March 31, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for April 2, 2017. From an ongoing series, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
The text for this sermon is Luke 18.31 – 19.10.
The resources consulted for this sermon include:
Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 164-67.
Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 220-22.
Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 661-73.
Beth Kreitzer, ed. New Testament III: Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 361-65.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
Seeing the Good News of God’s Salvation
The Good News of God’s salvation pulses throughout Luke’s Gospel. Giving life. Giving hope. Healing. Restoring. Making everything new.
You see the Good News of God’s salvation when Mary sings how God has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things (1.52-53). When old Zechariah says God has come to help and has delivered his people (1.68).
You see it when Jesus stands up in synagogue reads from the scroll of Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to tell the poor the good news.
He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners
and sight to the blind,
to set the wounded victims free,
to announce the year of God’s special favour.
And then he tells the congregation: Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing (4.18-21).
You see it in the disciples’ fishing nets, breaking with the ridiculous catch after Jesus told them: Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets (5.4ff). When Jesus raises a widow’s only son from the dead (7.11ff). When a forgiven woman breaks through a wall of shame to come wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair (7.36ff).
The Good News of God’s salvation is God is shattering the status quo of sin, suffering, shame, and death to rescue people and all creation. It’s what we hear God announce near the end of the scriptures: Look, I am making all things new (Rev. 21.5).
This is what you see Jesus doing in Luke’s Gospel. Bringing the Good News of God’s salvation that makes everything new.
In today’s readings, we heard two stories that bring the Good News of God’s salvation to life.
In the first story, Jesus meets a blind beggar who says: Master, I want to see again.
In the second story—the more famous of the two—a tiny tax collector climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus.
Well, we just heard that one of the promises of the Good News of God’s salvation is sight to the blind.
And there’s more than one kind of blindness.
The word was hidden from them
At the beginning of our Gospel lesson today, Luke tells us Jesus took the Twelve aside—his trusted inner circle, his chosen apostles. And he explained to them:
Look, we’re going up to Jerusalem. Everything that’s written in the prophets about the son of man will be fulfilled. Yes: he will be handed over to the pagans; he’ll be mocked, abused and spat upon. They will beat him and kill him; and on the third day he’ll be raised.
Luke tells us: They didn’t understand any of this. The word was hidden from them, and they didn’t know what he meant.
Jesus had started this journey toward Jerusalem nearly ten chapters ago, beginning in Luke 9.22ff. And he had told them this exact same thing then: he was going to be rejected, to suffer, and die there. But on the third day, be raised to life. So none of this was news to them. But Luke says their insight now is no better than it was back then. Because when Jesus first told them what was going to happen: They had no idea what he was talking about. It was hidden from them (9.45).
Nearly ten chapters they’ve been walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Toward everything he’s told them would happen. It’s been a long journey, full of dark signs and conflict. Fears within and foes without, as the old hymn goes. All this time, walking this journey with Jesus and they still don’t see it.
Why not? Why was the meaning of his word hidden from them?
It was their own thoughts, their own expectations, desires, and ambitions that blinded them to the truth. The verse right after our readings today ended—Luke 19.11—tells us: They were getting close to Jerusalem, and they thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. In other words, they believed once Jesus crossed through Jerusalem’s gate, as Israel’s Messiah—the anointed king—Jesus would exercise his rightful authority. They thought he was a king coming to conquer, and they were his army who would dispense the justice of God.
They thought he was going to Jerusalem to reign. Not to suffer and die. So they were blind to the truth.
All the stories in our Gospel lesson today were about people who can’t see for some reason.
Sometimes we’re like the disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Our thoughts, our expectations, our ambitions, and our opinions make us blind to the word of God in Christ. Commenting on this passage, a sixteenth century German preacher, Johannes Brenz, observed that the disciples “were blinded by the idea of the carnal kingdom of Christ.” So they
were made so afraid by the preaching about afflictions that they went out of their minds and understood nothing for a little while. This shows us how weak human nature is. The Lord is never absent; he reaches out his hand to us, but we will not accept it … Even if at first [Jesus’ words] did not benefit them, later they began to remember what Jesus had said, so it was not entirely unprofitable. Therefore, we should not be discouraged if at first we do not receive any benefit from the Word of God, for in time it will have its effect on us.
I pray we will consider what Johannes Brenz said, because he surely got this right. As we listen to the scriptures, and we see God’s story unfold, there are many things we may not understand—just as the disciples didn’t yet understand. We may not see the benefit right now of the scriptures we’re considering. If that’s the case, the obstacles to seeing may very well come from our own thoughts, fears, opinions, or lack of experience.
But God in Christ is faithful. And if we continue to walk faithfully with Jesus, God will open our eyes and let us see the truth. Just as the eyes of the blind beggar were opened; and just as Zacchaeus finally saw Jesus when he changed his perspective by climbing that sycamore tree.
Just as the disciples’ eyes were opened after Jesus did, in fact, rise again on the third day.
A blind beggar on the road to Jericho
But now, Jesus is leading his blind disciples on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Only Jesus can clearly see the way.
And Luke tells us, there was a blind man sitting by the road, begging. When he heard a crowd passing through the town he asked what was going on. And the people told him: Jesus of Nazareth is coming by.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had announced his agenda right out of the scroll of Isaiah the prophet: telling the good news to the poor, and giving the blind their sight back. This blind beggar on the road to Jericho is all of the above.
And this blind man is the only one who sees clearly who Jesus really is.
And so he cries out: Jesus – David’s son! Have pity on me! He calls out to Jesus as the Messiah. David’s Son. God’s anointed King. The King who comes not to kill and conquer; but to give life and set people free.
Luke says the people who were at the front of the group—the people who thought they were important and in the know—tried to shut him up. They must have thought, How embarrassing! This blind beggar is harassing Jesus! Doesn’t he know this is supposed to be a dignified occasion!
The blind man was warned, but he persisted. He begged again, even louder: David’s son! Have pity on me!
Luke says: Jesus stopped, and told them to bring the man to him. When he came up, he asked him, “What d’you want me to do for you?”
It wasn’t food or money the blind beggar asked for that day. Something in him saw what Jesus’ mother Mary had sang while he was growing in her womb: Jesus had come to lift up the lowly (Luke 1.52). He knew that Jesus was God’s anointed to tell the poor the good news and give sight to the blind. Who God had sent to set the wounded victims free. And he wanted to be set free from his blindness that made him a beggar.
And so he told Jesus: Master, I want to see again.
And Jesus replied: Then see again. Your faith has saved you. In Greek, the same word means both to heal and to save. Jesus has not only given him his sight back. This blind man experiences God’s salvation—he’s been healed and restored. He has a new life with hope.
The faith that saved this blind man was his insight into who Jesus really is. Jesus’ own disciples and the leading folks in town—the people who were at the front of the group—couldn’t see it. But the blind beggar—the one everyone wrote off and tried to silence—saw what the others didn’t.
And when he saw Jesus with his own eyes, the Good News of God’s salvation came to life in him. Luke says the blind man began to follow Jesus, glorifying God. For the blind beggar, salvation wasn’t the promise of a heavenly reward later on. He was set free, his life was transformed, right then and there.
For Luke, salvation is never merely a personal experience of individuals. It moves out to embrace everyone around. And so it is here. Not only does the blind man glorify God for his salvation; Luke tells us: when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God.
What did they see? They saw the prophecy old Zechariah had spoken at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel coming true: God’s daylight has dawned from on high, bringing light to the dark, as we sat in death’s shadow, guiding our feet in the path of peace (1.78-79).
They saw a blind beggar, sitting in the darkness of death’s shadow, seeing God’s daylight dawning in Jesus. And as he followed Jesus, his feet were guided in the path of peace.
They saw the Good News of God’s salvation.
Jesus sees Zacchaeus
As Jesus and company enter Jericho proper, Luke introduces us to a man named Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, who was very rich.
Zacchaeus may have been a very rich and successful entrepreneur, but he was also very short. Luke says Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a small man, he couldn’t, because of the crowd. Read between the lines a bit. Zacchaeus was probably one of the least popular guys in town. Everyone hated tax collectors. Zacchaeus is trying to catch a glimpse of the Jesus parade, but none of his neighbors will let him him through to see.
So Luke says Zacchaeus ran on ahead, along the route Jesus was going to take, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him. And when Jesus got to where Zacchaeus was, he looked up. Because who wouldn’t notice a sort-of grown man perched in a tree?
And Jesus tells him: Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down. I have to stay at your house today. I love that Jesus says, I have to stay at your house. It’s like he’s saying, Dude, you are so awesome! We have to hang out!
And Zacchaeus comes down, lickety-split. Luke says Zacchaeus welcomed him with joy. I always imagine Zacchaeus sliding down the tree like a fireman’s pole, and running to give Jesus a bearhug.
After all, I’m sure it had been a very long time since anyone had wanted to hang out with Zacchaeus.
On another level, Jesus has to stay with Zacchaeus because his mission is to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. Sometimes that means people who’ve gotten lost in sin and destructive behaviors. But there’s more than one kind of lost. Some people get lost because they’ve been excluded. Pushed out of polite society. Told they’re not welcome. And it seems more like Zacchaeus was that kind of lost.
Every time Jesus is kind to a tax collector, people freak out. This time is no different: Everybody began to murmur when they saw it. “He’s gone in to spend time with a proper old sinner!” The same people who pushed Zacchaeus away, so he had to climb that tree. Who had kept Zacchaeus away from Jesus, are outraged that, despite their best efforts, he and Jesus have found each other anyway. And Jesus seems to prefer his company.
But Zacchaeus tells Jesus: Look, Master, I’m giving half my property to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I’m giving it back to them four times over. Traditional readings of this story suggest Zacchaeus is promising to give half his stuff to the poor and repay fourfold any money he’s gotten dishonestly. As an act of repentance. But this story doesn’t say anything about Zacchaeus repenting or needing to repent. In fact, the verbs he uses are present tense. I’m already doing these things!
It would seem that Zacchaeus already repented, before he ever met Jesus. Probably he was one of the tax collectors we heard about in Luke 3 who listened to the preaching of John the Baptist. John had taught: Anyone who has two cloaks should give one to someone who hasn’t got one. The same applies to anyone who has plenty of food. If Zacchaeus is already giving half his property to the poor, he’s obeying John’s preaching.
He’s telling Jesus: These people who call me a sinner have misjudged me. They don’t know my story. We have a lot to learn from Zacchaeus. If you bother to look, people show you who they are.
So Jesus said: Today, salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. Back in Luke 3, John had said children of Abraham share with the poor and make right their wrongs. Just like Zacchaeus was already doing. The Good News of God’s salvation for Zacchaeus is that when he climbed a tree to see Jesus, Jesus saw him. And Jesus gave him an opportunity to show himself to his neighbors as he really was. Maybe now his neighbors will see him, too—no longer blinded by prejudice.
Zacchaeus’ story connects directly to some other material in Luke’s Gospel that wasn’t in our readings today. But these things were in the immediate context—earlier in Luke 18, just before our Gospel lesson today began. So I’m sure Luke meant for us to see the story of Zacchaeus in their light, and I’d be an irresponsible preacher if I didn’t point them out.
In Luke 18.17, Jesus rather famously said: anyone who doesn’t receive God’s kingdom like a child will never get into it. In the story of Zacchaeus, Luke said that because he was short and couldn’t see Jesus through the crowd, he ran ahead and climbed a tree. Isn’t that exactly like something a kid would do? When we see Zacchaeus climb the tree, we’re seeing an example of someone who received God’s kingdom like a child.
Earlier, in Luke 18.10ff, Jesus told a story about a Pharisee—one of the “good guys” in Jewish society at the time; and a tax collector, like Zacchaeus. Considered a “bad guy.” They both went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer consisted mostly of patting himself on the back for being such a good boy, while putting everybody else down: God, I thank you that I am not like the other people – greedy, unjust, immoral, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get. Meanwhile, the tax collector stands at a distance; doesn’t even dare to look up to heaven; beats his chest and prays: God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am. Jesus finished his story about the Pharisee and the tax collector by warning: People who exalt themselves will be humbled, and people who humble themselves will be exalted. What happened with Zacchaeus and his neighbors proved Jesus’ parable. They tried to exalt themselves by pushing him away and calling him a proper old sinner, but they were humbled when Jesus let Zacchaeus tell the truth about himself. Zacchaeus humbled himself, not only by climbing a tree like a child; but also by giving half his possessions to the poor and restoring any wealth he’d gotten dishonestly fourfold. And he is exalted—his name and his story live on in Luke’s Gospel.
Finally, in Luke 18.15ff—just before our story today began, Jesus met another very rich man. His neighbors probably all thought he was a very good guy. After all, unlike Zacchaeus, this man probably came by his wealth “honestly.” This man probably thought he was very good as well, because when Jesus listed the commandments of God, he bragged: I’ve kept them all since I was a boy.
But then Jesus told him: There’s just one thing you’re short of. Sell everything you own, and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.
Luke says when the rich man heard that he turned very sad; he was extremely wealthy. And Jesus, seeing that he’d upset the rich man, replied: How hard it is for those with possessions to enter God’s kingdom! Yes: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.
When we see Zacchaeus, we see a rich man entering God’s kingdom. The “good,” law-abiding, church-going rich man couldn’t do it. But Zacchaeus, the “bad” rich “sinner,” did. He did it by giving away half of his property to the poor. And by restoring four times anything he’d taken unjustly. At that rate, I figure it wasn’t too long before he wasn’t very rich anymore.
But after the rich ruler went away sad, Jesus promised that whatever you give up for God’s kingdom, you will receive far more in return in the present time – and in the age to come [you] will receive the life that belongs to that age. I’m sure Zacchaeus found that to be true.
I mention all those because they help us see Zacchaeus’ story more clearly.
And because there are still so many Zacchaeuses in the world we need to see through Jesus’ eyes.