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Readings: 4th Sunday before Advent

25 October 2013

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

Almighty and eternal God, you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints: grant to us the same faith and power of love, that, as we rejoice in their triumphs, we may be sustained by their example and fellowship; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE contrast between the Old and New Testament readings is stark. Isaiah voices God's complaint and argument against those who trample his courts; Paul writes of God's grace and peace towards the Church. Isaiah speaks of God's hiding his eyes from the people; Paul of God's making the Christians worthy of his calling and fulfilling by his power every good resolve and work of faith. Isaiah describes God's hatred of the hollow rituals of the wayward people, while Paul boasts of the Thessalonians' steadfastness and faith.

In their different ways, both provide commentaries on the familiar story of Zacchaeus, whose way of life brought opprobrium, and who yet received grace, and promptly began faithful works.

Luke gives Zacchaeus's story a particular Gospel frame: last week, we heard of a fictional tax-collector (Luke 18.9-14); now we meet a real one. Earlier, Jesus had described an outcast woman as a daughter of Abraham (Luke 13.16); and now he describes an outcast man as a son of Abraham.

Luke has recently recorded the parable of the rich man who spent his wealth on himself (Luke 16.19-31), and described Jesus's encounter with a rich ruler for whom selling his possessions and following Jesus was too demanding (Luke 18.18-25).

Zacchaeus is a contrast to both men. Here is a rich man, not just any despised tax-collector, but a chief tax-collector. Unlike the rich ruler, he does not need to be told what to do with his wealth, but volunteers to give half his possessions to the poor, and to repay anyone he has defrauded - thus vastly out-giving the Pharisee who boated ostentatiously of giving one tenth.

There is urgency in this encounter. In a culture where men neither ran in public nor climbed trees, Zacchaeus did both. Then Jesus told him to hurry up and come down because, remarkably: "I must stay at your house today." No reason for the imperative is given. Luke has said that Jesus was "passing through" Jericho, not stopping, but suddenly he must spend time with Zacchaeus.

Jesus - on his way to Passover in Jerusalem, where ceremonial cleanliness was imperative - defiled himself by entering the house of a recognised sinner. This was nothing unusual for Jesus, who had been criticised for eating with tax-collectors and sinners when he ate with Levi, another tax-collector who did not let his wealth come between him and Jesus's call to follow him (Luke 5.27-31).

In Isaiah, God rejected the people's sacrifices because they "trample his courts" with their hollow offerings; in the Gospel, Jesus not only accepted Zacchaeus's offering, he precipitated it. Unlike people who reached out to Jesus in their need before he responded to them, here the roles were reversed: had Jesus not acted, Zacchaeus, hiding in the tree, would not have responded.

We pray for God to kindle the flame of love in our hearts, so that we have the same faith and power of love as the saints. The kindling in Zacchaeus's life was Jesus's seeking and knowing acceptance of him. That kindling welcome lit a fire of transformation of Zacchaeus's way of life - just as, in the lives of the Thessalonians, God's grace kindled steadfastness and faith in the face of persecution and affliction.

Jesus acknowledged Zacchaeus's conversion: "Today salvation has come to this house." Zacchaeus would live the rest of his life discovering the implications of this saving encounter, beginning by doing voluntarily what John the Baptist had commanded as a sign of repentance (Luke 3.7-14).

At the start of his ministry, Jesus spoke of the Spirit's empowering him to proclaim release to captives and freedom to the oppressed. In this final story from Jesus's journey to Jerusalem, Luke records an encounter in which release and freedom were offered and accepted.

Why "must" Jesus eat with Zacchaeus? Perhaps because forcing him out of hiding to host a dinner was the only way to enable Zacchaeus to realise that he, too, was - in Paul's words - worthy of his call. One wonders: who was the true host at this meal? George Herbert's words, from "Love III", come to mind:

Love bade me welcome,
yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin . . .
You must sit down, says Love,
and taste my meat
So I did sit and eat.

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