Sunday, November 4, 2007
Renowned 20th century preacher Bruce Thielmann describes graffiti he saw on the New York City subway wall. There was an featuring a distinguished looking gentleman pitching some product. Someone - in all likelihood a little boy – took a marker and wrote a dialogue balloon coming from the man’s mouth. He had the man say, “I like grils.” Someone else with a different pen had written, “It’s ‘girls,’ not ‘grils,’ stupid.” Then a third writer wrote, “What about us grils?”
Thielmann dedicated his talk to the grils, the people liked by no one. Grils have no social graces, have no friends, are awkward, and don’t fit in. A gril never feels attractive. A gril can knows what loneliness feels like. The life of a gril is a life spent dying over a long, long time.
Where are you in this story? Did you hang the billboard? Or, did you pose for the picture because you look distinguished and would be great at selling a product? Or, did you write “He likes ‘grils?’” You’ve got impish behavior in you, but your spelling is quite weak. Are you the critic? You don’t have anything good to sell or funny to say, but, when someone makes a mistake you quickly point it out. “It’s ‘girls,’ not ‘grils,’ stupid.”
Or, are you the lonely outcast who dares to ask, “What about us grils?” Maybe you’re a watcher like Bruce Thielmann, standing back and interpreting the whole thing? Enter the story. But where? Who are you?
In Luke 19 we meet a gril. Luke 9:51, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. He was on the move, pointing people to the cross as he revealed the kingdom of God. He was going to die for the sins of the world. Suffering, and death were ahead of him. He needed to get through the next city.
That next city was Jericho, home of Zacchaeus. Collecting Rome’s taxes from his fellow countrymen, he became rich and despised. No one loved him. When Zacchaeus heard the miracle worker was coming, he wanted to see him. Luke writes that Zacchaeus was short. Luke does not say if Peter had a mole his nose, or if James carried a few extra pounds. Luke doesn’t give physical descriptions except for here
Zacchaeus, a man of high class, ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree. Climbed a tree? “Hey, have you seen ‘tiny,’ the tree-climbing tax collector?” He happily endured the teasing to see Jesus. Then something he didn’t expect happened. Jesus saw him. People were pointing, laughing, but Jesus said, “Hurry down. I’m coming for dinner at your house.” “My disciples and I are going to spend the rest of the day with you.” The crowd griped.
Throughout the gospels there is murmuring. Sometimes it’s from the disciples, sometimes religious leaders, and sometimes it is the crowd that murmurs. In their under-the-breath comments Jesus is criticized and questioned. Everyone in the crowd hated Zacchaeus, the tax collector who had repeatedly fleeced them. Now, the supposed Messiah, was going to eat with him. It was funny when the little fool climbed the tree. This wasn’t funny.
If Jesus wanted to eat somewhere, let him visit the head of the Jericho synagogue. Let him explain himself to Jericho’s religious elite. Sure he was a hit in backwater Galilee, made waves in Gentile Decapolis, and impressed half-breed Samaritans. So what? This was Jericho.
Undeterred by the sideline whispers, Jesus dined with Zacchaeus, and the tax collector made bold pronouncements. When he was done giving money away, many of Jericho’s poor weren’t as poor. Jesus raised his glass and said, “Salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus rejoiced. He was a new man.
What about you and me? Are we the disciples, unsure of what’s next? Before it was all over, they had that dark night when they slept and fled when Jesus needed them awake, praying and staying close. Have we thrown our chips in with Jesus without counting the cost?
Are we in the crowd, teasing the gril? Everybody makes fun of the losers, and we are no exception. We whisper behind his back and cringe when he says the wrong thing. We get indignant when someone else respects and loves him. Like those faceless, gutless critics, we hide in the mob and murmur.
Or, have you been the gril? You know exactly what loneliness, shame, and low self-esteem feel like. You have heard your name whispered in disgust. You want to be loved and accepted, but you don’t know how. You want to be in the group, but you’re not invited. So you climb trees and pretend not to care who’s watching. Have you been the gril?
Zacchaeus had an intense desire to see Jesus. He would not be deterred by the crowd or his own limitations. You and I could decide right here, today, that seeing Jesus matters more than anything; more than the promotion or the graduate degree; more than the boy liking her back. It matters more than how the Tar Heels will do this year. When we desire Jesus more than things like these, he sees in us the stuff a disciple is made of.
A second quality in Zacchaeus that makes for a disciple is his obedience. “Hurry down here.” OK! “We’re eating at your place.” OK. Jesus said ‘jump,’ and Zacchaeus jumped. His discipleship started on the foundation of desire to see Jesus and willingness to unquestioningly obey Jesus.
A third quality in Zacchaeus was generosity. He began to see people differently. Previously, people were objects to be taxed. Romans set the amount and provided the troops that forced people to pay. He took a little extra from each person he taxed. Some Jews were starving and all were poor. The taxes broke their backs. Zacchaeus, one of their own, made it worse by hiking up the amount. He was hated and he was rich through this cruel, unethical business.
After he met Jesus, he gave half his riches to the poor. Jesus didn’t tell him to do this. This flowed out of the gratitude that filled his heart. Next, he promised to repay those he had cheated four times the amount. The Law of Moses required a double repayment. Zacchaeus went above and beyond what the law required because he was a new man with new values.
In the Gospel of Luke Jesus does the opposite of what the crowds would think a man of God would do. Tax collectors were hated and regarded as unclean for their dealings with gentiles. In Luke 5, Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi to be one of the 12. Levi follows Jesus and Jesus parties at Levi’s house with all of Levi’s friends - other tax collectors, prostitutes, and others rejected by proper society. Jesus does not condone sins, but he loves these sinners who have been rejected by those in the main stream.
In chapter 18, Jesus tells of two men in prayer - a self-righteous Pharisee and a repentant tax collector. The Pharisees brags to God and anyone listening about how great he is. The tax collector repents through tears. Jesus declares that the tax collector is justified, forgiven and accepted by God. Luke’s readers aren’t surprised by the Zacchaeus story. We’ve already seen Jesus eat with the grils.
But there is a surprise. To this point in Luke, rich people haven’t fared very well. Jesus tells parables of people condemned for valuing wealth too much in the midst of abject poverty. To be affluent when surrounded by unforgiving poverty is a sin in Jesus’ view, and most of us would be rich in Luke’s world. Being rich makes it hard to see Jesus. Jesus tells one wealthy ruler he cannot enter Heaven until he parts with his riches. In sadness, he walks away. Jesus says it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (18:25).
In the story of Zacchaeus, the camel does it! The camel makes it through the eye of the needle. Zacchaeus doesn’t even wait for Jesus to tell him what to give away. He parts with half his money, and he’s just getting started. The trappings of wealth and the life of sin don’t mean someone has no hope. Jesus saw in Zacchaeus someone who was looking for him; one with the capacity to obey and be generous. Jesus was more important to Zacchaeus than money or anything else.
This morning we have heard stories about grils, tax collectors, murmuring crowds, graffiti composers who can’t spell, Pharisees, and unsure disciples. Where do I fit? Which role do I play? Which roles have you played?
Jesus is still looking up in the sycamore trees to see who has cast aside their concerns for social acceptance and placed all of their hope in him. What happens when he looks your way? He wants your heart.
I have been the critic. I have been the self-righteous Pharisee. I have been on the sideline, silently observing. But, I have had those moments when I climbed sycamore trees. When I seek Jesus, transformation happens. Life changes when I block out distractions and focus on the Savior.
How does the Zacchaeus story play in our lives? Jesus is here. He’s going home with the person who seeks Him. He’s scanning the room to see who wants Him more than any other thing. What does He see when He sees me? Would Jesus come to my house? Would he come to yours?