I can’t remember if I have shared this here before, but it is only fair that you all know that I am a Sunday School drop-out. I think I did maybe two or three years of Sunday School total. I didn’t start attending a church at all until I was 10 years old. And, while my church had a robust Sunday School program, the kids in my age class were quite rowdy. An example: in a span of just a few months one of my classmates used super glue to glue his hand to a block of wood and two students knocked over a pew in the sanctuary. Needless to say, our class went through teachers at an alarming rate. In fact, at one point an FBI agent, who was a member of the church, was asked to take over as teacher in an attempt to keep order.
I was quiet, shy, and determined to not draw attention to myself – so, being in a class like that was not at all useful. Very quickly I sat down with my minister and asked if I could be permanently excused from Sunday School. She agreed it was for the best and I stayed with my mother in worship from then on. I tell you all of this because the fact that I know today’s lesson about Zacchaeus is a very popular Sunday School lesson, underscores just how popular it is for children. If I, a Sunday School drop-out, know the song that goes with this scripture: ‘Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” then I feel safe in making the assumption that many of you encountered this scripture if you were a part of a church as a child. Perhaps you had a felt board, with a big tree and a little man – and you watched your teacher help Zacchaeus climb that tree. Or maybe you were the teacher with a felt board and a song.
The thing about scripture stories that are popular for Sunday School, is that we often only think about them in the way we were taught as children. It is necessary that those lessons be simple, that the nuances of the scripture not be overly drawn out. The trouble is, there are so many nuances in this scripture. There are so many things to think about, not just that, inexplicably, Luke feels the need to point out that Zacchaeus was short. I want to draw your attention to one of those nuances.
I picked this particular nuance because I know Cullen wants me to. I had picked this scripture for the Bible study group to consider last week. I picked it without having looked ahead at the lectionary, so I didn’t realize I would also be preaching on it. In discussing this story, something stuck out: in verse 9 Jesus says of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” I hadn’t noticed that before, so when I was asked in Bible study what exactly “Son of Abraham” meant, I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. To refer to someone as a son or daughter of Abraham, because Jesus does both throughout the Gospels, is to remind someone that they too are a part of the religious and cultural inner circle. That they too, no matter what has happened in their lives, or the poor decisions they had made, were still a part of the community, that they were still, in this case, Jews who were doing their best to follow the religious laws prescribed to them. When Jesus heals a woman who was bent over for 18 years in Luke 13 on the Sabbath, and was derided by the religious leaders for breaking a religious law about not doing work on the Sabbath, Jesus rebukes them by saying that she too is a daughter of Abraham, and is therefore deserving of healing – no matter what day of the week it was. So, was the woman healed because she was a daughter of Abraham, a Jew – and did salvation come to the home of Zacchaeus because he was a son of Abraham, a Jew?
Well, that doesn’t jive with the rest of the gospel. Jesus didn’t bring healing and the message of God’s good news just to his fellow Jews. No, he didn’t let social or religious boundaries get in the way of his ministry. He reached out to everyone, no matter who they were. He healed everyone, Jewish, Samaritan, Gentile. He preached the Good News of God’s grace and mercy to everyone. So, what does it mean then that he calls some the Son or Daughter of Abraham?
It turns out that John the Baptist has the answer for this nuance in the story of Zacchaeus. Remember, John the Baptist was a teacher for Jesus. John prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. They were cousins, close in age, and probably very close personally. So, when John taught in Luke 3:8 to the crowds “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham,” he is teaching that Abraham’s true children are not merely physical descendants, but those who follow Abraham’s faith, believing in God’s Word the way he did. What that means is, that to trust one’s physical ancestry as the only means of receiving God’s grace is actually just a temptation to shift focus away from God. In other words, it is to say I am beloved by God because of where I come from, because of who my parents were. That God prefers me over others because I happen to be from the right family. Instead, John taught, and Jesus reinforced, that to be a child of Abraham was to actively work at having deep and true faith in God, trusting in God’s Word, and always trying to live actively in that faith. Doing the work, not just resting on our laurels. So, Zacchaeus, someone who worked hard at seeing and hearing Jesus, who repented of his ways and promised to give back what he had taken illegally, promising that he will actively follow the teachings of his faith – that is what made him a son of Abraham. It has nothing to do with where he came from or who his family was.
Jesus ministry and teachings were not just for certain people – people with the right connections, the right religion, the right skin color, the right gender, the right anything. Jesus ministry and teachings are for everyone. And, when we are able to live deeply into our faith then we too are children of Abraham. Children of grace and mercy. Children of God’s love. To live deeply into our faith does not mean that we have everything figured out. It does not mean that we are perfect in our faith, whatever that means. To live deeply into our faith means that we are willing to keep learning, to keep exploring who God is and how we understand ourselves as created in God’s image. It means that we strive to recognize then we have strayed from what God wants and hopes for our lives, and correct ourselves along the way. It means to look at the people sitting across from us and see that they too are God’s beloved. It means to recognize when our prejudices get in the way and try again and again to leave them behind. It means to lean into God’s love and presence in our lives – in times of great joy and times of great sorrow.
Zacchaeus may have been a wee little man, but he had a stout and hearty faith. He went out of his way to see and hear Jesus’ message for his life. And he listened to that Good News, took it in, and made it real in his life. And Jesus declared him a son of Abraham.
In a few minutes we will gather around the Communion Table to remember that Jesus wants us to see and hear his message for our lives. We will remember the extraordinary journey he took to bring us that message and sacrifices he endured. And we will share in a sacred meal with people around the world – because, as we have learned, it doesn’t matter who we are or where we are along life’s journey, we are welcomed here and at this table. Our host, Jesus Christ, is eager to share in the abundance of God’s love. Because, we too, are children of Abraham. Amen.