Here the descendant of Rahab did not disdain the hospitality of Zaccaeus the publican.
-William Smith, Nonconformist lexicographer and author of The Bible Names Dictionary-
We’ve been following Jesus, over the past month, as he makes his way from the small fishing towns of Galilee to the capital city of Jerusalem. Today brings us to the penultimate stop, the last town before Jesus makes his triumphal entry: Jericho.
You might remember Jericho from stories like the conquest of Jericho, back in the Old Testament book of Joshua.
Or, you might remember it from just a few weeks ago, when Jesus was pressed to define the concept of “neighbor” and told a story set on the dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Danger makes a good starting point, in telling today’s story… because throughout this whole travel narrative, Jesus has been getting clearer and clearer about what this trip to Jerusalem is going to look like.
The disciples are dreaming of earthly glory, of purifying the temple worship of God’s people, and of retaking Jerusalem and Judea and the surrounding territories from the Romans, and of establishing the holy kingdom of righteousness and justice that the prophets foretold.
So they find it difficult to listen and understand, when Jesus starts laying out the travel itinerary with words like: mock, insult, spit, flog, kill.
Imagine a movie about a plucky football team from an underprivileged background, and the charismatic and talented new coach who just arrived in town.
Through a combination of hard work, sacrifice, and luck, they make it to the championship game. They part their dilapidated bus next to the tour bus of the local big shot school and start warming up for the big match.
That’s the story that the disciples are in. They were just average guys. Andy and Pete had a fishing business. Simon was a bit of a troublemaker. Nate had a habit of sitting under trees to think about the world.
Then Jesus came along, and they got swept up in a story that seemed so much bigger. They never expected to be the heroes of the story, but here they are heading to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, with a whole entourage of the transformed and the curious.
They’re riding high on a kind of hope that’s new to them, a kind of hope that feels like it’s real and feels like it’s now.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose, right?
So when Jesus takes them aside and starts using words like mock and spit and flog, they don’t know what to make of it. Luke says that the meaning was hidden from them, but how could they have understood?
It’s as if I told you that the movie about the plucky football team ended with them being humiliated and run out of town. Their bus runs off a cliff, and they all die, and the big shot school wins the game by default.
Everything that the Prophets said about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. We’re doing good, so far. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. Ok, and then we rescue him?
They’re going to mistreat him in all sorts of creative ways and then kill him. You mean, we’re going to fail?
On the third day he will rise again. WHAT?!
The disciples are ready to defeat Rome. Jesus is on his way to defeat the powers of death and darkness- a fight which will let it look for a moment like Rome won, like the Jesus movement is doomed.
There’s something bigger and better going on, here, but the disciples can’t see the hope and the glory because they don’t understand what kind of story they’re in. They’re looking for the wrong kind of revolution.
The disciples can’t understand, but here in Jericho, Jesus finds two people who can see it.
The first one is a blind beggar- physically blind, but spiritually insightful. He couldn’t see what the commotion was about, as Jesus and his crowd came into Jericho, but he could certainly hear the ruckus.
He asked what was happening, and was given this answer: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.
This couldn’t have been the first time that the blind man had heard of Jesus, could it? There wasn’t any ancient equivalent of our 24/7 news cycle, but it seems impossible to me that news about Jesus’ ministry hadn’t made it to Jericho.
So maybe the man has never met Jesus, himself, but he knows two things: he is lost and in need of healing, and Jesus is passing by.
Since we know the Easter part of this story, we know what the blind man didn’t: Jesus is always passing by. Maybe this dulls us to the possibility of salvation, because we can always repent tomorrow if we don’t get around to it today.
The blind man in Jericho sees that he only gets one shot, and so he sets to yelling. People tell him to pipe down, to stop drawing attention to himself, to be little more respectful and a little less of a town embarrassment, but that just makes him raise his voice.
Jesus, Son of David, he yells, have mercy on me!
William Smith, a lexicographer from the 1800s and author of the Bible Names Dictionary, makes an interesting point here about Jesus and Jericho. Jesus is a Son of David, of course, but he’s also a son of another legendary Old Testament character: Rahab.
Rahab, you’ll remember, was a Canaanite prostitute in this city of Jericho, back when the Israelites had first arrived on the local scene. She wasn’t particularly powerful, and she wasn’t pious or moral, really. She’s remembered simply because she saw the power of God at work in the world around her, and she faithfully joined in.
And then Rahab of Jericho got married to an Israelite and had a son, who had a son, and on it went until her descendent, King David, was sitting on the throne in Jerusalem.
Rahab’s line, and her influence, and her story travelled from Jericho all the way to Jerusalem, and now comes full circle as her great-grandson many times over is travelling through Jericho, as once again salvation is offered to any of Jericho’s residents who are willing to ask for it.
The blind beggar doesn’t hold back. Jesus asks him what he wants and his answer is clear: Lord, I want to see.
Jesus speaks over him, and he immediately receives his sight.
The disciples can’t see what kind of story they’re in, but the blind beggar understands even before he can see. Or maybe that’s just a reflection on his desperation- maybe it’s not that he’s certain, but rather his sense of being so deeply lost leads him to take a chance on this Jesus guy. Maybe he shouts this at every passing prophet, just hoping for a miracle.
Either way, the blind man knows what kind of story he’s in. Either way, he receives his sight.
Zacchaeus isn’t quite so sure.
He knows that he has to see Jesus, but he doesn’t have the blind beggar’s confidence. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He doesn’t want to be seen. He just has to see.
Zacchaeus, the patron saint of short people everywhere, can’t see over the crowd. What’s more, this crowd is not inclined to push him up front, the way that kind tall people do when short people like me can’t see.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, among the worst of the worst of the collaborators with the Romans. He literally takes money out of the hands of Jewish people who are trying to feed their families and gives it to the Empire. He is wealthy and safe, as a result, but no one in this town is going to help him see and he knows it.
So, Zacchaeus climbs up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. He wanted to see, from his perch camouflaged by branches and leaves. He wanted to see Jesus passing by, and he didn’t expect to be seen.
Imagine yourself in Zacchaeus’ place. Imagine the Jesus parade, coming down the street. There are disciples, and there are detractors, and there are people who are simply wondering what’s going to happen, and there’s this dancing man who you are pretty sure is the blind beggar who sits outside the east entrance to town, but he’s dancing like he can see what’s going on.
The parade comes closer, and closer, until Jesus is right under your tree. And then, Jesus looks up and says, Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.
What does it say about this Savior, that he must stay at with Zacchaeus? Something about the salvation he’s bringing means that the home of an outcast like Zacchaeus – who is wealthy and safe, but rejected by his neighbors – is exactly where Jesus needs to be.
I must stay at your house today.
Zacchaeus thought he was safely hidden in this tree, but Jesus sees through this false safety. Jesus sees Zacchaeus in the tree, hiding away from the parade but still wanting to see salvation, and calls him to come down among the crowd.
Imagine the joy and the fear Zacchaeus felt, when Jesus asked to stay at his home. Due to his job as chief tax collector, no good Jews will share table fellowship with him, but this prophet from Galilee says that he must stay with Zacchaeus. What better redemption could there be, than to have a faithful prophet choose to stay at his house?
Zacchaeus climbs down from his tree, ready to offer hospitality. And as William Smith put it, “Here the descendant of Rahab did not disdain the hospitality of Zaccaeus the publican.”
The crowd goes nuts, and not in a good way. Jesus is an important visitor, and preparations have been underway for him to stay with the most pious people in town. But now, Jesus is insisting on staying with this awful tax collector.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But that’s what this embodied salvation looks like, in the person of Jesus: this descendant of Rahab chooses to be the guest of sinners.
Zacchaeus promises, in the face of the crowd’s anger, to pay back all that he has stolen from them as a tax collector. And Jesus says, Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to see and to save what was lost.
The Son of Man, in this story, is both the Son of David and the Son of Rahab. Jesus is the child of the glorious king, and the child of a common prostitute of this city.
And Jesus offers salvation to all, to the blind man, and to the tax collector, and to the crowd around him, and to us today.
See for yourself, Friends. Jesus is almost to Jerusalem. The disciples couldn’t see, because they were blinded by their own expectations.
The blind man could see, because he knew that he needed salvation. Zacchaeus was seen, although he tried to hide, and being seen by Jesus led him to salvation.
Christ is present even now among us, coming to see and to save the lost. How do you see this salvation?