Harrowing Of Hell
October 30, 2022

Zaccheus and Unblocking our Souls

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning, Epiphany.

Today we meet Zacchaeus climbing the Sycamore tree. Some of you have seen that tree with me in Jericho. Very cool, the actual tree.

Most of you know this story of Zacchaeus.

It goes like this:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
The Lord he wanted to see
The Lord passed by and said:

“Zacchaeus, you come down from there
‘Cause I’m going to your house today…
for dinner!

What this song doesn’t say is how mad everybody was when Jesus did this. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and nobody likes tax collectors. Not only did they collect taxes for the evil Roman Empire, but were widely known to charge more than Rome required and they were allowed to keep the difference.

And so, tax collectors, at the time, were universally believed to be stealing from their own people, under the protection of the Roman legion. As a result, they were in their community but not a part of their community, they were outcasts in their own home. And so, the only good reason to be a tax collector was for the love of money, as a higher priority than the life and connection to community. And yet Jesus was going to go eat at that table, and that made everybody pretty mad. That is just the kind of thing Jesus would do.

Here’s where the story gets confusing. Presumably they walk to Zacchaeus’ house. Someone cooked up some vittles. And then something happens. Some conversation develops and deepens. And then this happens: Zacchaeus stands up, and says to Jesus: “Look, half of my possessions, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, anything, I will pay back four times as much.” And Jesus responds: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Now there’s a lot of different things that could have happened to bring Zacchaeus to this point; which is why reading the Bible with your imagination can be interesting, invigorating, and fun. We may imagine that Jesus said to Zacchaeus what he said to the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark: “Give away all your possessions and follow me {Jesus}” (Mark 10:17).

We could imagine that there was some conversation about the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 15:12-15) and the Old Testament precedent for reparations as a way of reestablishing relationship after having stolen from or enslaved someone in the past.

And all of that is worthy of consideration, but today we are going to imagine that the conversation had to do with the state of Zacchaeus’ soul. My on ramp here is the word salvation. Where Jesus says: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation, soteria in Greek, means deliverance from the enemy, but it also means safety of the soul.

I like these dueling definitions, because the enemy is the thing that takes us out of relationship with God, and so, deliverance from the enemy is safety to one’s soul, with the soul being that part of us which is directly connected to God, simply & singularly. For Zacchaeus, that connection was blocked by his love of money. Then somehow, in his conversation with Jesus, he realized that his life could be significantly better if he rotor-rooted that which was clogging his deep, direct, desire for God.

It’s like when I was a kid going to see my horse, Bricka. I think you’ve heard me talk about her before. She was the meanest horse that ever lived. Actually, she wasn’t a horse, she was a mule, half donkey, half quarter horse, with a propensity to bite.

Anyway, I would walk from our house to the barn. To get there I had to cross highway 52, which required me going over the overpass. The problem was crossing the overpass took longer than darting directly across the highway then cutting through one of the pastures.

As a third grader time was of the essence, requiring the most direct route, in all circumstances. Fortunately, in my early efforts to cross the highway, as I was walking along the drainage ditch I discovered a very large, long water drainage pipe that ran directly under the highway and came out by the verdant pastures on the other side. It shaved 10 minutes off my walk, and usually the water didn’t run higher than the rim of my cowboy boots. And real cowboys don’t need dry boots anyway. Real cowboys probably don’t even wear socks.

Now Zacchaeus’ life was all about dashing across highways. Relational overpasses were too expensive to build, and the drainage pipe of his soul too clogged with the money. So, he roamed the arid superhighway at the expense relationship, at the expense of community, at the expense of encounter with God.      

Zacchaeus was like a dog chasing cars. Occasionally he caught one, which felt good, he made money, and it felt terrible, bouncing him back into the drainage ditch of isolation and contempt. So, he clung to his victory all the more, hoarding the money in the drainpipe of his soul.

Then he had dinner with Jesus. I am not sure what they talked about, but I am completely sure that during this conversation Zacchaeus came to understand how much he was loved by God. It was a Jesus roto-rooter moment through the drainpipe of Zacchaeus’ soul, and love rushed in.

Zacchaeus immediate response? Re-establishment of good relationships with his neighbors; which meant both generosity with his money, and full reparations for past wrongs.

To some of us that may sound crazy, and maybe even dangerous, like a third grader walking through a water drainage pipe under the highway…but mind you, it was under the highway, it was safe, it was direct, it was wide open, except for a little water, of baptism, if you will.

Sometimes it feels risky to meet up with Jesus. Sometimes it feels risky to enter into that conversation, it maybe even feel a bit dangerous. And certainly, the idea of Jesus running a roto-rooter through the drainpipe of your soul sounds uncomfortable, at the very least. And all that may be true. Sometimes it is the giving up, the giving away, the suffering, the acknowledging our faults and our dysfunctions that is difficult, but it’s better than getting hit by a car on the highway.

So, what about building an overpass? That could work in getting you to the other side. It by-passes the danger, and yet it also misses the vastness of the common ground; it steps over the soil of God’s love which saturates and permeates all creation; and in doing so, misses the thing behind the thing.

Let me give you an example, one unfolding in the culture today. There is an admirable effort by many to bridge our political polarized government through focused listening and dialogue encounters. And that is as good, as a bridge over the superhighway of that which divides our two political parties.                                  

The hypothesis here is that by listening, we understand, and in understanding, we empathize, and through empathy, we move toward unity, and as such, reknit together this divided nation.

The premise here is that we can understand. The premise is that we can agree on the architectural structure upon which to build the overpass, and once built, to walk across it together for the greater good of national unity.

Now let’s say we can actually transcend our very well established win-lose, right-wrong, logic-lie culture, to get us to a place where we can listen with the intent of understanding; let’s say what we hear from the other side is clear, cogent and reasoned; still, for me, there are things that even if I understand correctly, I will never ever accept as understandable.

I am sure that is how Desmond Tutu felt when he sat down with F.W. de Klerk, the president of the apartheid regime, that ruled South Africa. There was nothing about the racist policies of the Afrikaners that Desmond Tutu could accept as understandable. There was no overpass that they could build together, because the fundamental architecture was never going to hold up.

But there were the drainpipes. Everyone has one. There was the common reality that each soul is connected to and loved by God. This is the thing behind the thing-souls connected to God. And understanding that there is a thing behind the thing, is the only thing that is going to save the world.

And here is the interesting thing about having a clear drainpipe running to the verdant pastures of God;  only one party needs to have it to change the world.

Zacchaeus is our example. He stepped up, cleaned out the drainpipe of his soul, and in doing so changed the lives of all those people around him. He gave away half his money. Don’t think that didn’t have an impact. But furthermore, he then made reparation for any sin that he had participated in. Don’t think that didn’t make an impact.

He walked the drainage ditches. He sought his drainpipe. He sat down with Jesus,and let his soul be rotor-rooted, so the love could flow. That is what Zacchaeus did, and so can you!

Get your boots wet. Wade the waters of your baptism. Seek your soul. Look inside, and push the idols aside, so the love runs. This is the way to the common ground and salvation to this house in which we live.