Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Changed by Grace

Luke 19:1-10

 No one likes paying their taxes.  Not in Jesus’ day, and not today.  We don’t like paying our taxes when we think we’re paying more than we should.  We don’t even really like “paying our fair share.”  If you read the Gospels, you very quickly find out that a tax collector was persona non grata in Jesus’ day.  But why?  Aside from just our obvious distaste for taxes.  

 Rome farmed out the collection of taxes.  Part of that was just the sheer size of the Empire.  The Roman Empire had as many as 100 million subjects.  We may have more people than that in the US today, but we also have computers and a postal service and an IRS.  Rome didn’t have those things.  So they would create an assessment for each district, based on the population, the local agriculture, trade, industry, and so on.  Then they would sell the contract for collecting that assessment to the highest bidder.  

Zacchaeus won the contract for Jericho, and whatever else was in the same tax district.  He then hired other tax collectors to work under him.  Each year, he had to pay that assessment, but Rome mostly turned a blind eye to whatever else he collected.  Since most people had no clue what the assessment even was, he could get away with collecting more than required.  Occasionally, when a tax collector really went overboard, he would be removed from office, but mostly Rome didn’t care.  This was probably the other reason Rome collected taxes like this:  It was a way of deflecting anger away from Rome and onto the local tax collector.  

The system was ripe for abuse, and there were many opportunities for abuse, because there were many Roman taxes.  First of all, there was a poll tax, a per capita tax.  You had to pay a tax just for living.  Then there were ground taxes, which were a percentage of everything you grew:  10% of grain and 20% of oil and wine.  Then there was an income tax:  1% of all your other income.  And then there were all the other duties and fees:  Tolls, tariffs on imports and exports, and so on.   

Jericho was prime real estate for tax collecting.  First of all, it was a very rich agricultural region.  It had a warm climate.  It had the fertile soil of the Jordan River Valley.  And it had a reliable, year-round water source.  Jericho was called the “City of Palms” for its large groves of palms, figs, and dates.  The Jewish historian Josephus called Jericho “the fattest city in Palestine.”  

Jericho was also a border city, at the edge of Judea.  It was on a major east-west trade route, so there were many opportunities to assess taxes and tariffs on all the goods passing through the city.  

Put these things together, and Zacchaeus would have been a very wealthy man, even if he didn’t cheat on the tax collecting.  But apparently, he cheated anyways.  Now there were probably a lot of tax collectors in the Empire who, basically, did their jobs honestly.  But the profession as a whole had such a bad reputation for dishonesty that no one would believe a tax collector who claimed to be honest.  

In Jewish society, tax collectors were about as bad as it got.  They were excluded from the synagogues and the Temple, which in their way of thinking, meant they were excluded from God.  They were considered traitors to the nation for helping the pagan Romans to oppress them.  And they were typically described in the same sentence as highway robbers, prostitutes, and murderers.  Doesn’t get much worse than that.

Zacchaeus may have been very wealthy, but he was also very unhappy.  That’s pretty common, isn’t it?  We have a saying, “Money can’t buy happiness.”  But we sure seem to keep trying to buy it, don’t we?  How often do we see those who are very wealthy demonstrating outward signs that there is a deep dissatisfaction in their spirits?  How often do we see Hollywood celebrities and other rich people turning to sexual affairs and indiscretions, drugs and alcohol, petty crimes, and self-destructive behaviors?  Those are the outward signs of a deep inner dissatisfaction.  I think what’s going on is that many people believe wealth will make them happy.  And then they get there, and find out otherwise, and so they act out their dissatisfaction.  

Zacchaeus was unhappy.  We don’t know how exactly that was manifesting itself in his life, but we know that he was looking for something more.  He heard that Jesus was coming to town.  Jesus, that rabbi who turned a lot of heads by his strange behavior:  associating voluntarily with tax collectors and prostitutes.  He even ate with them!  He counted them his equals and his friends.  That’s what eating together meant in his culture.  Zacchaeus wanted to meet Jesus.  

So he went out looking for him.  He braved the crowds.  That wouldn’t have been an easy thing for him to do.  Zacchaeus was a small man, physically.  Maybe that added to his unhappiness, an inferiority complex, perhaps.  Certainly it made him an easy target.  Everyone hated him, and no one feared him, at least not physically.

The crowd wasn’t about to help him see Jesus, so he climbed a tree, a sycamore fig tree.  Not the same tree we have here.  We have sycamore maples in Pennsylvania, a lot of them grow along the river here, but this was a different tree.  

And of all things, Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus.  Jesus knew his name.  Maybe he had heard of him, but more likely this is a prophetic word.  Jewish people believed a prophet could know the name of someone they had never met.  “I must be your guest.”  It was rude in Jesus’ culture to invite yourself into someone’s home, but Zacchaeus didn’t care.  He is overwhelmed with joy at being welcomed by Jesus.  The crowd wasn’t happy, but he was.

Zacchaeus pledges:  “I will give half my wealth to the poor and if I’ve cheated anyone, I will pay it back four times over.”  That was more than required.  There were Old Testament laws about repayment of what was stolen, such as Exodus 22 and Leviticus 6.  Normally, a thief who made voluntary restitution was only required to pay back 120% of what was stolen.  Zacchaeus volunteers to pay back the most required by the Law, 400%.  But this is the evidence of grace in his life.  Receiving grace from Jesus has brought about an inward change in him.  And the result of that inward change is outward action.  

That, I think, is the main point of the story:  When we have truly received grace, it results in an inward change of heart seen by outward actions.

I think there are three questions for us in this story.

First, how do we treat the “untouchables” in our society?  Every society has certain people who are “untouchable.”  In India, it is a caste system.  In Jesus’ day, it was prostitutes and tax collectors.  For us, it’s probably people who abuse children.  Even in prison, child abusers are treated as outcasts.  If they get out of prison, they often can’t find any place to live or work, either because of laws or just because no one wants them around.

I read a story recently about a group of Christians who started a community in a rural region of Florida especially for child sex offenders.  A community for people society called untouchable.  That’s a pretty remarkable thing.  But is it any different from what Jesus showed us by his own example?  Jesus touched the untouchables.

Second, do we really believe people can change?  The crowds didn’t seem to believe that of Zacchaeus.  Perhaps you’ve experienced the same thing.  

When I was in college, I worked at Jumonville, one of our United Methodist Church camps.  Halfway through the summer, one of the volunteer camp counselors went to the camp director and told him, “I don’t think that Scott Hamley kid working here.  I remember him when he was a camper.  He was a trouble-maker.  You don’t need people like that working here.”  He was talking about me from when I was 11 years old, and I was 20 at the time.  Of course, some people still think I’m a trouble-maker.  Mostly my wife.  Do we really believe people can change?  Do we really believe God’s grace can change people?  We should.

It’s an act of arrogance for us to assume we “know” people.  And it is nothing less than doubting God to presume he cannot change a person’s heart.  

And third, what is the evidence of grace in your life?  What outward actions show your heart has been changed by God’s grace?  Do we treat people differently?  Do we live by different values?  Do we think about things differently, including wealth and possessions?  You can’t read Luke’s Gospel without seeing that the use of wealth is an indicator of our heart’s condition.

As I was reading for this morning’s sermon, I came across a story about a group of women in a Bible study in England.  The story didn’t say so, but it sounded like it was a Methodist class meeting.  One woman stood up and gave her testimony about how God had changed her heart.  The woman next to her didn’t say anything, but obviously looked upset.  Finally, the leader of the class asked why she was angry.  She said, “Because this woman owes me money, and she won’t pay it back.  And yesterday I couldn’t afford to buy food for my children.”  The moral of the story is:  Our testimony about God and his work in our lives rings hollow unless other people can see the changes in our outward actions.  

 

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