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Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost — October 30, 2022

Stephanie Sorge reflects on All Saints Day, Zacchaeus, and God's grace.

Pentecost 21C
Luke 19:1-10

Every year around All Saints Day, as a pastor, I can’t help but think about the many saints of the church whose lives I’ve had the honor of celebrating in services of witness to the resurrection — saints like Mary Louise Fisher.

Mary Louise was such a deeply spiritual, loving, dear soul who managed to be both Mary and Martha. She might go from worship to washing dishes after a potluck, from scooping dog poop in the churchyard to organizing the church library (after washing hands, of course!), from protesting a proposed oil pipeline to studying Cynthia Bourgeault’s latest book, all in the same week.

All Saints Day notwithstanding, it’s the story of Zacchaeus that brings Mary Louise to mind. I often find myself wondering if it is possible to be a wealthy and faithful follower of Jesus. When I start to get especially cynical, I think of Mary Louise. She didn’t want for financial resources, but she was far from ostentatious. She gave quietly but generously to people, to the church and to other important causes. She was a faithful steward of her time, energy and resources. One bequest she left to the church, earmarked for creation care, inspired a matching bequest from another saint of the church, Nancy Caperton.

Of course, it’s easy to affirm the faithfulness of saints like Mary Louise and Nancy. They follow in the footsteps of Lydia (Acts 16), and other individuals who provided extensive financial support for the early church. Most of us can name several saints – wealthy, comfortable, or simply frugal – whose faithful stewardship has enabled the ministry of the church in the past, through the present and perhaps into the future.

Then there’s Zacchaeus. Like other tax collectors in his day, he was filthy rich, and his riches came from the exploitation of his fellow Jews. Tax collectors were in bed with the Romans, the oppressors, the enemy. They were complicit in this oppression and exploitation. Could they even be considered members of the community?

Jesus talks more about money than just about anything else in the Gospels, and in Luke’s Gospel, especially. Jesus pulls no punches in condemning unchecked greed, economic injustice, and exploitative practices. His first sermon quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … he has sent me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Good news to the poor, not the rich! Liberation for the oppressed, not the oppressors!

And yet, Jesus seems to have a soft spot for tax collectors. In Luke 3, they are specifically named as coming out to be baptized, showing signs of repentance. He calls Levi, a tax collector, to be one of his chosen disciples. In Luke 7, tax collectors are singled out as ones who acknowledge the justice of God. It becomes one of the chief complaints against Jesus: he eats with sinners and tax collectors.

Tax collectors were sinners of such a sort that they couldn’t even be lumped in with other sinners. Sinners and tax collectors — that’s the way the crowds who Jesus hangs out with are frequently described. If Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, what on earth is he doing spending all this time with tax collectors, of all people? And Zacchaeus, chief among them?

Surely the wealthy also need Jesus, and if the result of Jesus’s visit is a partial redistribution of wealth, maybe Jesus should make a few more mansion or yacht visits today. A lot of good could be done with such reparations. Maybe the reparations Zacchaeus paid saved lives, kept bellies full and brought dignity to the poorest and least. The tithes and offerings of the saints of the church have surely done that, and more.

But that’s not all. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Zacchaeus and his household were restored into the community because of this encounter. This opened a path to healing and reconciliation, not only for Zacchaeus but within the very community that Zacchaeus had hurt.

As we consider those who have died, we know that not all who have departed are so easily beatified. The church triumphant includes tax collectors and sinners. It includes people lauded in the community but feared in their homes. It includes those who despoiled God’s creation and trampled the most vulnerable. And these, too, are beloved children of God. If we don’t find ourselves scandalized by the depth and breadth of God’s grace, perhaps we’re underestimating it.

God’s will is restoration and reconciliation for all creation. God knows us well enough to know that there are some bridges we won’t cross. So Jesus calls to Zacchaeus. And he eats with sinners and tax collectors. God’s grace, whether we like it or not, restores us to community together. Thanks be to God.

Questions for reflection:

  1. As we approach All Saints Day, spend some time remembering and naming the saints of the church that you have known. How is the church, and the witness of Christ, strengthened today because of the faithful stewardship of saints from the past?
  2. Churches, like many other institutions, have started to reckon with the ways in which they have accumulated wealth, directly or indirectly, from the exploitation of others or destruction of the environment. Has your congregation considered ways it has benefitted financially from injustice? From plundered resources? What paths towards healing, reconciliation, and reparations, such as those Zacchaeus took, might be possible for the church?
  3. What are your own thoughts and feelings regarding wealth and Christian discipleship? Are there ways you can see your personal wealth or privilege hindering your ability or willingness to follow God’s call?

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