4th Sunday before Advent

28 October 2016

Isaiah 1.10-18; Psalm 32.1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1; Luke 19.1-1

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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.

 

“COME down, Zacchaeus, come down from the tree. Come down, Zacchaeus, give the Lord his tea,” a children’s chorus goes. Thanks to its arresting elements of tree-climbing and spontaneous hospitality, Zac­chaeus’s encounter with Jesus has been the subject of cheerfully re­­ductive treatment. Further dramatic mileage can be drawn from the generally poor view of tax-collectors in the society where the events take place.

This approach engages the inter­est of people of all ages in scripture, but misses some of the most int­ri­guing elements of the story, begin­ning with Zacchaeus’s reason for climbing the tree. It is not a case of the short man’s seeking a better vantage point for observing the famous teacher — in fact, he did not know who was drawing the crowd, and his intention was “to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19.3).

Jesus, whose ability to identify particularly needy individuals has been demonstrated before, in his treatment of the woman with the haemorrhage (Luke 8.40-48), does the unexpected, and summons Zac­chaeus down by name. It is one thing to climb a tree when the atten­tion of a surrounding mob is else­where. Coming down, observed by a partly hostile gathering, is another matter. The dignity of the “chief tax-collector” (a unique title, per­haps inflated for narrative purposes) would have been severely com­promised.

The general resentment against tax-gatherers spills over into resent­ment that Jesus should be intent on spending some time in the house of one of them (Luke 19.7). That pro­vokes Zacchaeus, diminutive and mistrusted though he may be, to de­­fend himself (Luke 19.8).

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Commentaries on this passage acknowledge that what follows is written in the Greek present tense, but disagree over whether it is to be taken as such, or understood as referring to the future.

The NRSV takes its stand by translating Zacchaeus’s words as a promise to pay back fourfold any­one he has defrauded, and to give half his goods to the poor. The RSV retains the present tense, and it is in this way that Brendan Byrne insists the statement should be read.

Zacchaeus may be part of an un­­popular profession, but he is trying to be faithful to Jewish law and custom, too (The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000). Jesus is ready to bless that effort, not only by accepting the explanation, but by offering something even better.

Byrne notes that, unlike some other meals at which Jesus has been present — for example, two dinners given by Pharisees (Luke 11.37-52, 14.1-24) — there is no element of parable or teaching at Zacchaeus’s table. Jesus has something direct and urgent to say: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19.9).

Luke thus links the event to two other signal occasions: the inaug­uration of Jesus’s Galilean ministry, at which he reads from the scroll of Isaiah and concludes by proclaim­ing that “today” the great prophecy of liberation has been fulfilled (Luke 4.21); and the assurance that he gives to the dying thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43).

Salvation comes when it is seen, in the deep sense of grasping what Jesus is about, and following that vision. It is not easily pinned down within temporal parameters, and that is the problem addressed in the Second Letter to the Thessalon­ians.

The First Letter to the Greek Christians at Thessalonica is be­­lieved to be the earliest of the New Testament writings, and is securely attributed to Paul. The Second Let­ter follows it closely in shape and theme, but is somewhat later, and was probably written by someone who used Paul’s name as a guaran­tee of authority.

The opening chapter commends the audience for their faithfulness under trying conditions, and prom­ises that, when the Lord Jesus comes in triumph, judgement will be meted out appropriately to per­secutors and persecuted (2 Thes­salonians 1.6-10). The harder news comes in the second chapter, in which they learn that the Lord’s coming is not imminent, and that a struggle between God’s power and the power of evil must take place first.

It is with some urgency, then, that the writer of the letter prays that the recipients will be strength­ened in “every good resolve and work of faith” (2 Thessalonians 1.11). This is a prayer founded in the conviction that God is faithful.

As the Church prepares to keep the feast of All Saints and the com­memoration of All Souls this week, the collect is offered in the same conviction that Christians are kept going by a faithful God, and by the example of previous generations who — sometimes joyfully, some­times in the teeth of discourage­ment, hardship, and suffering — have kept their promise to wait patiently for the Lord.

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