Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 6th July 2014 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Luke 18:31-19:10

When I was little, I was rather puzzled in Sunday School and in scripture lessons at school, when we came across Bible references to ‘publicans and sinners’ (the exact phrase comes in Luke 15:1 – KJV). I know that modern Bibles translate ‘publican’ as ‘tax gatherer’ or ‘tax collector’, but in the Authorised Version, which is the one I grew up with, they are called ‘publicans’.

Maybe it was my Methodist upbringing, but for a long time I thought that the Bible had it in for pub landlords – presumably, because they allowed the dreaded alcohol to be taken on their premises.

In time I learned the correct meaning. ‘Publican’ comes from publicanus in Latin: somebody who looks after publicum, the public, or state, revenue.

But I was still to some extent puzzled, why tax collectors should be singled out as being automatically, by their very nature, sinful. ‘. when the Pharisees saw it, [they asked], “Why does your master eat with publicans and sinners?” Matt.9:11, KJV.

And here is the same thing, in the context of Jesus eating with Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus the superintendent of tax gatherers. However much one may hate paying tax, it does seem extreme to equate being a tax gatherer with being a sinner, just because of what you do for a living.

Even the people who were tax gatherers, publicans, acknowledged the fact that they were sinners. Think of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, both saying their prayers. The Pharisee prayed, ‘God I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican …’ The publican would only say, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:11,13, KJV).

It’s not obvious what the sin involved in being a tax gatherer was. It doesn’t seem to contravene any of the Ten Commandments. The Romans had privatised the business of tax collection in what we would recognise as a rather modern way. Publicans had to bid for franchises, the right to collect taxes in a particular place. They weren’t paid a salary. So long as they paid over to the Roman governor the amount assessed for their district, whatever they made on top, they could keep.

That made them uniquely reprehensible to their fellow Jews. I don’t think we would feel very warmly towards tax inspectors if they’d been privatised. Imagine – you might have a special division of Wonga, or nPower, collecting your tax. Instead of the tax office simply collecting what the government had decreed should be your tax liability, the Wonga Tax Division would charge a steep uplift on top of the basic tax price. Because they had negotiated an exclusive franchise for collection of tax in Stoke D’Abernon, say, there would be nothing you could do about it. You would have to stand idly by while these people made huge profits out of something which you might well think ought to be a government function.

So they were hated; so much so, that just being a publican, being a tax collector, was equated with being bad, with being sinful. Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard that when Jesus met Matthew, he had enjoyed a meal which had been attended by a lot of tax-gatherers. So Zacchaeus might have inferred that Jesus wasn’t automatically opposed to tax gatherers (see Matt. 9:10-11).

In a way, you might think it was a bit strange that Zacchaeus, being a top tax man and rich, would cast aside his dignity, run ahead of the crowd and climb up into a tree. Of course some people do clamber up into inaccessible places in order to get a better view of some VIP coming by. I wonder whether we’ll see people climbing into trees to get a better view of Sophie, Countess of Wessex, when she comes to open the Riverhill beautification on Wednesday afternoon.

Somehow I have a feeling that, although there will be plenty of rich people there, I don’t think they’ll be climbing up into trees. But Zacchaeus did – and Jesus spotted him in the sycamore tree. ‘Be quick and come down; I must come and stay with you today.’ (Luke 19:5). Said Jesus, ‘Because it’s imperative that I come and stay with you. [My literal translation].’ Not, ‘Would it be all right if I came and stayed with you?’ It’s an imperative; it’s necessary [δει] that I come and stay with you.

And Zacchaeus came down, and made Jesus welcome at his house. ‘He received him joyfully’, it says. But everyone who saw it ‘began to grumble’. There’s a wonderful onomatopoeic Greek word in the original here, διεγογγυζον [‘diegonguzon’]: what a wonderfully grumbly word it is! ‘διεγογγυζον’ – they muttered, they murmured, among themselves.

What they muttered was, ‘He has gone to stay with a man who is a sinner: a publican, a tax-gatherer.’ Then the story cuts to Zacchaeus’ house, because we hear – almost as though Zacchaeus knows what they are saying – that he reacts to it by doing good. The modern translation [NRSV] says he said, ‘Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor… and if I have defrauded anyone .. I will pay back four times as much.

The Greek doesn’t say that. The Greek says, ‘I am giving [διδωμι] half my money to the poor … and I am repaying four-fold’ [αποδιδωμι τετραπλουν].

I think that’s quite important. There isn’t any conditionality to it: no if something-or-other, then I will do something. He’s saying, ‘I am doing it.’ If it was, ‘I will do it, I will give half my money to the poor, and if I have ripped anybody off I will give them back four times what they gave me’, then it would look like a sort of a bargain. Look, Jesus: if I give half my money to the poor or if I give compensation for all the exploitation I’ve done, will you let me into the Kingdom of Heaven? Will you forgive me my sins?

But that’s not what he says. Jesus has already said he wants to come and stay with him. Indeed, he must stay with him, he says; and Zacchaeus has received him gladly. So it’s not a question that Zacchaeus needs to do things, in order for Jesus to want to come to him, to be at home with him. That has already happened.

It’s more a question of how Zacchaeus reacts to Jesus being at home with him. Having Jesus in the house makes Zacchaeus want to be generous and to right the wrongs which he has done.

So this is a parable, a piece of Jesus’ teaching, not just a nice story of a little chap in a sycamore tree. If you compare Zacchaeus with the blind man, whose faith has made him whole, just earlier in the story, Zacchaeus is much more tentative. He’s not specially faithful. He’s just curious – which is why he climbs up in the tree for a better look. But he didn’t make any protestations of faith. He simply made Jesus welcome.

It’s a lesson which still holds good today. If we are open to the good news of Jesus – if we always ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ – then we will want to follow Him. We will want to go the extra mile, to make generous charitable gifts, to face up to things we’ve done wrong, and do more than we have to, to put them right. And it doesn’t matter if we aren’t especially good people. Indeed, we could be really bad people – but Jesus will still want to come and stay. Publicans and sinners. Could one of them be one of us?