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Unmasked?

November 3, 2019 Luke 19:1019

Thursday evening, while Todd and I headed to a football game three hours away where we sat in the dreary cold and watched Jonathan play the final game of the Moundridge season, I’m guessing many of you were sitting in your nice warm homes, answering the door every few minutes as cute children dressed in costumes paraded and tripped up to your front door with requests for candy. Likely many of them were wearing masks that may have partially or even completely concealed their identity and you were left scratching your head a little as you shut the door, wondering who that “cute” ghost or monster might have been. That’s how it works, right? If you live in town, you know the faces of your neighborhood children, are maybe even fond of them. The masks, however, can be unfamiliar, unsettling, confusing even.

I was kind of in a Halloween frame of mind when I spent time studying this gospel text from Luke and learned that our familiar and beloved Zacchaeus story may come to us dressed in a mask as well.  However, if that’s the case, then it may well be that it’s the mask we know and love while the true story beneath the mask is unfamiliar, unsettling, confusing even. 

Jesus is passing through Jericho, home to a wealthy chief tax collector named, Zacchaeus. Somewhat inexplicably, Zacchaeus has a burning desire to see Jesus, but he’s short and can’t clap eyes on Jesus from the back of the crowd. So he thinks outside of the box and climbs a nearby sycamore-fig tree. It would appear there weren’t many people in the trees, because not only is Zacchaeus able to secure Jesus in his sights, Jesus is also taken aback when he draws near and sees Zacchaeus perched in the branches. He stops at the foot of the tree, looks up, and somehow just knows the man’s name. Jesus hollers up at the short man sitting high and says, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus, likely overwhelmed by Jesus’ invitation, scrambles down and welcomes Jesus gladly. They head off to Zacchaeus’ house. Meanwhile the crowd follows, a little ticked off at this turn of events. Even gathered around Zacchaeus’ house they continue to complain loudly. Surprise, surprise, they don’t like Zacchaeus. He’s a tax collector, a sinner. Finally, Zacchaeus, so embarrassed by what the crowd is saying outside the open doors, stands up and declares from that point on he’s going to give half of all his possessions away and if he accidentally cheats someone, he will pay them back fourfold. Jesus, moving to affirm and lift up this sinner now redeemed says loudly for all to hear, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

In order to understand the story presented in this way we also need to understand how despised Zacchaeus would have been. This illustration perhaps overstates the point a bit, but you’ll get the idea. In the concentration camps of World War II, perhaps the most detested people were the Jews who did the bidding of the Nazi’s. In an attempt to save their own lives or prolong them anyway, a small percentage of Jews would take their orders from the SS guards and do whatever needed to be done in order to ensure order and efficiency. Of course, these Jews were seen as traitors in the worst possible way and were reviled.

Zacchaeus hasn’t reached this same level of treachery, but he would have also been perceived as a traitor. He worked for the Roman government in order to exact taxes or tolls from his own people. And tax collectors didn’t have a great reputation. They were known for exploiting the poor and embezzling funds. They were seen as ruthless and many had the wealth and power needed to do great harm. It’s very clear in this story that the crowd accompanying Jesus through Jericho despised Zacchaeus.