There is a song that our children will be learning this morning in children’s chapel that puts in tune the gospel lesson today. Perhaps you learned it as a child. I’ll warn you, it’s the kind of melody that’s bound to become an ear worm:
Zacchaeus 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.
And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in that tree.
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”
Song, it would seem, has a way of capturing our attention and sticking in our memory. Song has a way of pulling us in to participation, rather than mere spectating.
And this is exactly what Jesus does with Zacchaeus, that vertically challenged tax collector. “Hurry and come down, Zacchaeus!” – faith is not a spectator sport – “I must stay at your house today.” A relationship with Jesus always moves us beyond our initial curiosity to a deeper sense of intimacy – intimate enough for him to come into our homes, to see our dirty laundry, and sit down at table with us.
It is important for us to notice here a certain sequence of events. It is key to this gospel story that Jesus first calls Zacchaeus, accepts him as he is, and then – and only then – does Zacchaeus change. Which is to say that we do not have to change in order for God to love us, no, we change because we have experienced the transforming love of God.
This reminds me of one of my favorite parables told by the Jesuit priest, Antony de Mello. You may have heard me share it before, but it so profoundly illustrates this prevenient love of God that I think it bears repeating. The parable is simply called, “My Friend.”
Malik, son of Dinar, was much upset about the profligate behavior of a youth who lived next door to him. For a long time he took no action, hoping that someone else would intervene. But when the youth’s behavior became intolerable Malik went to him and insisted that he change his ways.
The youth calmly replied that he was a protege of the sultan and so nobody could prevent him from living the way he wanted.
Said Malik, “I shall personally complain to the sultan.” Said the youth, “That will be quite useless, because the sultan will never change his mind about me.”
“I shall then denounce you to Allah,” said Malik. “Allah,” said the youth, “is far too forgiving to condemn me.”
Malik went away defeated. But after a while the youth’s reputation became so bad that there was a public outcry about it. Malik decided it was his duty to attempt to reprimand him. As he was walking to the youth’s house, however, he heard a voice say to him, “Do not touch my friend. He is under my protection.” Malik was thrown into confusion by this and, when he was in the presence of the youth, did not know what to say.
Said the young man, “What have you come for now?” Said Malik, “I came to reprimand you. But on my way here a voice told me not to touch you, for you are under his protection.”
The profligate seemed stunned. “Did he call me his friend?” he asked. But by then Malik had already left his house. Years later Malik met this man in Mecca. He had been so touched by the words of the voice that he had given up his possessions and become a wandering beggar. “I have come here in search of my Friend,” he said to Malik, and died.
Time and time again throughout Holy Scripture and throughout all of salvation history, we see that God does not wait for us to have it all figured out, God does not love us only when we are easily lovable and have our act together. For as Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Herein lies a profound theological truth: God does not love us because we are good. We are good because God loves us. To forget that, or to reverse that order is antithetical to the gospel.
Recently I was conversing with our Junior Warden, and he shared with me that of all the many sermons he remembers from his childhood pastor, they could be boiled down to this one theme: God loves you just as you are. That’s it. God loves you just as you are. His point, made over and over, was that we change in response to experiencing that love, not that God requires us to be “good” in order to love us.
There are no conditions or clauses to qualify this love. This is not an “if-then” contract, but rather, a covenant that God has made with his children. God loves you just as you are. And it is that reality that leads to conversion and holiness of life.
Any conversation about morality or ethics (what is right or what is wrong), any change in our behavior is a direct consequence of this transforming love. We do not act holy so that God will love us. God loves us, and therefore we become holy.
Jesus calls Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus receives Jesus into his home. The crowds, of course, are scandalized by this kind of acceptance and love. They still seem to be caught in the misconception that one must be good in order to deserve God’s love. Zacchaeus is called out of his tree, from being a curious spectator to participate and become Jesus’ host.
The result of this relationship, the consequence of being loved is that Zacchaeus begins to seek right relationship with those he has wronged. He begins to use his wealth as a blessing for others, and not merely for himself. Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
The invitation made to Zacchaeus is an invitation Jesus still extends to us here today. To all of us who are perhaps curious, but merely spectating, Jesus is calling us down out of the bleachers, out of our pews, and into relationship. As we come forward to receive Christ Jesus in this Eucharistic feast, may we too grasp our belovedness, and so be transformed.
You are not a spectator. You are a participant. You do not have to change a thing to earn God’s love. You are loved, and that…well, that changes everything.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 26c (2016)