Next Sunday's readings: 4th Sunday before Advent

by
25 October 2007

by John Pridmore

Isaiah 1.10-18; 2 Thessalonians 1; Luke 19.1-10

"ZACCHAEUS was a very little man, and a very little man was he." Probably we should stop singing that rollicking chorus, for two good reasons. First, short people are not figures of fun. Secondly, Zacchaeus is not just an entertaining story for the Sunday school.

We are told about Zacchaeus in his sycamore tree because we need to hear what it costs to repent, especially to repent of the kind of deliberate, committed, and sustained sinning that only we grown-ups are good at. Tell the children the story, by all means. If they enjoy it, fine. But it is not children whom Luke has in his sights, but us iniquitous adults. And we should not be laughing, but squirming.

Zacchaeus was "of small stature". In Luke's Greek, as in every language, the adjective "small" can have a pejorative suggestion. Luke does not expect us to rid our minds of that suggestion. Zacchaeus would still have been a mean little man had he been two metres tall. To his victims, his diminutive physique simply made him the more despicable.

We have to remember that the first-century citizens of Jericho would not have backed our legislation on equal access for the disabled. Those "differently abled" had to keep their distance. "For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch" (Leviticus 21.17-20).

Zacchaeus, the dwarf, climbs his tree so that he can see Jesus, but also because he knows that many in the crowd below would have regarded contact with him as contaminating. We have here someone doubly offensive and doubly detested. He is shunned because of what is perceived as his disfigurement, and loathed because of his co-operation with the occupying powers.

"I must stay at your house today," says Jesus to Zacchaeus. Luke's "musts" matter. For Luke, it is divine necessity that drives Jesus to Jerusalem. "I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day - for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem" (Luke 13.33).

That imperative determines what will transpire there. "The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again" (Luke 24.7). The same necessity - written from the foundation of the world, written for the salvation of the world - requires Jesus to enter the house of Zacchaeus and dwell there.

It is no light thing to have Jesus move in. When he does, he takes possession. Zacchaeus himself would have done some "taking possession" in his time, invading the homes of those who had defaulted in their payments, and distraining their goods - or, as the chief tax-collector, getting his heavies to do so. Now the invader has been invaded. Such is grace, freely given but infinitely demanding.

Remarkably, one of the best recent commentaries on this story has come from 10 Downing Street. In one of this year's BBC Lent talks, Cherie Booth QC, wife of the then Prime Minister, suggested that what Jesus required of a repentant Zacchaeus was that he should submit to a process of "restorative justice" - the approach to the righting of wrongs that has proved so powerful in post-apartheid South Africa.

Zacchaeus's victims needed the chance to tell him what had been the impact of his extortionate treatment of them. Zacchaeus himself had to understand the real consequences of his rapacity, to express true contrition, and, so far as possible, to make amends. That was the repenting he had to do - and extremely uncomfortable it must have been.

Why did Zacchaeus want a good view of Jesus? All Luke tells us is that he sought to see who Jesus was - as we all do. (The Revised English Bible's "he was eager to see what Jesus looked like" is bathos.) Luke presents Zacchaeus's encounter with Jesus as the culmination of two quests. Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus. Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus. Beneath the sycamore tree they find each other.

Luke uses the same word for Zacchaeus's search ("he sought to see who Jesus was") as he does for Jesus's search ("the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost"). The artistry and depth of Luke's telling of the story is in this deliberate use of the same verb.

There is not just one "long search". There are two. We seek him who seeks us. The promise of the story is that, one day, we shall fall into each other's arms. In all our old versions, the translators carefully use same English word for the two quests, ours and his. None of our modern translators do so. We are bound to wonder whether they have noticed what the story is about.

Text of readings

Isaiah 1. 10-18

10Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.


12When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation –
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.


18Come now, let us argue it out,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

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Isaiah 1.10-18; 2 Thessalonians 1; Luke 19.1-10

"ZACCHAEUS was a very little man, and a very little man was he." Probably we should stop singing that rollicking chorus, for two good reasons. First, short people are not figures of fun. Secondly, Zacchaeus is not just an entertaining story for the Sunday school.

We are told about Zacchaeus in his sycamore tree because we need to hear what it costs to repent, especially to repent of the kind of deliberate, committed, and sustained sinning that only we grown-ups are good at. Tell the children the story, by all means. If they enjoy it, fine. But it is not children whom Luke has in his sights, but us iniquitous adults. And we should not be laughing, but squirming.

Zacchaeus was "of small stature". In Luke's Greek, as in every language, the adjective "small" can have a pejorative suggestion. Luke does not expect us to rid our minds of that suggestion. Zacchaeus would still have been a mean little man had he been two metres tall. To his victims, his diminutive physique simply made him the more despicable.

We have to remember that the first-century citizens of Jericho would not have backed our legislation on equal access for the disabled. Those "differently abled" had to keep their distance. "For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch" (Leviticus 21.17-20).

Zacchaeus, the dwarf, climbs his tree so that he can see Jesus, but also because he knows that many in the crowd below would have regarded contact with him as contaminating. We have here someone doubly offensive and doubly detested. He is shunned because of what is perceived as his disfigurement, and loathed because of his co-operation with the occupying powers.

"I must stay at your house today," says Jesus to Zacchaeus. Luke's "musts" matter. For Luke, it is divine necessity that drives Jesus to Jerusalem. "I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day - for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem" (Luke 13.33).

That imperative determines what will transpire there. "The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again" (Luke 24.7). The same necessity - written from the foundation of the world, written for the salvation of the world - requires Jesus to enter the house of Zacchaeus and dwell there.

It is no light thing to have Jesus move in. When he does, he takes possession. Zacchaeus himself would have done some "taking possession" in his time, invading the homes of those who had defaulted in their payments, and distraining their goods - or, as the chief tax-collector, getting his heavies to do so. Now the invader has been invaded. Such is grace, freely given but infinitely demanding.

Remarkably, one of the best recent commentaries on this story has come from 10 Downing Street. In one of this year's BBC Lent talks, Cherie Booth QC, wife of the then Prime Minister, suggested that what Jesus required of a repentant Zacchaeus was that he should submit to a process of "restorative justice" - the approach to the righting of wrongs that has proved so powerful in post-apartheid South Africa.

Zacchaeus's victims needed the chance to tell him what had been the impact of his extortionate treatment of them. Zacchaeus himself had to understand the real consequences of his rapacity, to express true contrition, and, so far as possible, to make amends. That was the repenting he had to do - and extremely uncomfortable it must have been.

Why did Zacchaeus want a good view of Jesus? All Luke tells us is that he sought to see who Jesus was - as we all do. (The Revised English Bible's "he was eager to see what Jesus looked like" is bathos.) Luke presents Zacchaeus's encounter with Jesus as the culmination of two quests. Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus. Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus. Beneath the sycamore tree they find each other.

Luke uses the same word for Zacchaeus's search ("he sought to see who Jesus was") as he does for Jesus's search ("the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost"). The artistry and depth of Luke's telling of the story is in this deliberate use of the same verb.

There is not just one "long search". There are two. We seek him who seeks us. The promise of the story is that, one day, we shall fall into each other's arms. In all our old versions, the translators carefully use same English word for the two quests, ours and his. None of our modern translators do so. We are bound to wonder whether they have noticed what the story is about.

Text of readings

Isaiah 1. 10-18

10Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.


12When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation –
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

2 Thessalonians 1

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

5This is evidence of the righteous judgement of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. 6For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfil by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 19.1-10

1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

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