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Judge Not

Category : Reflections

Judge Not — Rev. Brent Gundlah
Reflection for October 30, 2022

From the time I was in middle school I has a classmate named Jill — I won’t tell you her last name out of respect for her because she’s been through quite enough already.

You see, one day way back in elementary school, Jill had a little “accident” in class — I’ll just call it an accident and leave it at that. And this unfortunate occurrence led another classmate of ours, who’s name was Steve, to give Jill the rather unkind nickname of “Jilly Spilly.”

As you might have guessed, Steve was kind of a jerk back then — and, who knows, maybe he still — but, since I’m a pastor now, I feel obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt; you know, people grow.

But the sad fact is this horrible nickname that Steve and his friends constantly taunted Jill with stuck to her like glue for years. When people make up their minds about someone they can be awfully hard to change. 

I have no idea what became of Jill, and I haven’t been to a high school reunion for many years, but I guarantee you that if we had one tomorrow every single person there would remember Jill as “Jilly Spilly;” it wouldn’t matter whether she’d gone on to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a stay-at-home mom or a movie star or a Nobel Laureate, she’d still be “Jilly Spilly.”

What I’m trying to say is that people can be really judgmental, and peoples’ judgements about us can cling to us for a long, long time. The ways in which we come to be seen and known and understood by others can be difficult to shake. It’s like Newton’s First Law, only about opinions: Once people believe something about someone, they tend to keep on believing it. Just ask Zaccheus.

As today’s story from Luke’s Gospel begins, Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Crowds have been gathering along the way to catch a glimpse of him, to have a word with him, to be blessed by him, to be healed by him. There amongst the crowd in Jericho is a man named Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich — this is the extent of the definitive biographical information we get about Zaccheus.

Now, I have a pretty good idea what at least some of you are thinking right now; you’re going over the words to that song about Zaccheus that you learned in Sunday School years ago: “Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” Zaccheus was a tax collector, he was rich, and he was also short — it says so right there in the lyrics so it has to be true, right?

As the crowd is growing and the people are clamoring to gander at Jesus, Luke tells us that Zaccheus “was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.”

So, Zaccheus climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus because “he was short in stature,” but the text isn’t clear about who was “short in stature”? These verses are pure pronoun chaos. Was it Zaccheus who was short, or was it Jesus? At the end of the day, it probably doesn’t matter.

But the fact that we’ve traditionally assumed Zaccheus to be the short one says some interesting things about us — after all, don’t we generally expect the heroes of our stories to be superior beings? I mean, how could Jesus not be six foot four and full of muscles, clad in white, with long flowing hair and a glowing halo surrounding him? Sure, Jesus is a poor carpenter from the wrong side of town but that’s okay because in Luke’s Gospel, rich people are the villains.

Zaccheus, in contrast, ain’t exactly classic hero material. He’s rich (and we know how Luke feels about the rich); he’s a tax collector (and we talked last week about how people adored tax collectors in New Testament times); and he’s not just any tax collector — he’s the chief tax collector. Zaccheus is the worst of the worst of the worst.

And Zaccheus is so excited to see Jesus that he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree to get a good look at him; these actions would have been seen as incredibly undignified things for a grown man with an ounce of class to do — thus confirming everyone’s already negative view of him. Of course, Zaccheus, this man of questionable moral integrity who unfairly profits off his neighbors, this desperate person who is willing to debase himself in front of everyone, has to be the short one… Right?

Anyway, when Jesus notices Zaccheus up there in the sycamore tree, he calls him by name, tells him to come down, and invites himself over to Zaccheus’ house (Jesus seems to know him already, but we don’t ever learn how). The crowd is not pleased by any of this and they begin to grumble; “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” is their complaint (I dare say we’ve heard this before); someone like Zaccheus had no business hanging around with someone like Jesus.

And then Zaccheus begins to defend himself to Jesus. Luke tells us that he “stood there” talking to the Lord — was he looking up at Jesus, or was Jesus looking up at him? I don’t know.

Luke makes a point of saying that Zaccheus stood in front of Jesus, and this is a significant detail. There are many times in this Gospel where sinners come before Jesus asking for forgiveness and, down to a last, they fall upon their knees or lay at Jesus’ feet when they do so. But not Zaccheus; he stands there as he speaks. Might we infer from this unique gesture that Zaccheus is not actually asking Jesus for forgiveness?

Peoples’ beef with Zaccheus is that he’s a sinner because of what he does for a living — namely, being a tax collector who exploits people. And so the defense he presents to Jesus focuses on that accusation. Listen to what he says in the text I read earlier: “Look, half my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Now this was a pretty generous offer on Zaccheus’ part. Jewish law required him to give away ten percent of his possessions and he’s agreeing to give away five times that. The law obligated him to pay two times damages to anyone he’s wronged and he agrees to give double that.

For this generous gesture, this sincere promise of repentance, Jesus declares, that “Today salvation has come to [Zaccheus’] house…”

But remember that Zaccheus is standing there toe-to-toe with Jesus as he says all this. Zaccheus’s words sound repentant but his body language seems kind of defiant; and that’s a little tough to reconcile.

But a different translation of the Bible might help make sense of all this. In the Revised Standard Version, which your pew Bible is based on, verse nineteen is translated as follows: “And Zacchae′us stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

And this is a huge difference — in this way of reading it, Zaccheus is not promising to make things right with those he’s wronged, he’s telling Jesus that he is already making things right with those he’s wronged. And maybe that’s the really incredible part of this story.

Way back at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist was wandering around proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people in the crowds asked him what they actually needed to do to repent and be forgiven; here is what he told them:

“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.”

Zaccheus appears to have been listening.

That’s right — this rich man, this tax collector, this desperate and unseemly person from whom no one expected anything good, was listening. And he wasn’t just listening, he was actually putting what he heard into practice. Who’d have thunk it?

Well, apparently Jesus thunk it — us, probably not so much. When we think of Zaccheus, is the first thing that comes to mind his willingness live like God’s reign has already arrived here on earth? Or is it that he was a wee little man who climbed a sycamore tree? I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, but why?

Maybe its hard for us to accept the possibility that someone like Zaccheus, a rich man, a chief tax collector, a social outcast, could ever truly repent;

or maybe its hard for us to believe that someone like Zaccheus could ever be loved by anyone, let alone God;

or maybe accepting the idea that even someone like Zaccheus could actually change would mean having to accept the idea that we could too — that we should too — and who wants to go through the trouble of doing that?

Nah, it’s just easier for us to write-off Zaccheus, to make being short and a good climber his lasting legacy. Heck, if anything actually rhymed with Zaccheus, we’d probably give him a nickname too.

Like I said earlier, once we’ve got our mind made up about someone, it can be  hard to convince us otherwise.

But we should be thankful that God doesn’t treat us the same way.

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