A sermon, based on Luke 19.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, November 3, 2019.
A rich man asks Jesus how to gain eternal life?” Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments.” The man declares his lifelong faithfulness. Jesus says, “You lack one thing,” telling the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The man cannot part with his treasure. “It is easier,” Jesus observes, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven!” His disciples, believing that wealth is a supreme material sign of God’s spiritual blessing, are dumbfounded, exclaiming, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says, “What is impossible for mortals is possible with God.”(1)
The conversation between Jesus and the rich man, I believe, provides context for the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, which answers the question, “Who can be saved?” whether asked by the disciples…
Or by us whenever we worry, fear that we won’t or can’t be who God calls us to be or who we want to be. Whenever we fall short of our best into the pit of our worst. Whenever our dreams of personal fulfillment fade into nightmares of our errors in judgment. Whenever we can’t lower the volume of that loud, long-playing psychological tape of blame and shame recorded ages ago by the criticisms of others.
Can we be saved?
For an instant, let us exercise our imaginations, perceiving the rich man and Zacchaeus as symbolic reflections of us. The rich man, in his obedience to God’s Law, our best face or, perhaps, how we’d like to appear to others and to ourselves. Zacchaeus, in selling out to the Roman Empire, collecting taxes from his own people, our not so best face. Yet it is Zacchaeus who answers our question: Can we be saved? For he is proof that appearances can deceive.
The virtuous, law-abiding rich man, sadly, wouldn’t, couldn’t relinquish his wealth, serve the poor, and follow Jesus. The rich Zacchaeus, though judged to be a duplicitous sinner, having profited from the misery of others, desperately wanted to see Jesus.
Appearances can deceive.
Zacchaeus, a tax collector, was assumed to be corrupt. Yet, though in the English translation, Zacchaeus says, “Half of my possessions, I will give to the poor,” the Greek says, “Half of my possessions I am giving to the poor.”
Appearances can deceive.
Zacchaeus says, “If I’ve defrauded…” for it’s not a proven that he has cheated anyone.
All is not always as it appears…
We are not always as we appear to others and to ourselves…
Yet we always are as we appear to God. As we pray each Sunday, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”(2) Thus, if ever, whenever we wonder, “Can we be saved?” salvation never depends on us, but always on God, in whom all things are possible and who, Jesus says, always answers, “Yes”!
Believing this, then when can we be saved? The answer always is “Today!”
Everything important in the Gospel according to Luke happens today!
The angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock, proclaiming, “To you is born today in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”(3)
Jesus launched his ministry reading Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed,” then saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”(4)
The penitent thief crucified with Jesus pleaded, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”(5)
Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
If ever, whenever we look at ourselves, asking, “Can we be saved?” Luke, the divine physician, through the Jesus-Zacchaeus story, prescribes this antidote to our wonderment, this remedy for our worry, answering, “Yes! Because of who God is and because of what Jesus already has done! Today!”
(1) See Luke 18.18-27 (my paraphrase)
(2) From the Collect for Purity (my emphases), The Book of Common Prayer, page 355
(3) Luke 2.11
(4) Luke 4.18, 21
(5) Luke 23.42-43
Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911)
Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)