Today we have three very packed stories back to back. In the first, we hear Jesus’ final prediction about his death and resurrection, stating he will be rejected by the religious leadership, given over to human hands, and finally given to the political powers of the time who would kill him. In the second section we hear about the healing of the blind man, and in the third we have the story of Zacchaeus. And once again, while the stories are separate, are different, they are also related to one another and all center around the question of seeing, of blindness, and of the salvation that comes just from being open in our sight.
The religious authorities, as we know, were completely blind to the good that Jesus was bringing. They feared him, they feared his sway over the people, they feared his radical ideas about inclusion and love of even those others despised. They would reject him because he threatened the life that they were comfortable with, he threatened their way of doing things. And because of all of this, they were blind. The disciples, too, were blind. Jesus talked to them again and again about what was going to happen and the fact that he would be killed. But, as we are told throughout the gospels and here, once more, “But the Twelve understood none of these words. The meaning of this message was hidden from them and they didn’t grasp what he was saying.” The people in the crowd were blind as Jesus passed through. When the blind man was calling out for his help, the people in the crowd just kept trying to shush the blind man, failing to see that his care was Jesus’ concern, his well-being was Jesus’ well-being, and, indeed, theirs as well.
In the gospel reading from John we see a similar situation. A voice from heaven calls down “I have glorified my name and I will do it again.” And the people not only can’t see, they also don’t hear. “it’s thunder.” “An angel spoke to him.” As Jesus said, the invitation to see, the invitation to hear, this is not for Jesus’ sake. It is not for God’s sake. It is for ours. But seeing, hearing is difficult, especially if we don’t WANT to see or hear. If we don’t like what is being said, seeing and hearing can just feel too hard.
In great irony and in great contrast to all of this we have the blind man, who, though he cannot see physically, understands who Jesus is and what he is capable of. In his vision, then, and in his humility, he cries out to Jesus for help. Jesus asks him what he wants done for him, and in this, too, the man has clear sight. He wants to see. He knows who Jesus is and he knows what he wants and needs. In response to that sight, then, Jesus gives him what he asks for.
Then we come to the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, meaning he worked for the Roman system: an agent of the state, a Jew turned oppressor of his own people. People hated him, but probably would take his job if they could. He had income, a job, was “rich”. All tax collectors, by definition, at that time, were wealthy; they purchased the right to collect taxes and profit from what they charged above what people owed the empire. When some tax collectors asked John the Baptist, “Teacher, what should we do?” he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (3:12-13), which effectively put them out of business. But somehow Zacchaeus had sight. He knew that making a living wasn’t the same as making a life. He had sight into that. The story said he was of short stature. It’s possible that this is literally true. But some commentators suggest that the “short stature” was actually a metaphor, a way of saying that he was blocked from equal participation in the community because of his career.
Either way, he was an outcast, he was not encouraged to have access to Jesus. He was blocked, either because of his height or because of his career. And yet, he, saw Jesus. He climbed the tree to get sight, he made his own access to seeing Jesus. Still, I’m certain he did not expect Jesus to call to him, did not expect Jesus to respond. And then, here, is a very interesting part of the story. The Common English Bible translates Zacchaeus’ words this way, ““Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.” Do you hear something different in this than you might have heard before? This is not a future tense thing. This is not a declaration about how he will change his behavior. This is a statement about what he is doing now, what he HAS been doing. In the face of this, those being confronted and asked to change their behavior are not the Zacchaeuses of the world. It is those around him.
As the Commentary Feasting on the Word said it, “If one takes seriously this reading of the text, …the issue is not Zacchaeus’s conversion at all, but the unfair and harsh judgment of the observers, who see Zacchaeus as a sinner. In this light, then, Jesus’ statement that Zacchaeus too is a “son of Abraham,” that he is a good Jew, is a defense of Zacchaeus against those who judge him to be a sinner and therefore outside the faith. … Zacchaeus, … is outcast by reason of his occupation. Although he apparently has considerable wealth and, presumably, considerable power as chief tax collector, he too is treated as an outcast, a sinner, by the same religious leaders who condemn Jesus for healing a woman on the Sabbath and going home with a notorious tax collector.” – (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).)
Remember what we talked about last week: that Jesus actually talks more about money and possessions than anything else. And here it is in a practical way. This story shows us it is not enough to believe: a genuine encounter with the Christ we meet in scripture is life-changing. It will change you. It does change you. Zacchaeus understands that. Again, to quote from Feasting on the Word, “Luke’s concern for the proper use of wealth is no mere indictment of rich people or an ascetic preference for poverty. It is a matter of distributive justice. Before Jesus is born, his mother praises God for filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty-handed (1:53). Jesus’ blessing of the poor with the promise that they will be rich has a corresponding woe to those who are wealthy, because they have already received their consolation (6:24). The parables of the Rich Fool (12:13-21), the Dishonest Manager (16:1-13), and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31) all highlight the danger that personal wealth both easily becomes an idol and also can deprive others of what they need. The story of the Sabbath banquet ends with Jesus’ saying, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed” (14:12-14). God has designed wealth to be shared, something the ruler in 18:18-23 learned to his great sorrow. This is why Jesus says, “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25).
Again, Zacchaeus understands this. And he is acting differently. He is acting in a way that saves many people. He is working for the empire, collecting taxes, in a way that does NOT harm the people. But still they can’t see him accurately, they can’t see Jesus accurately, and so both Jesus and Zacchaeus are condemned by the people, by the legal experts, by the pharisees, because of their blindness.
What helps us to see? In today’s stories, people come to Jesus in different ways. The blind man calls out to him. Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see him and Jesus calls to him. The ways in which people come to Christ differ: they are person dependent: they rely on God’s knowledge of each of us as the individuals we are. But they all do have something in common. On the part of those saved, what they have in common is humility. In contrast to the religious experts and pharisees who think they got it all right, think they understand it all, think they have it all figured out, the blind man knows he needs help beyond himself. And Zacchaeus, too, knows he needs to see Jesus: again that having a living and having a life are not the same things.
Do we have this same humility? Do we have trouble calling out to ask for what we need, what we want? Do we even have trouble recognizing what it is that we truly need or want? Do we have the humility to ask for help when it is there to be given? I think about Jesus asking the blind man what he wanted. Jesus needed to know that the blind man could see what he needed in order for Jesus to be able to truly help him. Can we see what we need?
I found myself remembering the wonderful movie “Family Man”. In this movie, Jack Campbell thinks he has it all. He is the CEO of an exclusive company, he lives in a beautiful penthouse and is wealthy beyond imagining. He is single but because he is good looking and wealthy, he can have any woman he wants and he does, on a regular basis. When he goes out on Christmas Eve to pick up egg nog, though, he encounters a racist shopkeeper who will not honor a lottery ticket win because the person with the ticket is African American. The African American man pulls out a gun and in anger tells the shop keeper to actually look at the ticket he’s rejecting before refusing to pay it. Jack tries to step in to help and the African American man turns the gun on him, asking him if he wants to die. Jack says “no”, offers to pay the man for the ticket, and helps everyone calm down and become centered. As they leave the shop, Jack says to the black man, “What do you want to carry a gun around for anyway? You’re just going to wind up doing something you’ll regret. There must be programs out there and opportunities.” The man responds, “You’re talking to the wrong person about regrets, Jack.”
Jack goes on, “I’m not saying it wouldn’t take some hard work. A lot of hard work, and maybe some medication…” But then the other man starts to laugh. He says, “Wait a minute. This is bananas.” He turns his face to the sky and shouts, “This man thinks I need to be saved, yo!”
Jack says, “Well, everybody needs something.” To which the man says, “And what do you need, Jack?” Jack says, “Well, me? I got everything I need!” The man, laughing, says, “Wow, it must be great being you.” And then he continues, “You know I’m going to really enjoy this. You just remember that you did this, Jack. You brought this on yourself. Merry Christmas.” And he walks away.
As the movie progresses, we learn that the African American man was actually an angel, and he gives Jack the gift of a “glimpse” – a sight into a life he might have had, had he made different choices. The glimpse takes up most of the movie, but in the end, Jack realizes that what he thought he needed, what he thought he wanted, what he thought mattered to him, what he thought he valued, was not what would make him happy, whole, complete. He came to see, but not without a great deal of pain, struggle, and deep self-reflection.
Jesus states that he came to save the lost. But this is not a future tense saving. This is a saving NOW: he saves the blind man from loss of sight. He saves Zacchaeus and indeed many of the outcasts from their isolation, their condemnation, their exclusion. He does this now. And he lets his disciples know ahead of time so that they will understand that they are called to continue the work. In the revised common lectionary for this week, we hear from the gospel of John that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit…. Whoever serves me must follow me.” It is in the growing of his community, in the spreading of the seed of truth, of love, that salvation comes to all of us. But again, that is for NOW. We are not called to wait to end suffering for people. We are called to follow Jesus and end it now.
And that starts with our own humility. Our own ability to cry out, “Have mercy on us!” To remember that, on our own, we rarely see the grace of God. But then we also have to remember that when we really see Jesus, we will be changed. Jesus was in Jericho when all of these stories occurred. He was in every way, tumbling down the walls of Jericho once again: breaking the barriers that put the tax collector on the outside, breaking the walls that said the blind man would always be stuck in his blindness, tearing down the beliefs that the religious experts and pharisees were the ones who understood while these outcasts didn’t; flipping that on its head so all would see it was the outcasts who got it, and those humble enough to learn from them. Choosing to see Jesus, choosing to SEE, will not be easy, it will not be painless, and it will mean that we have to change, something that is not comfortable for any of us.
Still, the gifts are amazing. Zacchaeus walked away with incredible joy, a man maybe less rich in money, but filled with the elation of his faith and love of Christ. The Gospels are about serious commitment to God, but also about joy. Reminder that “Eucharist” means thanksgiving, the meal that we take is a meal of deep joy, deep connection, deep gratitude. May we have that same ability to put aside our “sure knowing” and be open to actually seeing, hearing and meeting the risen Christ anew. For in doing so, we will be “saved”, we will be found. We will be healed. And we will find joy.