A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
Pentecost 5 (Evensong)
Christ Church St Laurence – 9 July 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
‘…there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was… but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was of small stature.’
Apart from a few dramatic exceptions, such as David and Goliath, Scripture makes very few references to height. The most notable exception is to be found in Luke, Chapter 18. Of the character of Zacchaeus, it is said, ‘…he could not see, because he was of small stature.’ The last time I preached on this passage, I suggested that visibility issues for Zacchaeus could have resulted from the fact that Christ may have been the one of small stature. This is certainly one possible interpretation of Luke’s words as they are translated for us. Nobody in the congregation three years ago seemed to buy this. Although, I hasten to add that this hypothesis concerning a diminutive Jesus of Nazareth was not my own theory.
It is true that the most likely meaning implied by Luke’s words is that Zacchaeus was significantly below average height, which is why Sunday School lessons continue to depict Zacchaeus as a dumpy little man, who has overindulged in virtually every way. However, it is unlikely that Luke’s intention is to poke fun at a portly man with an inexplicable ability to climb trees. Being physically small in the first century world implied other things, which I very much hope no longer apply in our own time.
Ancient Greek philosophy suggests that small physical stature implies smallness of spirit. Greek writings of the time claim that, diminutive physical stature indicates ‘a small-minded person.’ [such a person] ‘is small-limbed, small and round, dry, with small eyes and a small face, like a Corinthian…’ There’s nothing racist in that. In contrast, great physical stature was seen as a sign of wisdom, integrity and spiritual magnitude.
What applied in the first century has been shown to be quite untrue. Great spiritual leaders and social reformers, such as John Wesley, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were all below average height. And coming in at just 4 feet 9 inches, even I would have looked down on Mother Teresa of Calcutta… at least physically.
In the person of Zacchaeus, Luke presents us with an image of a man who was very far from God. In addition to the fact that he was vertically challenged, Zacchaeus was probably greedy, small minded, vain and corrupt. In the first century world, this made him a hated figure. In our own time, Zacchaeus may have become a democratically elected head of state. Spiritual greatness does not seem to be venerated in our society. Instead, physical greatness and wealth have become the sought-after trophies of the western world. Despite the fact that Zacchaeus has probably achieved everything he set out to gain, there is within him a yearning for something else. Realising how far he is from God, Zacchaeus climbs out of the mire of his own existence, striving to catch a glimpse of another dimension. He may be a pitiable figure, but even this detestable man is not without hope of redemption.
In the 18th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the dramatic tension is starting to build. As Christ turns toward Jerusalem, he makes dire predictions concerning his own fate. He tells the disciples that the Son of Man will be handed over; he will be mocked and spat upon. They will kill him and, and on the third day, he will rise. Luke also tells us that the disciples understood none of these things. Nevertheless, Christ simply carries on with his ministry; it’s business as usual as he restores sight to a blind man, and as he dines with this hated reprobate tax collector.
Luke Chapter 18 is all about sight: Zacchaeus climbs a tree so that he can see; a blind man begs to have his sight restored, and twelve handpicked disciples wander about in a fog, unable to see or comprehend anything that this enigmatic young rabbi is trying to teach them.
Unlike the blind man, whose sight is restored, it is very important to note that Zacchaeus does not approach Jesus; he is not seeking a personal relationship, or even some sort of healing. He just has a sense that there is something extraordinary on offer. Although he wasn’t seeking one, his encounter does completely change the course of his life.
Day by day, largely through pastoral conversations, I am aware that there is a growing sense of apathy, if not despair, about the state of our world. We are increasingly aware of massive problems concerning poverty and inequality; we are all aware of blatantly corrupt governments in our world; we are all aware of racism, and religious intolerance and persecution. We share a great deal in common with the rather tragic Zacchaeus. We find ourselves in a world that is not as we would have it be. The fact that you are here this evening suggests that you have even more in common with this odd little man. Even with his limited understanding, Zacchaeus goes to great lengths to catch a glimpse of something better. As we walk through the doors of this church again and again, we are climbing a sycamore tree, trying to keep that image of Jesus Christ clearly before our eyes. While we acknowledge our spiritual and physical limitations, Christian people must remain committed to this clear vision of a better kingdom.
Next Sunday evening, we will celebrate and give thanks for the Oxford Movement. A small group of clergy and laity became aware of great inadequacies and inconsistencies within the Church of England. The liturgy that we so treasure in this place, only exists because a small group of devoted Christians held on to a vision of what the church was meant to be. As traditional Anglicans in this part of the world, we may feel small and insignificant; as Christians in a very secular society, we may feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to bring about significant change in our world. But we must take inspiration, even from a hated tax collector, who did not allow his physical limitations to dictate his spiritual vision. Against all the odds, Zacchaeus obtained a life-changing encounter with the divine, and Jesus rewarded his persistence as he simply said, ‘Today, salvation has come to this house.’
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.