke – the daily study Bible, 1955


Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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