What We Don’t Know

November 3, 2013   Luke 19: 1-10

Rev. Catherine Purves


     On Wednesday of this week I went with Barb and Jack Gusew to a meeting of the West Branch of our Presbytery.  These Branch meetings are not for the usual business of the Presbytery.  They are times when the elders and the clergy in the western part of the Presbytery can gather for worship and fellowship, we have dinner together, and we usually have a speaker.  This past Wednesday, we celebrated Holy Communion and the preacher was Jannie Swart, the new professor of mission and evangelism at Pittsburgh Seminary.  Jannie told us a story about the congregation he used to serve in Oil City that I’d like to share with you.

     This congregation was trying to get to know the people in their community who did not attend any church.  So they opened up a coffee shop, and the members of the church waited on the tables with strict instructions that all they were supposed to do was listen to what the customers were saying to them.  They figured that there was a lot that they didn’t know about their unchurched neighbors, and the only way to find out about that was to listen, not to ask questions or to poke or prod them, but just to listen.

     One day a man came into the coffee shop wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey.  He kind of stood out among all the diehard Steelers fans of Oil City.  The church member who was waiting on him couldn’t seem to help himself.  He wanted to know why on earth this stranger would be wearing that shirt, so he kept going back and filling his coffee cup in order to start up a conversation.  But the customer didn’t seem to want to talk and kept putting him off.  Other people in the coffee shop were also giving the man in the Cleveland Browns jersey funny looks.  Finally, the waiter came right out and asked him why he was wearing that jersey.  The man finally looked up and said, “My brother gave me this jersey.  He committed suicide two weeks ago by jumping off a bridge.” 

     Who could have known that?  There is a lot that you probably don’t know about the person sitting next to you – even if that person is a family member or a close friend.  It turned out that the church member who was waiting on the man in the Cleveland Browns jersey had also lost a family member to suicide several years before.  No one knew.  So they started talking about that, and found that they had more in common than they could ever have imagined.  Jannie told us that they are now good friends.  These are the kinds of things that we don’t know about one another, and that we can’t know about one another unless we are ready to listen.

     Our Bible story for today about Zacchaeus is a familiar one.  Most of us probably think that we know all about Zacchaeus, or enough, at least, to tell his story.  But there is a lot that we don’t know.  We do know that he was short.  We know that he was a tax collector, in fact, a chief tax collector.  That means that he was universally hated by his neighbors.  What else did they, or do we, need to know?  Like the man in the Cleveland Browns jersey, that said it all, or did it?  We don’t know why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus.  So we don’t really know why he climbed that tree.  Had he heard of Jesus?  Was he hoping that Jesus would be the Messiah?  Was he ready for a change of life?  We don’t even know if Zacchaeus thought of himself as a religious man.  Maybe he was just curious about who was causing such excitement in Jericho that afternoon?  Did he already feel guilty about what he had done?  And what had he done?  He was rich, but we really don’t know how ruthless he had been in carrying out his duties as a tax collector.  There is a lot that we just don’t know, and that no one probably knew, because they wouldn’t stop and listen to a hated tax collector, a sinner.

     Here is the amazing thing about this story.  Jesus did stop and listen.  He called out to Zacchaeus up there in the tree.  He called him by name.  And he blessed him by saying that he wanted to spend time with him; he was going to stay in his house.  Would you ever darken the door of a Cleveland Browns fan, or even strike up a conversation with one in Starbucks?  I didn’t think so.  But Jesus reached out to the person that everyone else hated.  Everyone else had placed Zacchaeus in a box labeled “tax collector” and everyone else thought that was all they needed to know about him.  They had him pegged as something worse than a Cleveland Browns fan.  What else did they need to know?  But Jesus knew that more was possible.  He knew that Zacchaeus was more than just the tax collector.

     Now we see in our story what appears to be an amazing transformation; we might even call it a conversion.  Zacchaeus stands up and declares that he is going to sell half of all that he owns and give the proceeds to the poor.  That is an unbelievable thing for a rich man, or for any man, to say.  When was the last time you said it?  Then he pledged that he would pay back anyone he had cheated.  This restitution was required by the law, but Zacchaeus was going to give back four times as much as he had taken.  He was not just fulfilling the legal requirements.  He was showing exorbitant, extravagant grace and goodwill to the people he had hurt.  Who would have thought, who could have known that a tax collector would ever have such a change of heart?  Jesus knew.

     Of course, there is more that we don’t know about this story.  We don’t know how or when Zacchaeus did what he promised to do.  We don’t know if he continued to be a tax collector, but an honest one.  We don’t know if he followed Jesus to Jerusalem, or if he was in the Palm Sunday crowd, or if he watched Jesus die, or if he came to know Jesus as the resurrected Lord.  We don’t know how Zacchaeus continued to grow and change through the rest of his life.  What we do know is what Jesus said about him:  “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”  So, we know that Zacchaeus was given a new future.  Exactly what that future would look like, well, that we do not know.

     There is a lot that we don’t know about the people we see in our community, our neighbors, members of our family, even those closest to us.  What’s going on in the life of that Cleveland Browns fan, or that single mother, or that guy who lost his job, or that person sitting on the ledge outside New Horizons, or that homeless veteran, or that lost-looking child, or that lonely widow?  We don’t know.  We won’t know, unless we stop and listen.  Stop and listen and bless the stranger, the sinner, the way Jesus did.

     Now, I suppose I’d better warn you.  Whenever Jesus did that, there was always grumbling.  People didn’t understand what he was doing when he reached out to people like Zacchaeus.  Everyone else had written him off.  No one else wanted to have anything to do with Zacchaeus, let alone listen to his story or consider that he could change.  There was grumbling and gossiping.  People questioned Jesus’ motives and his ministry among the poor, the wayward, the untouchables, the undeniable sinners – What was he doing with that riffraff?  What did he know that everyone else didn’t know?

     Jesus knew that he came to seek out and to save the lost.  And he knew that he had the power to save them, to change their lives.  That was his mission and his ministry.  He came for the Cleveland Browns fan whose brother committed suicide.  He came for Zacchaeus.  He came for sinners like you and like me who harbor a whole lot of guilt and regret and shame that is known to no one else.  He came to us, because we’re the ones who need him.  We need him to listen to our stories.  We need him to know us through and through and then to announce with absolute conviction, “Today salvation has come to this house.” 

     That’s what he wants to do for each and every one of us, and for all of those who live and suffer outside these walls.  Those are the people we need to listen to, just listen to their stories.  We will find that there is a lot that we don’t know about those people, people like the single moms we hope to welcome here on November 14th for a meal and for some conversation.  As we listen to their stories, we will be reminded that Jesus came for them as well as for us.  This is what we do know:  it is the story of Jesus that has the power to change our stories.  It is the presence of Jesus as he shakes our tree and tells us to come down and to share our lives with him – that’s what changes everything.  Salvation has come.  A new life has begun.  For Zacchaeus, for us, and for all those whose stories we have yet to hear.