Today, as we approach the feast of All Saints and All Souls, I am going to tell you a story.
It is a story of an unconventional saint, a saint whom an English translation error in our Gospel makes into a reformed sinner. The one who is seen by Jesus in this story is painted as one who has decided to live a new life of generosity, when the Greek actually states that he, unlike many other rich characters in Luke’s Gospel, is already living as though the Kingdom of God has come near.
So today, to celebrate this community’s good work which often goes unsung; the faithful stewardship of all believers living on earth and in the next world; the healing presence that discovers us and makes a home among us when we live as though we truly believe that all things are reconciled, I offer you this story, perhaps even our story.
It had been a long day already and it wasn’t over by a long shot, and yet Zacchaeus lingered over his papers, tracing lines of numbers until his head ached and his eyes felt as if they’d been juggled in his skull like dice in a palm.
If only that racket outside would hush up for a minute. It had been growing steadily louder from a dull buzz to a chaotic jumble like a flock of birds fighting over scraps in the marketplace.
Perhaps, he thought wryly, God’s armies had returned to tear down the walls of Jericho once again.
He would love to go and tell them to tone it down, but what was the use? He was a chief tax collector, reviled and scorned. And did he think he could escape those long-ago childhood chants of “Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, can’t you see? / Better climb up that sycamore tree.”
“Oh one time, one time I did that,” he grumbled.
He had tried to forget that chant – it had been decades – but his work had only dulled the taunts to resentful mutters when his back was turned.
Annoyed, he stared at the documents in front of him. His father didn’t give him the name Zacchaeus – “righteous one” – for nothing. His father had always taught him to be responsible with the blessings of life. Zacchaeus therefore went out of his way to give money to the poor, and every month he scanned his documents meticulously to search for discrepancies in his income in order to right them later, as he was doing now.
As he got older, he had learned to be gracious when others spat at him, or called him names, or worst of all when the rich, the bulk of his clients, haggled with him over taxes owed on their lavish property. Worse, they convinced the poorer people in town that he was defrauding them, and so they too scorned him.
All he wanted was a friend, someone who would greet him with a smile instead of an averted glance or an angry sneer, who would be happy to see him, who would share in stories and laughter and a good meal.
But fat chance of that. It had been years since anyone had offered him a kind word or invited him over.
Maybe he really should just be as bad as they thought he was. What would be the difference?
His brooding silence was interrupted as a huge cheer welled up from the crowd outside. The headache which had been burbling resentfully behind his eyes awoke with a roar.
Without thinking, he got up and stomped out the door. He would see to this problem. Maybe then he would get some respect.
He burst outside and blinked like a mole, for surrounding him was a riotous wall of colour and sound. He wondered for a moment if he had been right and the armies of God had broken into Jericho. The street was packed with people, maybe everyone in town.
He noticed the crowd was following something, something beyond the wall of bodies that he couldn’t see. He wiggled his way through and was pushed along for a while like a salmon headed upstream. Before he knew it he found himself in the town square. His cheeks burned as he saw the old sycamore tree in the distance, but he soon forgot about it as shouts from the crowd morphed into words he could understand:
“Jesus, over here! Jesus, let me touch you! Jesus, heal my son! Jesus, save us!”
“Who the heck is Jesus?” Zacchaeus grumped to no-one in particular.
There was yet another spontaneous outburst from the crowd, so loud Zacchaeus thought it might blast him through a wall. In the middle of it he heard a man shout, “I can see! I can see, praise be to God!”
Now Zacchaeus was really interested, but he knew that hopping and elbow-jabbing would never do. He had to do something drastic.
He cut his eyes at the hateful sycamore and grimaced.
Whatever was going on had better be worth seeing.
He turned tail and ran ahead of the crowd as it boiled along the street like an angry river. For a moment he thought he understood how the Egyptian armies might have felt as the waters of the Red Sea crashed toward them.
He got to the sycamore tree and stared up at its branches reluctantly. Those childish voices from so long ago suddenly seemed very loud.
But as he heard the crowd approach he felt a twinge of exhilaration, and something else less familiar, something small and hopeful that he thought had been stolen from him long ago.
He scrambled up the tree, wincing as he heard the rip of his expensive embroidered tunic snagging a branch. But at last he was high enough to see over the crowd.
This Jesus character was nothing much to look at. He seemed to be a healer, perhaps a teacher as well, but there was no nothing otherworldly about the simple peasant clothes, the mop of unruly dark hair, or the soft brown eyes.
Zacchaeus’ heart sank. He felt sure that everyone knew he was there, that they were all laughing at him. “Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, can’t you see? / Better climb up that sycamore tree.”
And then – oh horrors! – the brown eyes turned up and fixed on him in the tree.
Zacchaeus cringed as he waited for the crowd to follow the healer’s eyes and see him up the sycamore. Now he would hear that awful chant, you bet. And the teacher would surely laugh along, or shuffle past with averted eyes, embarrassed. Which one was worse?
All of these thoughts winked out of existence as a voice came to his ears, cutting through the noise of the crowd.
“Huh!” Zacchaeus barked, too surprised to pretend at dignity.
“Get down from there!” It was the healer, grinning up at him, as though they were sharing an inside joke. “I’m coming to your house today!”
Zacchaeus felt the world around him fade like a piece of parchment left out in the sun. All he could see was the warm, slightly cheeky smile.
The unspoken prayer had been answered. Here was his friend. He had come. How was this possible?
As he marveled at this, he realized two things. One, perhaps it wasn’t for him to understand. Two, he had made it down and out of the tree just as fast as he had done all of those years ago. Maybe even faster.
A hush fell over the crowd. Several of his rich clients were there and openly glared at Zacchaeus. He heard someone mutter, “Seriously? He’s going to his house? That cheat?”
Jesus’ eyes were full of kindness. It was such a contrast to the eyes Zacchaeus saw over his shoulder. Something about that incongruity made something snap.
Zacchaeus looked at Jesus and spoke slowly and clearly. “I don’t cheat. I give half of my possessions to the poor, and I pay back any discrepancies.”
One of the rich landowners suddenly shouted, “Lord, he says he will do these things in the future, but he never actually does them!”
Zacchaeus gritted his teeth, but when he looked back at his new friend, his anger melted away. “If there are any discrepancies, I always pay people back, plus twenty percent, just like the Torah says I should. And you know what?” he added, “This time, if I find any discrepancies, I will pay back eighty percent.”
Jesus threw his head back and laughed. There was no trace of irony or spite in it. Zacchaeus smiled, confused and yet delighted.
Jesus drew Zacchaeus into a sideways hug as he looked back at the crowd.
“Today, salvation has come to his house!” he said, and his voice was just as joyful as the earlier howl of the crowd.
Friends, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to add just one small piece to Luke’s lovely story.
So perhaps, as they left the crowd behind, Zacchaeus blurted, “Lord, stay in my house forever!”
“I’m sorry,” Jesus said gently, “I can only stop for the night. I’m on my way to Jerusalem. I have very important business there.”
“Are you going for Passover? Can’t you come back after?”
The brown eyes grew sad...but only for a moment. “Let’s not talk about it now. Kill the fatted calf and bring out the wine. We have all the time we need.”
So too do we, friends. Let us linger in this autumn time and remember those friends we have treasured. Let us linger in this house and break bread together. Love, the guest, is on the way.