Based on Luke 19.1-10
Every neighborhood seems to have that house — that one house that’s just run down. You know the one.
The mismatched shades are always drawn. A shutter is missing from a window. The screen door is torn and hanging open. There are cracks in the sidewalk. The paint is badly peeling.
The house wasn’t always this way. Surely it was built straight, new and bright for an eager family looking to start a new and hopeful chapter in their life.
What went so wrong?
Why was the house neglected?
Surely, there are clues as to the love, the hope and the joy once experienced in that home.
I remember a home like this as a teenager.
The summer of my graduation from high school, my rock band rented a little garage in an alley where we would play until the sun went down.
That was the deal. We could play all day long, but the owner of the garage and the house just 20 or so yards from it laid down the rules: No music before sunup or after sundown.
The owner of the house was a woman named Mary.
Mary was a very lonely woman. Always dressed in a housecoat. Always unkempt. Hair generally disheveled.
Her house resembled her physical appearance: It was rundown. The lawn always knee-high and full of weeds. In every window hung thick drapes, venetian blinds or bed sheets.
The entire house — clapboards, door and window frames, railings, shutters … all of it — was painted one color: a drab, flat olive green.
There was no contrast whatsoever.
As for the bones of the house, it was beautiful. An old Victorian that sat among gorgeous rows of brightly painted homes with wonderful, lush yards, porch swings, “welcome” signs.
Mary’s house was the unfortunate anomaly.
And because of it, her neighbors had given up. They stopped noticing the huge drab-green home in the middle of the block.
Instead, they erected six-foot solid wooden fences that spanned entirety of their property’s borders.
One afternoon, there was a bad thunderstorm and the power went out in the neighborhood, and in our practice studio.
Mary appeared in the doorway of the garage with an umbrella and a flashlight.
She asked if we wanted to come inside the house to share a pizza that she just ordered.
Inside her home, there were several large rooms, typical of the period construction.
As we wandered about the house, looking at the numerous framed pictures on the wall, the furniture, the ornamental lights and chandeliers, it became clear that Mary did not live in the whole house.
It looked as if she mostly lived in the kitchen.
Because the amount of dust on the furniture — probably at least a quarter-inch thick on the dining room table — and the sheets draped over the furniture in the parlor, and all the area rugs showing years of dust as we walked across them.
And the cobwebs hanging everywhere.
So we sat in the kitchen, anxiously awaiting the pizza guy.
You see, the house was forgotten. It was abandoned, even though Mary lived inside of it.
I don’t recall if she had grown up here, if this was her childhood house. But I do remember that she had lived here with her brother.
There was evidence of him throughout the house.
He had lived here with Mary until he was killed in Viet Nam.
And from that day on, Mary lived alone.
And over time, Mary was forgotten.
And her house just sort of blended in with the nothingness that her life seemed to have become.
No one noticed it anymore.
Today, I’d like to talk about what it takes to restore that old house so that it’s no longer forgotten.
In our Gospel reading today of Luke 19.1-10, we visit a house with similar attributes.
But this house is owned by a Jew named Zacchaeus, Luke tells us.
It’s a house that Jesus needs to visit.
We learn from our reading that Zacchaeus is not only tax collector, but a “chief” tax collector.
To be a tax collector in Jesus’s day meant that you were despised and you most likely were a crook.
All of Israel was under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire, and as such, taxes were enforced by Caesar and collected by the very Jews who were being oppressed.
They simply caved in to the system rather than fighting against it.
And for a tax collector, well, they were hated because they would leverage that very position to steal from their country’s citizens.
They would skim off the top — they would steal.
And that/s how they would become rich, like Zacchaeus.
Now, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he’ll be crucified, and by now, large mobs surrounded Jesus wherever he went.
They’ve heard the stories of his great healing, his controversial teachings and his putting to shame Pharisees.
And there’s much discussion about his followers and the claim that Jesus is the Messiah…
So, Jesus is coming through Jericho — slightly northeast of Jerusalem — and, again, a large throng of people has gathered.
Zacchaeus, we learn, is “short in stature,” Verse 3, and he climbs a sycamore tree to get a better view.
I love this image. I imagine Jesus sort of laughing when he sees Zacchaeus up in a tree — it makes Zacchaeus really easy to find, doesn’t it?
And Jesus just says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I mist stay at your house today” (Verse 5).
Remember, Jesus has no home out on the road. He and the disciples stay with whomever will take them in.
And that was the code or the practice of the day - hospitality. This was common.
And Zacchaeus excitedly jumps down to welcome Jesus.
But the crowd? Well, their feathers got a bit ruffled.
Can you imagine this? It’s like that house on your block with all the code violations. But codes stopped writing tickets long ago. They’d just given up.
But then some city official, a dignitary, comes up to your block, stops at that house, and presents the owner of the run-down house a check for $50,000 because he or she is a good neighbor.
You ask, “What about my house?! Surely my house has been better kept, surely I have been a better neighbor!”
This is how the mob reacts.
First of all, remember what we said about tax collectors?
They were hated. And I don’t mean just casually ignored; they were hated with a capital H.
They were evil. They were against Jews. Traitors.
They were shunned. They had no friends — except maybe other tax collectors.
They abused and disregarded the law.
As far as being part of the Jewish community? No, they were forgotten. Cast aside. Disregarded. Hopeless. Lost.
They were not Jews anymore.
And what is a Jew? A son of Abraham.
The crowd grumbles, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Always being restored
Jesus is always doing this, isn't he?
Luke 5.32 tells us “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
And this is so important.
Look, for those of you here today who maybe wrestle in your hearts with whether Jesus is relevant in our world — even in your life — we need to remember this example.
Does it mean that if you are God-loving and fearing, have accepted Christ into your heart and confessed your sins to God that you won’t get any more attention?
No, not at all!
We are always in a state of transcendence, or transformation. Of restoration…
We are always, through Christ’s blood, becoming more!
Our work is never done until God calls us home!
And we have a responsibility to one another and to the world.
You know, Jesus could have gone to any of the homes owned by the people surrounding him on this day.
Never forget that we all are sinners. We’re all Zacchaeuses. We’re all Pharisees. We’re all in need of a Savior!
In this reading, it’s Zacchaeus’s day to open his heart to the Savior.
But listen closely: It’s not just to save Zacchaeus; it’s to save others, including every single grumbling person in that mob!
Zacchaeus is transformed right there ON THE SPOT!
Jesus doesn't say a word.
Zacchaeus does. The Spirit moves Zacchaeus and he says for the entire angry mob to hear, Verse 8:
“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.”
It’s unfortunate that we can’t read this passage in Greek. Because the whole verb tense of “will” doesn’t translate into English very well.
Zacchaeus isn’t speaking in future tense. He’s not really saying “I WILL give back; he’s saying “I give back. It’s present and almost past tense.
In other words, it’s already done. Zacchaeus’s heart already has been transformed. He’s saved — NOT BY WHAT HE WILL DO (HIS ACTS) but by the transformation he has experienced knowing and accepting Christ.
He’s fully restored by Christ.
Now, back to the angry mob. How do they benefit?
First, Zacchaeus is going to take half of his fortune and give it to the needy.
I’m positive there are a whole lot of poor people who have gathered around Jesus who could use a few drachma.
Second, all those people he’s ripped off? He’s going to give that money back — fourfold!
Again, those people who have had to pay their taxes to Zacchaeus, they’re getting a refund, big time.
Third, and most importantly, Zacchaeus is going to be restored to them, to the Jews.
This is why Jesus, in Verse 9, tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”
To be a son of Abraham is to be a Jew!
See, this isn't a one-time stimulus plan; this is a life that has been changed, transformed in Christ to do good and to do well by others.
It’s being able to trust in community. In the Jewish community, which, as we mentioned, was being persecuted.
Jesus brings Zacchaeus back into the fold, back into community.
The whole message of Luke — Luke’s Gospel — is seeking and saving the lost!
But I want you to see that saving the lost isn’t just for the person who was lost but now is found; it’s for the betterment of all!
This old house
Do we take pride in our neighborhoods?
Do we take care of our own houses, keeping them safe, well-lit and inviting?
Yeah, I sure hope that we do.
And like our houses, we need to maintain these same qualities in ourselves.
Are we safe and inviting to others who see us? Or are we bristly, closed off and bitter from years of neglect?
I don’t believe there is a soul in this house today who has shown me anything but hospitality, but we all have our restoration projects, amen?
Where are we in the story of the tax collector?
Are we like Zacchaeus, isolated and given up?
Or are we like the crowd, angry at the partially Jesus shows toward a sinner. Don’t WE deserve Jesus’s prime attention?
I think I’ve been both of those characters, if I’m being honest with myself.
Zacchaeus and the crowd has to come to that realization, too.
And when they do, they all share in the transformation, the restoration.
And like that old house that received the big city check — when that house is restored, it will create a better neighborhood. Not only will it be beautiful, but it will raise the property values of the entire block. It will continue to produce good things.
But there’s a little more here.
We see the individual transformation of Zacchaeus.
And we see the ripple effect in the community of the transformation.
So we need to ask ourselves, what does it take to transform the Zacchaeuses of our world today back into the community?
Or, to continue our metaphor, what does it take to restore that old, rundown and forgotten house in our neighborhoods?
It takes Jesus, doesn’t it?
Well, where is Jesus today?
Do you see him here in this church?
Point him out to me, if you do!
(Point to random people in the congregation.)
That’s right. Jesus is in us, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The very mob that angrily surrounds Zacchaeus is now Christ.
Do you see what a paradox, what hypocrisy it is to say Christ dwells within us all yet to act in a way that shows anything but?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3.25.)
Jesus helps the angry mob recognize this about themselves.
And he’s telling us the same message today. To all of us sitting right here in this moment today.
So what do we do with Mary’s house?
What do we do with the forgotten neighbor?
Do we simply build a higher fence to forget about her?
That’s not what Jesus calls us to do.
It’s definitely not anything remotely close to what we’ve been learning and what Luke has been teaching in these Gospel passages.
It’s been nothing but bringing lost people back to the fold. Lost and found.
I’d say it’s time to take down those fences.
Bake those cookies and make the short walk down the block or next door to ring that doorbell.
Offer to help with the yard work or just sit on that old porch sharing stories over a cup of coffee.
I want you to think of someone who maybe was a part of your neighborhood, of your community.
Someone who was once in your life but is not anymore, or someone who is on the fringe.
Maybe it’s someone who used to attend this church and who was a part of this family, this body.
Maybe it was a disagreement. Maybe there were harsh words. Maybe there were actions that crossed a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Zacchaeus stole from his brothers and sisters. He profited from their poverty.
Jesus brought Zacchaeus back into the community to be given back his identity as a child of God. Transformed. Restored.
Who in your life could use that kind of hospitality, that kind of acceptance?
That’s what restoration is.
It doesn’t just benefit the person who has been forgotten; it benefits the entire community.
I don’t know what happened to Mary.
But the last time I was in my hometown, I went by her house.
I had to look closely; it had been many years, and I couldn’t recognize it.
But eventually, I did.
It wasn’t olive green anymore. Instead, it was brightly colored, the lawn had been mowed, the windows bright and open.
It was welcoming, it was warm.
I don’t believe Mary lives there anymore, but I like to think that part of her always will.
A Mary who had been remembered.
A Mary who had been loved.
A Mary who had been welcomed back.
A Mary who has been restored.
That’s what Jesus can do.
That’s what love can do.