Living by faith

30 October 2016
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 26C (RCL)
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 1112
Luke 19:1-10

In the lectionary we skip over some material in order to have the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector immediately follow the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We leave out the encounter of Jesus and some children, and the saying that we must enter the kingdom as children, the rich ruler asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, sayings about wealth, a passion prediction and the story of the healing of the blind beggar (in Mark’s Gospel named Bartimaeus). In Mark’s Gospel, Bartimaeus is the only person who follows Jesus on the way, and Mark uses the restoration of his sight as a counterpoint to the blindness of the disciples.

Luke places the blind beggar story here to make us pay attention to what comes next — the story of Zacchaeus. In this story, Jesus continues his habit of eating with the wrong sorts of people. We are told Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, and rich. He is one of the people who would have paid for the right to collect taxes, and then probably farmed out the actual collection to others (like the tax collector in the parable above). Climbing up the tree would have been shameful: Zacchaeus is clearly not interested in what others think of him. He only wants to see Jesus.

Jesus tells him to come down because “it is necessary that I stay in your house today.” The crowd grumbles because Jesus enters and stays the night with Zacchaeus. The word for ‘stay the night’ is kataluo which means to unharness an animal, and hence to overnight. The noun form is kataluma, which means something like an inn. When Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem in Luke’s Gospel, there is not room for them in the kataluma. In Jerusalem, Jesus sends two of his disciples to ask a man where is the kataluma where they may prepare the Passover. The story of Zacchaeus makes reference to these two episodes by its use of a rare word. Luke wants us to understand the connection. Zacchaeus gives Jesus room while the inn had no room. Zacchaeus provides a place for Passover.

There is one other lexical difficulty in the text. Most translations have Zacchaeus say, “Look, I will give half of my goods to beggars, Lord, and if I defraud anyone, I will pay them back fourfold,” in the future tense. This makes it sound like Zacchaeus is converted by Jesus presence. In the Greek, Zacchaeus offers a defense. He stands (the posture of defense) and says, “Look, sir, I do give half my belongings to the beggars, and if I defraud anyone, I do pay them back fourfold.” The verbs are in the present, indicating present and continuing action. Zacchaeus is already living the covenant more faithfully than the rich ruler whom Jesus instructed to distribute all his belongings to the poor.

Jesus says that salvation has come to his house, because he is a son of Abraham. When John the Baptist was preaching at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he instructs even soldiers how to live faithfully to the covenant, and warns everyone not to count on their heritage, because God is able raise up children of Abraham from the very stones. How one lives the covenant is more important in being identified as a child of Abraham. The story of the rich man and Lazarus also comes in here. Lazarus was a child of Abraham, while the rich man was not.

Zacchaeus was lost because he was ostracized by people like the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. People considered themselves better than him, while in fact, he is living the covenant more faithfully than they were.

We include the Habakkuk reading in the lectionary because it includes the line, “the righteous shall live by their faith.” But we chop the reading up. Habakkuk is bringing God to trial, both for the corruption in Jerusalem, and then when God promises that the Chaldeans will overthrow Jerusalem, for the corruption of the Chaldeans. God promises that the vision will come and the righteous can live by its faithfulness (or God’s faithfulness). Zacchaeus can serve as a model of what it looks like to live covenant faithfulness. Rome is not going away; taxes are going to be collected. It is possible to live faithfully even in the shadow of that catastrophe, by focusing on the local community and being upright there.

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