Jesus says, “For he, too, is a son of Abraham.”
This is his justification for welcoming even the little chief tax collector.
We’ve been talking about tax collectors quite a bit in the past two weeks. Last week, a nameless tax collector came and gave his quick, quiet prayer while the Pharisee opined on and on to God. And Jesus told us that the tax collector was the one who went home justified, because he is the one who understood that we are all saint and sinner — so ruined and so loved.
And today, our tax collector has a name. Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus isn’t just any tax collector, but the chief tax collector. This, as we talked about last week, made him, quite literally in some minds, the chief of all sinners. Tax collectors were reviled, hated. They were seen as traitors, collecting taxes for Rome the occupier. They were also known for skimming a little off the top for themselves, which gave incentive to folks to become tax collectors. Tax collectors drove a wedge into the community — between themselves and their people. It was cruel of the Romans, if you think about it — they not only made conquered people pay them taxes, they made the community’s own people collect them.
And Jesus, this new popular rabbi, tells stories about tax collectors who really understand the Gospel, even better than the Pharisees. Imagine a preacher who goes around praising the most shady, reviled people in the community, preaching that they understand the Gospel better than the clergy. And then imagine that same preacher having dinner with the ring leader of those shady, reviled people.
It’s a risk, to say the least, at least from a PR perspective. Jesus’ mutual ministry team might be nervous at this point. He’d be in danger of losing his credibility.
But it’s worth it to Jesus because “Zacchaeus, too, is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus, who scaled a tree just to see Jesus. Jesus puts his entire reputation and arguably his life on the line to welcome one of the most reviled people in the entire community. Jesus, understanding that each one of us is just as ruined as the others, would rather die than deny Zacchaeus access to God.
Today is also the day that we celebrate the Reformation, and the man who started it, whose name, much to his annoyance and chagrin, our denomination bears. He is Martin Luther, and we are the Lutherans. Like all good historical group names — you know, like Christians — the term “Lutheran” started outside the group. The Roman Catholic leaders at the time were just following protocol in naming a heresy after its author. Those who followed Marcion were Marcionite heretics, those who followed Aruis were Arian heretics, and those who followed Luther would be the Lutheran heretics. The only thing is that you don’t hear about those previous two as an active force in the world today; you only hear about them in seminarians’ jokes. But Lutherans? We’re still here.
What did Luther do to get labeled a heretic? Well, a lot of things. You’ve probably heard about the last of several straws breaking the monk’s back when Luther went off about indulgences — the buying and selling of forgiveness and grace. You’ve no doubt heard about the legend of Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. You’ve probably heard about how he translated the Bible into German — the language of the people — so that ordinary people, and not just clergy, could read the holy Scriptures for themselves.
Luther would become excommunicated, a hunted man, and he became aware of this quickly. Rather than back down, however, Luther is reported to have said “Here, I stand, God help me, I can do no other!”
Martin Luther, monk and professor, put his neck on the line rather than deny anyone access to God. Their access to grace would not be dependent on their access to a priest or their ability to pay. He wrote, “…because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, are
all Christians alike…”
Ordination, Luther held, does not give a person a leg up on anyone else. It does not make me any closer to God than you are, because we still share one baptism, one Gospel, one faith. We are all Christians alike.
Luther recognized that, just like none of us is worse than the person next to us, neither is any of us better. Each of us, whether ordained or laity, each of us is saint and sinner, so ruined and so loved, in the words of Anne Lamott that I used last week.
I posted a meme this week that was a riff on the “Footprints in the Sand” story that’s been circulating for some decades. The original story details a conversation between a person and Jesus where the person’s life is symbolized by two footprints in the sand along a beach. The person noticed that during the hard times, there was only one set of footprints. Assuming this meant that Jesus had left the person behind during the hard times, the person asks Jesus why there was only one set of footprints. Jesus replies, “Oh, my child, it was then that I carried you.”
The meme that I posted on Facebook then took the story a little further: in the next panel, Jesus points and says, “And that long groove is where I dragged you for awhile.”
One of my seminary professors reposted it and said “Lutheran theology in a nutshell: it’s all one long groove.”
None of us was created any more faithful than the person next to us, but we are all in dire need of grace. Anything we do that’s good is only in response to the grace that we’ve been given.
None of us is climbing towards some idea of perfection and none of us is further up the rungs than anyone else.
Maybe there’s a message for us about climbing on Reformation Sunday in this Gospel text. Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus, who had hustled ahead of the crowd and climbed the tree to lift himself up — he had given it everything he had just to have access to Jesus. And Jesus laughingly (I think) looks up at Zacchaeus, the unpopular little guy, at once far below the crowd in social status and literally raised above their heads, and Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down! I’m coming to eat at your place today.”
And so, Luke tells us, Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
But, of course, the crowd begins to grumble. This was not a popular decision. This man defends the worst sinners and now, he’s eating with them. Zacchaeus, after having come down from the tree begins to climb his own resumé, just like the Pharisee did last week. Zacchaeus tells Jesus about the ways that he will make up for cheating anyone. In fact, the Greek here is active — he tells Jesus that he is currently paying back everything he owes and giving money to the poor on top of that. He makes the case that he is not just any tax collector, so Jesus should declare him worthy.
But Jesus is not interested in his resumé, but intent on only one thing. He tells the detractors and Zacchaeus, as his reason: “He too is a son of Abraham.”
Jesus doesn’t seek out Zacchaeus because he climbed a tree, or because he gives to the poor, or even because he’s a bad bad tax collector. He seeks him out because it’s his birthright. Because each and every one of us is just as ruined and just as loved as the others.
That was the Gospel of Jesus and the appeal of Christianity: that no one is reaching or climbing towards God, but that God is always moving towards us. And when Martin Luther saw the Church trying to get in the way, Luther started a Reformation that not only changed the face of Christianity, but wrought profound changes on the Roman Catholic church, too.
Those who know me well know that my home pastors are two of my biggest heroes. Nancy and Beverly have given me so much, taught me so much, and spent their lives building up the Church universal in ways that the Church has not always appreciated. They base their lives and ministries on the crazy idea that we are all equally ruined and equally loved: that each of us, too, is a child of God.
On her first Sundays as our new senior pastor at St. John’s in Atlanta, Pastor Nancy gave each children’s sermon in a different part of our round sanctuary: first at the font, then at the table, then at the pulpit. Each time, she encouraged the kids to touch the water, stand behind the table, stand behind the pulpit, touch the Bible that rests there. Tears filled my eyes each time as I flashed back to my days as a kid, afraid to go near the altar or knock things over or make too much noise in the sanctuary. Pastor Nancy was teaching these kids the opposite: that just because they breathe, just because they’re here, they can stand behind the pulpit just like the pastor. They can approach the table just like the pastor. And they can touch the water because it is their baptismal water. Nothing — not the pastor, not the council, not the Church itself — can keep them from God’s love. God’s love is theirs, always, and God will always be moving towards them.
The truth of the Reformation and the Movement of Jesus in the world is that each of us is just as ruined, and just as loved by God, as the next person. This is who we are. Each of us is called, not just me, to spread that love around. For four hundred and ninety-nine years, we have been Lutherans. We have been loved for much longer.
The Truth of the Reformation is only this: people of God, we believe that because you breathe, you are welcome here. You are welcome at this table, like family. Because you breathe, you are beloved. Taste and see that God is good, not because you must, but because you may. Stop climbing like Zacchaeus. Jesus is coming to eat at our place today.