I stood on the front steps of the church with Judy and Maggie looking out to what we could see on University Avenue. The crowds were enormous and backed up all along King Street. Souped up cars were parked in front of us, revving up their engines every once in awhile for full effect. Bottles appeared from under jackets or from backpacks and got passed around. People came and went, checking to see if this was going to be the best vantage point or whether they needed to keep searching. Of course everything was delayed. It’s hard to plan these sorts of things since they happen so rarely. Every so often a cheer would go up from the crowd that was infectious and spread along the streets. But nothing new appeared, at least that we could see, and we went back to waiting. High up in the buildings we could see security people watching everything that was going on very carefully. You never know when something might happen. And of course there were others who were climbing up polls, hanging out windows, finding little ledges that on a regular day no one would even have noticed. The rules were relaxed a bit even with the risk that posed to those in precarious lookouts. It was the Raptors parade don’t you know and no one wanted to miss it. Eventually they appeared on top of the buses that crawled their way up the street to the thrill of all those thousands of people. And we were only a tiny snapshot of the full parade route as they made their way to Nathan Phillips Square.
I was reminded of that day and that scene reading the familiar story of Zacchaeus from Luke’s gospel. We have met a lot of different characters as we have journeyed with Jesus in Luke throughout this year. As Jesus travelled from Galilee through Samaria and along the Jordan River the crowds had grown. His reputation had gone ahead of him. Everyone it seems had heard of him. A first century Kawhi Leonard. And everyone wanted to catch at least a glimpse of him. They had even brought their little children to him to hold and to bless. He wasn’t “run of the mill”. He was different. Extraordinary in fact. He healed people. That’s what got most people interested. But he also told stories with a twist or a bite. Stories that connected with people’s everyday lives but then somehow turned them around to make them seem very important. Signs of the kingdom of God he said. Who knew!
But not everyone was impressed. People who were usually in the limelight and who commanded respect were pushed into the background when Jesus was around and they were none too happy. Who was this nobody from the backwoods? He may seem like he’s made it but you can never trust these people. His real colours will show soon enough. And the mob mentality will take over. And where will that leave us?
Jesus also wasn’t afraid of controversy. He hung out with people he wasn’t supposed to. Fishermen, prostitutes, foreigners, people who collected taxes for the occupying Romans. All manner of sinners. Oh, yes, he did also accept dinner invitations from the more refined and he did attend synagogue. But more often than not an argument ensued. He wasn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He said things that could upset the balance and was always willing to expose a bit of collaboration or graft or hypocrisy. Not what you talked about in polite company. And the Romans were always there. Don’t fool yourselves. They would have moved in at the slightest sign of insurrection with the same ruthlessness they had demonstrated throughout the Empire. They would not have hesitated to wipe out thousands and level the city to the ground if they felt that was necessary to maintain their power.
So again today we join Jesus on his journey, coming into the city of Jericho, on the Jordan River just north of the Dead Sea, his last major stop before Jerusalem. Jericho was a crossroads for trade, for the movement of troops, for all sorts of people coming and going in different directions. The usual crowd had gathered, filling up the streets, jostling for position, all of them experts now about this famous celebrity coming their way and each one there for their own reason. Among them is a short man whose name is Zacchaeus. In the Sunday School song I used to sing, we called him a “wee little man”. But Zacchaeus was much more than that. Perhaps because of the bullying he endured for being short he found a way to get his own back. He worked for the Romans. The enemy. He was the middle man who extracted money from his own people to pay the occupiers and did very well for himself in the process. And clearly he was good at his job because he is described as a chief tax collector in Jericho. He probably would not have wanted to bring a lot of attention to himself when he went out on to the streets that day. In the middle of a crowd it is easy to focus the desire for revenge on a despised figure and for rough justice to take over. Maybe in addition to being able to see Jesus better, Zacchaeus was rushing because he thought he might be able to hide himself in the branches of the sycamore tree. He probably hoped that he would be able to slip away quietly afterward as well.
Well we know the story. That wasn’t the way it was going to turn out. Jesus saw Zacchaeus. That’s a very common thing in the way Luke tells the story. Jesus sees people. In the midst of large crowd, up in the branches of a tree, Jesus sees this wee little nasty man. And he didn’t just see him, he called to him and told him to get down out of the tree quickly because he was going to his home. This had not been on Zacchaeus’ radar screen. The best he had hoped is that he would see this famous person for himself and form his own opinion of him. He hadn’t dreamed that the famous person would tell him that he was going to his home, to be his guest, to eat at his table and stay the night. The crowd was not happy, not happy at all. Yes they had heard that Jesus had been known to hang out with the wrong crowd but there are sinners and then there are sinners and Zacchaeus was one of THOSE sinners. The worst of the worst. Surely Jesus was mistaken.
But no, Jesus was going to be a guest in the home of Zacchaeus. A very unexpected guest. No doubt Zacchaeus would be able to put together a pretty good meal and find a decent bed in which Jesus could sleep. But just like the person, the house, the meal, the bed were all tainted with the dirty money that came into Zacchaeus’ hands. No one wanted to be a guest in the home of this little dog.
Once again though, Jesus amazes everyone present, not least Zacchaeus, and becomes Zacchaeus’ unexpected guest. In response to this overwhelmingly gracious act, Zacchaeus is transformed, has a complete turn around, and he demonstrates this change in very concrete ways. He promises that he will give away half of everything he possesses to the poor and that he will pay people back four times the amount of anything he extorted from them. This is definitely not usual tax collector behaviour. This is a whole new way of being. This guest is not just unexpected. This guest becomes the host. He welcomes the outcast, the despised, the one who always had to watch his back and he shares bread and wine at his table. Zacchaeus’ table. The Lord’s table. The table where all are welcome, especially those who don’t usually receive invitations.
In the Iona Community worship there are several wonderful invitations to share in Communion. As we prepare to join together in sharing at the table today, as we prepare to join Zacchaeus and whole host of saints and sinners over the centuries and in our own time who have come to the table, listen to these words of invitation:
He was always the guest.
In the homes of Peter and Jairus,
Martha and Mary, Joanna and Susanna, – and we can add Zacchaeus
he was always the guest.
At the meal tables of the wealthy
where he pled the case of the poor,
he was always the guest.
Upsetting polite company,
befriending isolated people,
welcoming the stranger,
he was always the guest.
at this table,
he is the host.
Those who wish to serve him
must first be served by him,
those who want to follow him
must first be fed by him,
those who would wash his feet
must first let him make them clean.
For this is the table
where God intends us to be nourished;
this is the time
when Christ can make us new.