Yesterday, in our church, I spoke from Luke chapters 19 and 20. Rather than an in-depth multi-pointed sermon - which I compared to three or five course "dinner" - we took a walk with Jesus through this scripture passage, as He journeys with a gathering entourage from Jericho to Jerusalem. And as we went we pulled out the 'nuggets' that Holy Spirit was emphasising - rather like a buffet, or as I described it, a "smorgasbord".
Luke 19 commences with Jesus arriving in Jericho. He is not intending to stay there, such is His focus on getting to Jerusalem, where the cross awaits Him. Jericho to Jerusalem is a fifteen mile journey, as the crow flies, though in reality the wining uphill pathway is much longer. It is a climb from 800 feet below sea level to a destination of 2,500 feet above sea level. The journey was treacherous: a common haunt of bandits and thieves lying in wait to pounce on the vulnerable traveller. Jesus has his mind on getting through this trek, but He does, however, have time for a pit stop in Jericho.
We should note that everything Jesus does and everything He says during these final few days prior to His death are highly significant and of great importance as a legacy for His disciples. These are His parting emphases, His reminders of what He considers important. It is therefore vital to our understanding of the Father - Whom Jesus is reflecting at all times - that we grasp what is happening here in Jericho. We can imagine the crowds congregating on the streets as news of the Rabbi's impending arrival reaches them. All are looking to get a glimpse of the celebrity. Probably many are also hoping Jesus will glimpse them.
Zacchaeus is a small, yet powerful man. He is powerful because he is a go-between collecting taxes for the brutal occupying Roman regime from his own Israeli people. It was tax-collectors' practice and privilege to take large sums of money for themselves by drastically overcharging their clients. As a result they could be financially ok but socially despised. Their only friends were other tax collectors and the 'dregs' of society. Consequently Zacchaeus was a hated man. He was isolated and ostracised. He lived on the margins. Yet the amazing thing is that Jesus interrupted His priority journey to stop and talk with him. Jesus, Who only ever demonstrated the character of God the Father, chose to visit his home, to eat a meal with him, to lovingly give him time and attention. Jesus didn't pick the house of one of the local Elders. He didn't pick the religiously-all-together. He picked the one who was hated and despised; the one who wouldn't have been welcome at 'church'.
Here is the heart of the Father. Here is the object lesson that Jesus felt necessary to highlight before He died. God loves to sit down and eat with 'sinners'. He isn't afraid of being with those whom others, especially the religious, despise. His desire to heap love on them trumps everything else. In this story, the crowds moaned and grumbled over His decision. The word used in the original text implies that moaning gossip spread throughout the whole crowd that had gathered! In their opinion Jesus shouldn't be associating with these kind of people. But He was more concerned with loving the outcast than He was with public opinion of Himself. It was worth being misunderstood by others if He could pour out His Father's love on this one individual. There was no guarantee that Zacchaues would change his lifestyle. But Jesus was prepared to love him anyway, without making demands on him. As a result Zacchaues did turn his life around - good news for the whole community.
I believe that this kind of demonstration of the Father's love is vital for our generation. Nothing else will redeem and change broken lives. Religion has so often made love conditional on certain rules and behaviour changes. Jesus loves unconditionally. He makes no demands for change as conditions for receiving His love. He risks everything and loves us regardless. But that kind of love has the habit of reaching lonely and hardened hearts, like spring sunshine on a flower. There is a response that often follows, which is genuine and far-reaching. And if it doesn't, well, Love has simply been itself, and left a mark for season to come.