Man Out On a Limb

Face to Face with Jesus

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

What would it be like to encounter Jesus face to face? That’s the question this series sets out to help us answer. We can’t know, of course, but we can get a glimpse of what happened to those who did meet Jesus in the Gospel texts we examine here.

Two kittens shut down the B and Q lines of the New York Subway system for about two hours one day a few years back. The B and Q are two of the main lines that run from Brooklyn into the heart of Manhattan. A two-hour disruption is going to cause a problem, no matter what time it is.

One morning, a Thursday at 11 a.m., two scared kittens were spotted running down the tracks right next to the third rail. That’s the one that carries the power, 600 volts – not transformer power, but enough to use up all nine lives. So, they decided to cut the power to the whole line. And for almost two hours, the commuters and subway officials waited while a few went on a subway safari to rescue the flustered felines. Alas, the kittens managed to stay out of reach long enough that the disruption was no longer tenable. So, since the kittens weren’t in visible danger, they returned power to the rail and then started the local trains and eventually the express trains but issued an alert inviting the drivers to keep a lookout for the strays.

Naturally, in a day of instant commentary on anything and everything, the opinions were many and various. From the animal lover who praised the compassion of the administrators – or questioned why they gave up so soon just to keep the trains running on time (with the inevitable Mussolini quote tossed in), to the commuters who were patient or not, and the conspiracy theorists who speculated that terrorists in cat suits were behind it all, not to mention the anti-government voices who blamed the president at the time for letting the cat out of the bag. Bah-dum-bum.

The argument centered around one point, really. Were they worth it? And before you get all heated up, let’s make a shift here. We’re not really talking about kittens on a subway track. We are talking about a little guy out on a limb.

Everybody sing, “a wee little man . . .” . . . “Climbed up in a sycamore tree . . .” . . . “YOU COME DOWN” . . . “I’m coming to your house today.” Why did we shout that bit? Jesus doesn’t seem to be shouting here. Maybe it is simply enthusiasm, and we got carried away when we were kids.

Who knows? It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting the point here. And the point here is that even Luke had to learn to bite his tongue when Jesus comes to town.

If you read through the Gospel of Luke, you discover that there is a certain attitude to people with means, with resources—ah heck, just say it—the rich. Luke didn’t like them. Or he thought Jesus didn’t like them. In story after story in the gospel of Luke, the rich come out badly. So, when Luke begins chapter nineteen with this introduction, you are forgiven if you expect it to end badly. “There was a man named Zacchaeus; he was chief tax collector and was rich. As if being chief tax collector isn’t bad enough. A chief tax collector isn’t like the guy sitting in the booth collecting your sales tax, or your business tax, or your inventory tax or whatever. This is the guy who shows up at your door and takes everything you’ve got left. And he usually shows up with muscle, Roman muscle. He’s the guy, some historians think, that recruited all the other guys who are also now as hated as he is. He’s the regional director of tax collectors. But, for Luke, as bad as all that is, here’s what’s worse: he’s rich.

So, you know this can’t end well. You just know it. Except that a strange thing happens. When Jesus comes to town, Zacchaeus decides he wants to see him. And here’s what’s weird: he doesn’t send a memo and ask Jesus to stop by his office. He doesn’t have his people call Jesus’ people. He runs (runs!) down the street and climbs a flipping tree! This pillar of society, okay, a despised pillar of society to be sure, but a man of status and standing and whatever else makes you the top of the heap, runs down a street and climbs a tree. He acts like a little kid! What is up with that?

Jesus seems to accept it all, and then invites himself to the house of a guy who would climb a tree just to see him. A curious thing is that we don’t know why. Jesus says he “must stay” at Zacchaeus’s house today. Must stay? But what is even more curious is that we don’t know Zacchaeus’s motivation. All Luke says is that he wanted to see Jesus. “Trying to see who Jesus was” (verse 3). Why? Was it a change of heart? Was he worried about competition? Was it hope or fear? Or a little of both? We don’t know. And apparently, that doesn’t matter.

That is what is really curious about this story. The transformation, the change in behavior, the giving away half of what he owns and paying back four times the amount if (notice the if there, Zac isn’t admitting anything) he has defrauded anyone, all happens after Jesus puts himself on the guest list. He came down from a tree and changed his life.

Or, at least, it appears so. Actually, where our translation has, “I will give” and “I will pay back,” the original text says, “I give” and “I pay back.” So, is he already generous? Is Jesus coming to dine with him because he is already a good guy? Well, the crowd doesn’t think so. They start to grumble when Jesus makes his announcement. “Why are you going to his house?” they wonder, “don’t you know he is a sinner?”

He’s not worth it. That’s what they are saying. Don’t waste your time on him, keep the trains running, Jesus. Stay on target. Keep out of the gutters, off the side streets, out of the trees. Stick to your own kind. His kind, the sinner kind, isn’t worth bothering with.

Jesus says his kind is your kind. He is one of you. A son of Abraham, like you. A child of God, like you. If I ignore him, I ignore you. But I didn’t come to ignore the ones who will go out on a limb just to see me. The ones who will risk reputation, such as it might have been. The ones who will put aside “proper behavior” and become like a little child just to see me.

We don’t know what was in Zacchaeus’s mind when he ran and climbed a tree. Which I guess means, in part, that since our motives are at best mixed, we’ve got a chance too. Jesus just might invite himself into our houses with a surprising urgency. No matter what anyone else seems to think, we are worth the effort, worth the disruption, worth the inconvenience of loving.

Now ask yourself this question of this passage: “Where are you in the story?” Are you standing with the crowd, shaking your head at those people who aren’t worth it? Or are you standing next to Jesus, inviting yourself into the homes of those others think are sinners? Or perhaps, are you too out on a limb, hoping for a glimpse of Jesus and a whole new way of living?

By the way, seven hours later, they found those kittens, named them Arthur and August, and decided they were worth it.

In This Series...

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Reign of Christ, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes