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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Son of Man Saves Son of Abraham - 10/30/2016

We were talking this week in bible study about how when the bible is translated from its language of origin into a language we read and speak, choices are made that affect the way we understand these stories. We talked about how the very act of translating the bible is actually an interpretation of these holy scriptures because one must make these choices – what word to use for instance, or whether to use past, present or future tenses. This has caused a little distress in our Wednesday gathering, I have to admit. It's not easy to wrestle with the fact that the book we consider to be the Holy Word of God has that much of a human fingerprint on it.

But it does. It is part of why in our Lutheran tradition, we typically say that we believe the bible to be the inspired Word of God, brought into the form we have today at the hands of humans. So it is a collection of books that seeks to reveal to us the nature of our relationship with God.

These translations over the centuries are mostly born of very good and humble intentions, but they are human efforts just the same. And so with that can come one person's interpretation of God's word that is perhaps different from the way someone else would interpret it, and that difference can potentially change the way we understand the story.

The good news is that the essence of the message is what rises to the surface, no matter the story teller, no matter the translator. Overall, the bible shows us a God who wants to be close to us, who forgives us our trespasses endlessly, who never breaks the covenant no matter how many times we do. And the Gospels are, very particularly, accounts of the life, the teachings, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, our Redeemer.

So I'll say it again: The good news is that the essence of the message is what rises to the surface.

Today we actually have a story that illustrates this quite well. It is the familiar story of Zacchaeus.

There's a lot going on here in this little story. It  picks up on the story just before it about the the blind beggar who Jesus encounters on his way to Jerusalem just as he's entering Jericho. This man could hear that something unusual was going on, but he could not see it, so he asks and finds out it is Jesus. And when the crowd hears the him yelling “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” they try to hush him up. But it didn't stop him. He yelled out until Jesus heard him and restored his sight.

And then when Jesus gets into Jericho, we encounter another man who cannot see him, this time it's because there's a huge crowd in the way. He is apparently a man short in stature and the crowd does not let him squeeze into the front line of people who have spread themselves up and down both sides of the street where Jesus and his entourage are passing by.

Jesus is almost all the way to Jerusalem now and he has attracted a lot of attention as he traveled through these towns. His teachings in the synagogues and local gathering places have started a buzz throughout the region. People everywhere are talking -- "have you heard how he heals lepers and cast out demons!" They ask one another. "He doesn't even charge a fee and he does everything with such confidence and authority," they might have added. It's no wonder reports of Jesus were spreading like wildfire.

So when he comes to Jericho, it shouldn't surprise us that Zacchaeus and a whole lot of other people are out in throngs to get a look at his face. We can imagine them wondering to themselves or out loud that surely you must be able to tell by just looking at the face of this man that there is something special about him – surely you can somehow perceive the wisdom and the compassion and the power of this great teacher and healer just by looking at him.

But just like the blind beggar, Zacchaeus cannot see Jesus, and just like the blind beggar, he doesn't give up either. He runs up ahead of the crowd, toward the side of town that leads out to Jerusalem. He climbs up into the branches of a sycamore tree. There he would find the perfect place to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd that had so insistently pushed him out of the way. Zacchaeus is determined. He must see the face of this man.

When Jesus comes by, Zacchaeus is not only in perfect position to see his face, but sitting in the lowest branches of this tree, he's even close enough to talk to him. And that's precisely what happens. Jesus looks up as he passes that tree and he does speak to Zacchaeus. Can you imagine? Out of all these people, Jesus speaks to him.

Apparently Jesus knew of Zacchaeus too because he calls him from the tree by name. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."

Zacchaeus hurries down, obviously filled with joy to not only see Jesus, but to be seen by him, to be addressed by name, to be named his official Jericho host. This is a great and unexpected honor.

And suddenly Zacchaeus' happiness sits in strong contrast to the people who had been blocking his view. They are no longer people gathered in their contagious excitement to get a peak at Jesus' face. They hear Jesus speak to Zaccheaus and they begin to grumble in disapproval. “He has gone to be a guest of one who is a sinner.”  (19.7)

As if defending himself against the grumbling judgment of the crowd, Zacchaeus stops in his tracks and addresses Jesus for the first time. He is a despised taxman, he knows that. Worse than that, he's a chief tax collector and has become very rich thanks to all the taxes collected by the men who work for him.

And that is when we get to the part of this story where there is a translation choice that can make a difference in how we understand what is happening here.

Because of the way we hear it today in our translation, this feels like a story about Zacchaeus' conversion. “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” (19:8) The way the story is worded, it probably leads one to conclude that this is the moment Zacchaeus began to follow Jesus … that because he sought out a way to see Jesus' face and then was chosen by Jesus to host him in Jericho … that because of that encounter with Jesus,  Zacchaeus saw the power and truth of what the good Rabbi was teaching and changed his ways.

It's not far-fetched.

We've seen this happen before, in the beginning of Luke when Jesus called the tax collector Levi to follow him … literally pulled him right out of his tax collection booth to join him … “And he got up , left everything, and followed him.” (5:28)

These conversion stories are an important part of the biblical tradition we've inherited. They give us hope that God is still at work today on those of us who need conversion in our lives right now. It keeps us connected to our truth that God hears our prayers and works to answer them in ways known and unknown.

But ... this verse can also be translated in this way: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”

aaaah … that translation makes this a different kind of story. No longer is this a story about the conversion of Zacchaeus, but a story about an outsider who is leading a more faithful life than the insiders – the people in the crowd who grumble and work to keep people like Zacchaeus from getting an up close look at the holy face of Jesus.               

This is not far-fetched either. We've already seen Jesus hold tax collectors up as example of faithful outsiders who we can learn from ... we can learn from Levi the tax collector who left everything behind to follow Jesus. We learned the importance of being humble and truly repentant in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector standing before God in the temple. It's not a huge stretch of the imagination to think about this story of Zacchaeus in that same light -- someone whose work puts him firmly in the realm of the outsider, the sinner -- but who in reality is doing more for the poor and more for justice than many of grumbling members of the crowd.

But, I'll say it yet again, the good news is that the essence of the message remains the same.

Whether we see this is as a hope-full conversion story or a perspective-changing witness story, the consistent message this story tells us comes through loud and clear. God loves us so much that God came to live among us a Jesus Christ ...

Who lived the life of a human being and experienced all the joy and heartache that comes with that.

Who taught us to love God and one another fiercely.

Who gathers us around a simple table of bread and wine where we remember time and time again that "though (our) sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool." (Isaiah 1: 18b)

Who died on a cross for the sake of our saint and sinner natures and rose from the dead in a triumphal proclamation that no evil has been, is or will be strong enough to come between us and our view of Jesus' shining and holy face. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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