TITLE: On the Outside Looking In SCRIPTURE: Luke 19:1-10
Have you ever been on the outside looking in? It is a lonely place to be.
I remember being a paper boy a long time ago on a cold winter night -- carrying my bag of papers -- throwing a paper on the porch of this house and that. The lights in the windows looked inviting, but I didn't think that they were inviting me in. I remember thinking how nice it would be to be inside one of those warm houses, sitting down to dinner. It was a small taste of being on the outside looking in.
Our scripture today tells the story of a man who was on the outside looking in. His name was Zacchaeus. You wouldn't necessarily think of Zacchaeus as being on the outside. He was rich and well-connected, but he was on the outside nevertheless. He was a tax collector. To understand what that meant, you need to know what was going on.
Rome had conquered Israel and stationed its soldiers there. They contracted with local people to collect taxes. People hated tax collectors, because they were Jews in the employ of Rome -- traitors to their own people. But there was another reason as well. Tax collectors often got rich by cheating people. If you owed Rome a thousand dollars in taxes, the tax collector might bill you for fifteen hundred dollars and pocket the difference.
So Zacchaeus wouldn't have had many friends. He was on the outside looking in. He had money, but money is all that he had.
Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to town, and he wanted to see this young prophet that he had heard so much about. Zacchaeus wasn't very tall, so he climbed a sycamore tree to see over the heads of the crowd -- to get a good look at Jesus.
You have to wonder what he was thinking -- this renegade Jew trying desperately to catch a glimpse of this young prophet -- this religious teacher -- this healer. Jesus was everything that Zacchaeus wasn't -- a man of integrity --respected, even beloved, by the people -- a man, they said, who had come from God.
And so Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see this man who was everything that Zacchaeus wasn't. I suspect that Zacchaeus climbed that tree to see what he might have been if he had taken a different fork in the road. Zacchaeus must have regretted the choices that he had made -- regretted the way that his life had turned out -- regretted the deadness of his soul -- regretted the angry glances that he got when he walked down the street -- regretted being on the outside looking in.
But then something truly astounding happened. Jesus came walking down the street surrounded by crowds, just as Zacchaeus had thought that he would. But then, when Jesus was about ready to pass by the tree where Zacchaeus had posted himself, Jesus stopped -- and looked up into the tree -- and said:
" Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."
Zacchaeus must have been a jumble of emotions at that point. He must have been embarrassed, having Jesus call attention to him as he sat there in that tree. Zacchaeus was an executive of the Roman government, after all -- an important man -- but there he was, like a twelve-year-old boy, sitting on a tree limb. It must have been quite a sight to watch him trying to get out of that tree without falling on his dignity.
And Zacchaeus must have been confused. To eat dinner with someone was a way of expressing kinship --approval. It was hard to believe that this popular young prophet, who could have honored anyone, would choose to honor Zacchaeus.
But there surely was also a part of Zacchaeus that was overjoyed. Everyone wanted to see Jesus. People hung on his every word. Those who were sick longed for his healing touch. A few seconds with Jesus could change a person's life. And now Jesus was inviting himself to Zacchaeus' house. Zacchaeus, the ultimate outsider, suddenly became the ultimate insider.
So Zacchaeus, overjoyed, made a promise to Jesus. He said:
"Look, half of 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."
And Jesus responded by saying:
"Today salvation has come to this house,
because (Zacchaeus) too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man came
to seek out and to save the lost."
End of story! But not really the end, because the story is still going on! Jesus is still seeking out and saving the lost! That is Good News for us today!
Because in this congregation today, there are people who feel like Zacchaeus -- people who feel like they are on the outside looking in -- people who come to church in the hope that they will catch a glimpse of something beautiful -- people who long for a bit of grace -- people who hear the words of the scriptures and hymns but assume that they apply only to someone else -- people carrying a burden of crushing guilt.
That is hard to imagine, isn't it. If you were to look around at the people sitting in these pews today, you would see people who appear to be very "together" -- full of faith -- confident -- assured.
But we don't have to look very far to know that it isn't true. Each of us now and then experiences a dark night of the soul when we confront our own sins -- our own shortcomings -- our own need of forgiveness. Each of us must wonder now and then if we will be among the sheep or the goats on Judgment Day. Each of us must wonder now and then if God has enough grace to love even us -- because, if we are honest, we know that we have failed to live as God would have us live. In the words of the old prayer:
"We have left undone those things
which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things
which we ought not to have done."
But the story of Zacchaeus tells us that we are just the kind of people whom Jesus came to save. He didn't have much luck with the scribes, who thought that they knew everything. He didn't have much luck with the Pharisees, who figured that they were better than anyone. But Jesus loved people like Zacchaeus -- people who knew how badly they had missed the mark, but hoped to catch a glimpse of Jesus in the hope that he might -- just might -- help them.
So if you came here today feeling like Zacchaeus -- feeling like you are on the outside looking in -- feeling like you are in need of grace that seems always to be just beyond your reach, hear these words:
"Today salvation has come to your house,
because you too are a son or a daughter of God.
For Jesus came to seek and to save the lost."
That is what Jesus said to Zacchaeus, and that is what he is saying to you. All you need today is to open the door of your house and your heart, and Jesus will come in and make himself at home at your table -- and will invite you to his table -- and everything from that point on will be different.
Believe Jesus when he says, "Today salvation has come to your house," and see if it isn't true. Believe him when he says that he "came to seek and to save the lost." Believe him, and it will be true. It will be true for you.