I have told you this story before but it bears repeating—for my own humility if not to illustrate what our Scripture is teaching us today. One of the most embarrassing moments of my life happened when we were serving as missionaries in Sierra Leone. Driving on narrow two-way roads that seemed to have as many people, cows and goats on it as vehicles, was always a tension filled experience. My anxiety level was raised knowing that on a stretch of road that should take two hours to travel the journey would take at least three hours as we were stopped at checkpoint after checkpoint—erected by the police, the army, village elders, or anyone else that thought that they too should get in on the cash drivers would give them to lift the barricade and allow the vehicle to pass. Bribery was a major problem in the country and the missionaries had a pact amongst ourselves that we would not pay money but might offer something else instead. Loreen and I purchased Bible tracts from the Bible Society store in the capital city and would hand these out whenever we were stopped. The tracts were in colour and were quite attractive. We reasoned that maybe some Scripture message might be passed on as well. Inevitably whenever one would stop the vehicle would be swarmed by people wishing to sell a stick of gum, a cigarette, a peeled orange or something of that nature. Local beggars would also come right up to the windows seeking money. After one particularly trying drive we were about to leave the last checkpoint when yet one more beggar appeared this time at the children’s window. I passed them a Bible tract and said give this to him, which they did and I drove on. All was quiet until our son said: “Dad, you know that man was blind, right?”
It was then, and is now, so easy to not see our own humanity, let alone the humanity of others, that it is often we who are blind, just as I was blind on that day. I cannot tell you how many beggars I have seen in so many countries throughout the world, including here in Toronto, where it has been easier to simply pass them by than offer meaningful assistance. I sometimes assuage my guilty feelings by thinking “Well probably even Jesus did not stop for every beggar.” When he did stop though, he made a difference. In our reading today Jesus stopped because the blind man was not going to let him pass him by. Jesus did not hear him the first time so the blind man simply shouted more loudly: “Son of David, have mercy on me.” His request was simple—‘let me to see again.’ It is as if he were saying I lost my sight, that which had allowed me to live a full life, and now find myself sitting at the side of the road begging from those who pass me by that I might have a little bit to eat and sustain my life. Yet the man, unlike the disciples, saw much more clearly that Jesus could change his whole life. We have known since the Scripture reading on Ash Wednesday that Jesus was going to Jerusalem. Prof. Lundblad points out that in this reading we see Jesus tell his disciples this goal for the third time. He also told them “exactly what would happen once they got to the city. He speaks of himself in third person: ‘Son of Man will be handed over to the Gentiles. He will be mocked, insulted spat upon, and flogged. They will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’ But the disciples understood nothing Jesus said—and we have seen this before in the story of Jesus life.”
The crowd saw Jesus perform this miracle and continued to follow him as he entered Jericho. Jericho would be his last stop before entering Jerusalem. The crowds would no doubt have been very large—here was the teacher, miracle worker, and perhaps the one who would overthrow the oppressive Roman regime and all those who supported it. Those that knew Zacchaeus quite possibly pushed him out of the way. His business as a tax collector had made him very wealthy and no one wants to see a wealthy tax collector in the neighbourhood especially if he has sold out and works for the occupying force. No doubt there were many who saw Zacchaeus as someone who would also be overthrown. Professor Barbara Lundblad has wondered how even Zacchaeus thought about himself and his work. Did he think ‘Somebody has to do it so it might as well be me? At least the money is good’. Which was true, he had become quite rich. Yet Lundblad wonders how he felt about himself as he left for work every morning knowing that his neighbours hated him. He may have even hated himself especially for the commissions he added on to the taxes, which he was allowed to do, which had so enriched him and enraged his neighbours.
She writes, he was “Short of stature, but rich. Some days it was almost enough, but not every day. He tried to list the positives: I’m a good supporter, my family has a roof over their head and food on the table, and I don’t have to beg in the streets. He knew people despised him but he also knew more than a few would take his place if they had the chance. Work, even unpleasant work, was better than no work. And so it went, one day upon another upon another.” Yet it is quite possible that “Zacchaeus longed for something more. He didn’t talk about it with anybody but he knew that making a living wasn’t the same as making a life.” Just as we can tell others exactly where we were and what we were doing on that infamous day now called 9-11, so Zacchaeus could no doubt name the specific, ordinary day, when he left home to go to work…only to discover Jesus passing by his life. He knew that he must not let that happen so he made himself visible to Jesus, heard Jesus invite himself to supper and, just as in our lives when that Thursday one year ago where the Covid spread was officially declared a pandemic, his day was changed so dramatically that his life was also changed. As we heard when the Scripture was read: he gave half of his wealth to the poor and promised to pay back four-fold anyone he had cheated. For Zacchaeus that was the day when making a living was not the same as finding your life. He did not change his life in order to buy his way into heaven…he changed his life in order that he might follow Jesus’ way of life right now. I have been to Jericho and want to suggest that modern day Jericho does not have trees high enough to make a difference in Zacchaeus life. It was not a matter of his being short, that is really almost inconsequential despite the stories we learned and loved in Sunday School. The original text can also mean “diminished” and in my view this is the key to understanding Zacchaeus. His life was diminished, less than it could be, because up to that point he had not discovered that living for others is how we discover our own lives.
I have been privileged to always have work that I found exciting and stimulating and generally I felt pretty good as I left home for work most days. I am amazed, however, when I hear people, including some of my fellow ministers, speak of work as simply a way to make a living. They find little joy, little personal reward, and certainly experience less and less motivation to be about their work life. For them life is little better than that experienced by Zacchaeus. It really does not matter how high your income may be, nor how many benefits you receive as part of your employment package, if in doing so you are making a living and not finding your life.
Somehow both the blind man and Zacchaeus knew that in order to find their lives they must not let Jesus pass them by. They must welcome Jesus into their lives and turn their lives over to Jesus way. Lundblad summarizes it in this way: “Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. That’s not a promise postponed until we die. It’s a promise now to those who have lost jobs and those who no longer find meaning in their work. It’ a promise to those who will change careers many times and to those who feel so angry they have to find somebody to blame for everything that has changed. Jesus stops today to meet us wherever we are — proud of our successes, angry at the world, or ashamed of our failures. Something inside us knows that making a living is not the same as finding your life.
“Come down,” says Jesus. “I have a surprise for you.” Our journey in Lent is as part of that great crowd of people who follow Jesus. It is a journey for the whole community of faith as well as a personal journey for every person of faith. It is a journey towards Jerusalem during which we have seen Jesus do many things, tell many parables, and even today show us that however we experience life at this moment God is not finished with us yet. We know neither the time nor the place when we will know what God has in mind for us but we do know as Jesus might have said “I have a surprise for you.” Hopefully during Lent we have left ourselves open to God becoming part of our life each new day in a way that the disciples just never quite understood. Do not give the disciples too much disrespect though for they too were people who got up and went to work every day. They were thrilled to be with Jesus and to assist him in his work. They just could not imagine that what they were doing, as important as it was, was only making a living when Jesus wanted them to find their lives.
When Jesus says to Zacchaeus “today salvation has come to this house” the meaning that Luke would have us take from this is that salvation represents a whole new way of living and that salvation is something that happens now. It is when we acknowledge salvation in our own lives that we then have found our lives and can now live fully as disciples of Jesus.