Taxes… and Death

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In today’s reading, we get three snippets… three little episodes.

It starts with Jesus telling his disciples something that they do not understand. It starts with Jesus telling the disciples something that they cannot understand. It starts with Jesus telling the disciples that they are heading to Jerusalem… and that bad things are going to happen.

And on their way to Jerusalem, they pass through Jericho. 

There is this blind man. He’s heard of this Jesus—this teacher, this healer, this prophet—word has gotten around. And when he hears that Jesus is coming to Jericho, when he hears that Jesus is passing by, he calls out. 

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

And there’s nothing wrong with being blind. But this man does not want to be blind. And Christ is merciful, so Christ has mercy. And the man’s sight is restored. 

And in Jericho… there is a tax collector. And not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. And he is rich. And people do not like him. 

Taxes in the Roman Empire—taxes out here in the provinces—were… complicated. 

You see, the Empire didn’t know where everyone lived, or where they worked, or what they made. It would have been difficult-at-best to have everyone submit a tax return, and have someone in Rome check them and double check them, and make sure everything was right. 

So instead of the overly-complicated-kind-of-nonsense system that we have, they had a different overly-complicated-kind-of-nonsense system: they would auction off the right to collect taxes in a village or a city or a region to tax collector. And now it was the tax collector’s responsibility to do the math and collect the money.

And here’s where the tricky bit comes in. The tax collector only had to pay the bid. So if he could bid high enough to get the contract… and low enough that they would collect more in taxes later… they got to keep the difference. And that means that tax collectors could make a lot of money. Even if they were honest. And not all of them were.

So in Jericho… there is a tax collector. And not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. And he is rich. And he’s a little tricky, and a little lazy, and he is definitely the agent of an occupying empire, and no one wants to pay taxes, anyway. So no one—except, maybe, some people in Rome who count the money that comes in from the provinces—likes him.

But Jesus is passing through Jericho. And this tax collector wants to see who this Jesus—this teacher, this healer, this prophet—is. So he goes downtown, and he climbs a tree, and he gets a good view. And as he settles into his spot in a tree, he sees exactly who this Jesus is.

You see, while the blind man called out—“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”—the tax collector is not here looking for mercy. So Jesus calls him… by name… “Zacchaeus! Come down from there. We’re going to your house!”

And I don’t know what’s going through Zacchaeus’s head. But I’m pretty sure he’s doing the math. Because he is rich. And he has gotten rich off the backs of the people of Jericho… by collecting taxes, and taking his cut, and paying Rome.

And, to be honest, he might be a little bit richer than he should be. Even doing that. And an audit by this teacher, this healer, this prophet, is going to be… risky.

But Jesus has called him by name and now they’re walking to his house. And the people around him are grumbling: “Is this not Jesus? The healer and teacher and prophet? And he’s going to Zacchaeus’s house? He’s going to the house of a sinner?”

And the wheels turn. And Zacchaeus thinks on his feet. And he says, “Look… Lord… I will give a quarter of everything I own—no, no, wait, not a quarter, a half—I’ll give half of everything I own to the poor! And… and… um… if I’ve defrauded anyone—if, I’m not saying I have, just if, by accident say, I did some math wrong… you know, Roman numerals are hard… if I have defrauded anyone—I will pay back twice as much. No! Three times! No! Wait! Four times as much… ?”

And Jesus claps his hand on Zacchaeus’s shoulder. Right there in front of everyone. And smiles big. And says, “Today salvation has come to this house!”

I know I’m playing it up a little, but…

There are times when we are the blind man on the side of the road on the way into Jericho. There are times when we cry out for mercy. And when we do that… well… Christ is merciful, and Christ has mercy.

But at least as often—maybe even more often—we are Zacchaeus. We aren’t really looking to meet Jesus. We aren’t trying to call attention to ourselves. We aren’t crying out for mercy.

We’re just trying to see what all of the fuss is about… and we’re just trying to get on with our lives… when Jesus spots us, and calls us by name, and says that he’s coming to our house. And in that moment—in that sacred, holy, beautiful moment—we have to decide what kind of people we are going to be.

Are we going to be the people that the world asks us to be? Are we going to pursue the riches of this world? Are we going to go after power and privilege and prestige? Are we going to do that on the backs of other folks? Are we going to collect what we can, and take our cut, and make our payments to sin?

Or are we going to be the people who Christ calls us to be? Generous. Honest. Merciful. Loving. Bringing good news to the poor, and awareness to those lost in darkness, and freedom to the oppressed. Wild and dangerous and full fo grace.

And I know that seems like an easy question. Of course we’re going to choose to be the people who Christ calls us to be. We are Christians! It’s right there in the name! We are all of these things and more!

But…

There’s a cost to this sort of thing. It’s easy to brave in the context of worship. It’s easy to make big promises when Jesus is standing right there and the crowds are grumbling. But Zacchaeus still needs to, y’know, actually give half of his possessions to the poor and actually make restitution for his wrongs.

And that’s going to be hard.

And being generous and honest and merciful and loving? Bringing good news to the poor, and awareness to those lost in darkness, and freedom to the oppressed? Being wild, dangerous, and full of grace?

Being Christians? Being Christ-like? Following this teacher, this healer, this prophet, this son of God?

There’s a cost to this sort of thing.

It is Lent, and Jesus told us what the cost was going to be. It is Lent, and Jesus showed us what the cost was going to be. You see, God loved the world this way: he went to Jerusalem, and he was handed over to the powers that be; they mocked him and insulted him; they spat on him and flogged him; they crucified him.

And God loved the world this way: he rose again.

It is easy for Zacchaeus to say that he’s going to do these amazing things. It is harder to do them. And it is easy to say that we follow Christ. It is harder to do it… when people come along with verbal abuse, or social abuse, or physical abuse… when people say, “Who do those people at that church think they are?”

But it is Lent. We are in a sacred, holy, beautiful season. And Christ is standing before us, calling us by name, telling us that he is coming to our house.  

And more than that, every moment is a sacred, holy, beautiful moment. And Christ is always standing before us, calling us by name, telling us that he is coming into our lives, offering us a mercy that we were not expecting: the opportunity to follow him. 

Yes, into trouble. But beyond that, into new life.

Thanks be to God.

I like to imagine that… after… later… in the days between Easter and Pentecost…

Jesus came back to Jericho and appeared to Zacchaeus. And Zacchaeus really had given half of everything he owned to the poor… and then saw how the poor rejoiced and kept giving. And Zacchaeus really had made restitution and more for his ‘accounting errors’… and saw people who he had put in misery thriving again.

I like to imagine that he had seen the wonders that come from living generously and, maybe, a little bit, restoring people to life.

I like to imagine that during that visit, Jesus told him that on that day, when he was passing through Jericho, salvation had come to Zacchaeus’s house. Not because he had made promises, but because he had been given the power to fulfill them.

And I like to imagine that during that visit, Zacchaeus had another sacred, holy, beautiful moment, when he saw the kingdom of God growing around him, a garden blossoming, as salvation got spread around.

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