You know something, we just saw Zacchaeus’s life change. How amazing is that! We witnessed the moment from Luke’s Gospel where Zacchaeus went from being a rich tax collector to being someone who gives away half of what he has to the poor and is committed to following Jesus.
The best sermon I ever heard about this passage came at the end of a retreat held at a women’s jail outside of Los Angeles. This was about fifteen years ago. And for two days I helped as an assistant at the retreat while another priest led the women through a weekend of prayer and Bible study and testimonials and music. And at the end, each of the women was invited to reflect on their lives, and in particular on the way they felt that God was with them now. And this was the Gospel passage for the final ceremony.
So there in the jail, the preacher talked about this one time when Jesus is passing through Jericho and there in the crowd he finds Zacchaeus up in a tree. And when Jesus gets to the place where Zacchaeus is, he looks up and says to Zacchaeus, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down; for I must stay at your home today.” And one by one, the preacher said to each of the women who was there, using their names, he said: “Angelica, hurry up and come down, Jesus says, for I must stay at your home today.” “Linda, hurry up and come down, Jesus says, for I must stay at your home today.” “Judith, hurry up and come down, Jesus says, for I must stay at your home today” and so on and so on for every woman there.
And it was so powerful because it got to the heart of what this passage is about, which is the individual attention that Jesus gives to each of us. I know the lives of the women in that jail were changed by that experience that weekend. Just as I know that my own life has been changed in moments when I have felt Jesus come up to me to say, “Tom, get out of your tree.”
I wonder: Did anyone see the sunset on Friday? I love an amazing sunset. Who doesn’t love an amazing sunset? On Friday night there was an amazing sunset and the sky in the west was aglow with pink and orange and red shining over the landscape that had leaves on the trees that were pink and orange and red. And it was one of those moments when you cannot doubt the presence of God. And I love that God who appears to us in the sunset, the God of creation, who made all this possible.
But what I really need most of the time is for Jesus to come to me, wherever I happen to be, and to say: Tom, hurry up and come down. I need to stay in your house.” It is that personal and immediate attention from God that Jesus gives Zacchaeus that I need too. Maybe you as well.
I remember as a child in elementary school the days when our teacher was absent and we would have a substitute. And even as a child I realized that there were two types of substitute teachers. The first type showed up in the morning and got to business. They went through the lesson plan and taught us and got us through the day. And these types of substitutes were fine, but they never really engaged with the children. They didn’t know who we were or look at what we were doing. They didn’t leave their desk. And this type of teacher was okay, but you were glad she wasn’t your teacher.
The second type of substitute was someone who showed up in the morning, and from the moment they showed up, they would engage with us. They would leave their desk and walk around the room, going up to each student to talk with them and say things like- Billy, you keep your desk so neat. Janice, your work looks great. Steven, you should check your math on that. And you could tell this substitute cared because they gave you attention like it mattered to them what you were doing and who you were. And that’s the kind of person you wanted to be your teacher.
Jesus today shows us God – but it is not the God of the majestic sunset or the God resting up there distant from us, but this is a God who deeply cares for us and who walks among us giving us attention. And this attention is like magic.
It is Jesus’s attention which blesses Zacchaeus today. If you notice, Jesus in this passage does not touch Zacchaeus or lay hands upon him or cast demons from him. His blessing today is to walk right up to Zacchaeus and talk to him with love, which is unlike anything Zacchaeus has ever had before.
How many people in that town of Jericho do you think resented Zacchaeus? He was a tax collector. He was a chief tax collector. He took their money and gave it to the Romans, who were the occupiers of the land. He took their money and kept some of for himself.
No shortage of people there resented Zacchaeus. But did that resentment change his life for the better? Did the anger people had toward him alter him in some way? Did Zacchaeus’s own feelings of guilt and shame or remorse, did they help him along?
It is Jesus who changes Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’s life changed because he hears about Jesus and he has to see for himself. And there in Jericho a crowd is gathered and Jesus walks among the crowd like the good substitute teacher. And he goes to the people interacting with them one by one, healing the sick, casting out demons, blessing people and doing all of these things.
And he comes to Zacchaeus and turns his attention to him. And in Jesus’s attention there’s no resentment, there’s no anger or guilt or shame, because these things don’t change people’s lives. Just like carrying our own burdens of guilt or shame doesn’t make us better people. It’s love, that’s what changes lives. Jesus brings Zacchaeus love.
And how does that love manifest itself? Not with flowers or hugs or words of praise. But through attention. Jesus gives Zacchaeus this amazing gift of his attention. He sees him, he loves him, he calls him down, he saves him. And he brings the power of God – not on the wide panorama of life and sunsets and the universe, but the focus of one soul who has gone up in a tree and who stands there before him in pain. He brings his attention, he calls him down, and he enters into his home, and into his life, where he will dwell forever.
It’s so simple. It’s powerful, and that’s how God is. But we have to be willing to pay attention ourselves.
Sometimes all we pay attention to are those same things Zacchaeus dealt with, the resentment, anger, guilt, bitterness, shame and so on. And we get used to life revolving around those things that we may not believe that anything else more exists. And in our tree we don’t hear Jesus calling, we just ignore him down there and reject his invitation as we try to climb to the higher branches.
This story of Zacchaeus shows us the power of attention, and the fact that it is not a small thing but a huge part in our lives. One way to think of this, since we are in stewardship season, is to remember that we are the stewards of where we focus our lives and energies and awareness.
We decide where our attention goes. We decide if we are going to spend the day angrily watching the news, and worrying about the world, and criticizing every thing our spouse or children or parents do. We decide if that’s going to be our day. Or instead, are we going to climb down from our tree to watch the sunset, and take some time to pray, or write some poetry, or send someone a message of love. We decide.
So many things call our attention in the course of a day, and it can be hard to know where to focus. I have a few suggestions.
First, let’s put our attention on things we can do to make the world better. Angrily watching Fox news or whatever you watch will not make the world better. Instead, what if we put our attention toward something we can do something about, like going to the website for the United Nations’ Development goals and doing one thing that they suggest.
I talked about this a couple weeks ago and I will keep talking about how the UN Development goals give us practical ways that experts have told us we can make a huge difference in protecting our planet. Pay attention to those things, like where does our plastic go? How much electricity do we waste? How much recycling do we do? This is worthy of our attention.
And a second thing worthy of our attention are other people, specifically the other people we interact with every day. Who is that person standing before you? When you are with them are you paying attention to what they say or are you just waiting for them to be quiet so you can speak? Are you present and showing them that you care? Or are you judging them in your head?
Something to try this week is to be especially present to people, and especially to those who are in need. As you interact with people, show them you care. Because people need that and you are giving them something beautiful, which is the gift of you. Just as Jesus did with Zacchaeus, you bless people by attending to them.
And this week, let’s also pay attention to Jesus. I do believe that there are times when Jesus suddenly bursts into our lives. But mainly I believe that Jesus is always in our lives, and that never a day passes when Jesus has not walked up to you or up to me to tell us to come down from our trees because he wants to come into our home. I think that happens every day in so many different ways that it’s easy to dismiss. So instead of putting effort into being angry or bitter or anxious or afraid, let’s recognize that below us right now, under our tree, God is there. In the form of Jesus Christ. So let’s pay attention to him.
Being a steward means acknowledging our responsibility to care for a thing. We are stewards of this church and these ministries and so we support them and we care for them. And we are stewards of our lives, and in particular that wonderful gift God has given us of seeing and knowing and attending to these things in the world. We get to choose what to focus on. So let’s choose well.