So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Luke 19:4-7
friendship and the missional initiative
Now we have no idea why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. There are a lot of good reasons different people want to see Jesus. The blind man had a good reason, the hemorrhaging women had a good reason, the Centurion had a good reason, the rich ruler had a good reason because he was an attentive Torah keeper since he was a little youngster though it ended up backfiring, but this rich chief tax-collector in the Gospel of Luke that says “woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation” decides he wants to see Jesus. We could say curiosity got the best of him, but that just doesn’t preach too well. How about we decide that there was a little excitement in Zacchaeus’ ear every time he heard about Jesus, maybe he knew that somewhere there was an answer for the problem he was in. Zacchaeus was not always a tax collector, he grew up like any other good Jewish boy, he knew the great stories of God bringing redemption and liberation to Israel. Zacchaeus knew the current situation well and that if he wanted to assure himself and his family security, food, home, and a future there seemed to be only one real legit option, namely join the other team. If you can’t beat Rome – Join Rome. The human race has continued to be plagued by Empires that operate on the bully system, using its military and economic strength to exploit other peoples. Zacchaeus was caught in a sick and twisted system. He had become part of what was wrong for with his world and thought maybe this God Movement he heard Jesus talking about might be the answer. Perhaps it had a place in it for those with a compromised faith and imperial allegiance.
Having been kept from Jesus by the traveling worship circus, Zacchaeus ends up in a tree trying to get a glimpse of Jesus. The action of Jesus here is revealing both of the nature of the God Movement and character of God. The emphasis of this passage is on the initiative of Jesus. Jesus came to Zacchaeus, halting the holy huddle’s celebration, and said “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus had not been to Jericho before but he knew who Zacchaeus was when he saw him. This may seem an act of divine omniscience, but that is in no way necessary for those of us who have been a member of any worshiping body for decent amount of time. Part of being socialized into any social group is learning just who is to be ignored, those to be tolerated, those to be ceaselessly praised, and those like Zacchaeus who were cursed, labeled, and actively shunned. Jesus listened well enough to those around him to know just who the man up in the tree was, though he had never seen him before. The chief tax-collector was an Other for this community, Jesus knew this and so he stopped the praising to give a sermon. This sermon of messianic action was titled “It all begins with friendship.”
When Jesus initiates an encounter with Zacchaeus he does so in friendship. This friendship is Jesus’ acceptance and identification with the despised imperial assenting, his own people forsaking, rich because he taxes all these people poor and gives some to Rome, Zacchaeus, identification with this man is the boldest example of the remarkable liberty Jesus exercised. Where the welfare of any person was at stake Jesus ignored all the taboos and social protocol, especially those of the worshiping community around him. They had missed the point and focused their life, energy, and focus inward. Jesus’ sermon of friendship was for an external focus. Those who want to be a part of Jesus’ church will follow the method of Jesus and too have an external focus. For the church to share the mission of Jesus, to participate in the God movement it too will seek out, value, and affirm the Other as an Other for God’s sake. Zacchaeus could not “see who Jesus was” from a tree or by participating in a traveling worship service where he was not welcome, but only as a friend – at table. Jesus, knowing who was not welcome and why they were not welcome, went to them with an open invitation to friendship. This is the welcome of Christ. This is nature of the God Movement – Scandal. This is how Jesus came to be known as a friend of sinners, he “offered them inclusion in the kingdom not only while they were still sinners but also without requiring repentance as normally understood.” There would have been no complaints if Jesus had stopped on the road, looked up at Zacchaeus, and said “If you repent of your participation in Rome’s exploitation of these people, liquidate the wealth you have amassed by stealing it under the guise of legal legislation, and redistribute it today, salvation would come to you and I would take this worship service to your house.” The method of Jesus’ mission was not to get the sinners to conform to believe the right things, behave to the expectations and requirements expected of them and only then will they be accepted and belong to the community. The opposite is true. The God Movement begins by letting all know that they first belong. Without the adoption of any behavior or beliefs Zacchaeus belongs in the God Movement, because it is for all, especially the sinners and outcasts.
For the gospel to have integrity in a postmodern context it must be centered in friendship. Friendship is the only stance that can facilitate the openness of the gospel. Too often we assume truth or God is our possession we own, we believe we have exactly what the Other needs. Even if we hide this hubris under a guise of ‘seeker sensitivity’ it is not true friendship as practiced here by Jesus. The friendship of Jesus brings with it the messianic banquet, it is not simply the invitation to the group who gets in, but it is in fact its arrival. The friendship of Christ is an “unpretentious relationship,” because friend is not a function but a relational reality. Friendship is not a thing or a single event, but a reality that will shape one’s own existence. Friendship for both Jesus and his followers today includes vulnerability, because God’s friendship is permanent. The friendship of God becoming the foundation for ministry requires a shift in missional focus. Regularly we are rhetorically violent and on occasion the possession of truth becomes physical, but “force and violence spoil human relationships. Friendliness makes them live and keeps them alive. That is why ultimately friendship is stronger than enmity. The world will belong to enduring friendship.” If this is true, then God is not to be possessed and given, but instead we are to create relational space for God to come in our relationships. If we think we have everything that is just what we will miss. One may know truth, but no one knows it absolutely. When Jesus came to Zacchaeus he came with an open hand offering the good news of his belonging and not a clinched fist of righteous judgment. Truth is not a sword, but relational reality of friendship grounded in the God who is love.
The radical openness of Jesus’ friendship is not the contrived openness that exists in many forms today. It is not the Enlightenment ideal of tolerance, because Jesus did not wave at Zacchaeus he embraced him. It is not compromising middle ground of ‘open but not affirming,’ because Jesus did not treat Zacchaeus as a rich tax-collecting sinner, but a human being created in the image for whom he came to pronounce the God Movement’s message of belonging. To Jesus, Zacchaeus had a name with one label attached – be
loved of God. Jesus does something that is so difficult to do, he refused to play politics with a human being, even one he would identify as part of the problem. The invitation of friendship given by God in Christ is as far reaching as creation. One could be tempted to miss this radical method of evangelism practiced here by Jesus, but as Luke tells the only words Jesus in the story are those which share in the divine initiative of friendship and the pronouncement of salvation. These two words and in particular the first word, are rarely part of our ‘evangelism strategy’ and one can wonder what an institution of friendship would look like. To be sure, humanity would be the only requirement for participation. To take this seriously all the work of the church must begin with the welcome of Christ. In our going out and their coming in, the first thing must be the embrace of friendship with the Other. The welcome of Christ is an embrace, not just words. It is goes to each person and includes the particularities of each individual life. The welcome of Christ is more than the welcome of the church. It cannot be an official greeting at a service or a handshake when one enters, for the welcome of Christ is centered in the friendship seen in Jesus – “an open and total friendship that goes out to meet the other.” When friendship is our foundational stance, we will exist in relationship to and for the Other and God will not be a possession but a presence that comes in the midst of friends.
The crowd’s response to Jesus’ friendship initiative is telling. The holy huddle who started off praising God for the healing of the blind man has now taken a final turn away from participation in the God Movement they were celebrating. After prohibiting Zacchaeus from getting to Jesus and making Jesus able to identify their vilified Other he had yet to meet, the holy huddle becomes a holy grumble. I like to imagine that it was not everyone, but Luke tells us that “All that saw it began to grumble.” What is even more striking is the nature of the grumble. It takes the form of holy indignation, “He has gone to be a guest of one who is a sinner.” What a presumptuous stance to think Jesus could be your own guest without also being the guest of a sinner. While this is clearly a false presumption, it is all too contemporary. The crowd did what many communities do; they define themselves over against something. When any community understands its boundaries in the negative, they are necessarily a turn away from violence. Important here is that the boundary of the God Movement founded on friendship is defined in the positive. It is an always expanding, ever embracing, and categorically porous movement of the divine. If there is to be a negative boundary it is not drawn by the followers of Jesus, but by the Other. Those who fear the intimacy and transformative power of friendship’s persuasive love can draw a line, but the people of friendship cannot. Both then and today the holy grumble is far from the holiness of the relational God revealed in the person and mission of Jesus. To grumble at the befriending of any sinner, is to grumble at the every activity and realization of the presence of God.