Salvation

“…He was trying to see who Jesus was…”  This is not how we imagine this story for our children.  No, we sing a catchy tune about a ‘wee little man…’ – one that has always appealed to me, oddly enough – and that is that.  Zacchaeus answers Jesus’ summons; changes his life; repents of his crooked business practices, and all is well.  Moral of the story?  the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost…but was Zacchaeus lost?

He was trying to see who Jesus was.  His antics (tree climbing, most significant among them) got him noticed.  His desire to check this Jesus out drew Zacchaeus into the centre of the story.  Up until then, I pretty sure that Zacchaeus knew exactly who he was and where he was headed – up the ladder of success; top of the tax collector pyramid – but he wanted to find out about Jesus.   The result is a life completely changed; a ‘sinner’ saved, if you want to think in those terms.  See what happens when you get curious?

If this is a salvation story, as the text itself declares, then we have to reconsider what salvation means – and what better day for that than Reformation Sunday; the day that we recall how the church has spent nearly its entire history trying to figure out how to live into the salvation promised by God in Christ.  So, let’s give it a shot.

Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house – Jesus says so.  A change of life that follows a change of mind, and a change of habit.  Whether or not Zacchaeus was lost, something about Jesus caught his attention.  They shouldn’t have been interested in one another – a student of Torah ought to have known that this was a fallen fellow; a chief tax collector, being rich and powerful, had no reason to think that he might need ‘saving’ –  so the first lesson in salvation is that it comes to those who neither expect it nor “deserve” it.  And that presents a challenge.

Here in the early days of the twenty-first century, we don’t imagine that there is anything else we can learn about salvation.  The message has shifted and changed over time, and God’s people have faced new challenges and fresh conflict.  The threat to the faithful has been as obvious as the overwhelming military strength of the Roman empire, and as subtle as the church working with the state to “re-educate” first nations children in residential schools.  To be saved from the oppressive weight of foreign occupation is an admirable goal.  To imagine that conformity is necessary to save those who are not like us is anything but admirable.  So when we’re pressed, Christians imagine salvation is an otherworldly thing.  For this, we can blame Calvin and his ideas about who may or may not be saved.  We talk of a place ‘reserved in heaven” for those who are saved; what’s more, we imagine that Jesus is the one who prints our ticket, carries our bags, and sets the table for our arrival feast.  But listen to Jesus’ declaration: “Today, salvation has COME TO THIS HOUSE…”

On what evidence?  Nothing more than the promise of repentance and restoration that comes from the mouth of ‘the accused’ – Zacchaeus intention to right his own wrongs prompts Jesus to declare salvation, today – present tense – in that place, for that ‘wee little man’.  The ‘prize’ we call salvation isn’t waiting at the end of the journey, it is realized in the midst of life – again and again, if need be — in moments of reformation.

One of the things that the church reformers in the 16th century are famous for (in Protestant circles, at least) is their desire to put an end to the “selling of salvation”.  Corrupt church officials had discovered that an easy and reliable way to raise money – for the church and for themselves – was to sell indulgences and holy relics.  Those relics included the bones of saints, or items associated with Jesus.  Indulgences were the eternal equivalent of a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card, designed to assure the buyer that their time in purgatory would be shortened – especially if you didn’t have the time (or patience) for real repentance.  Offered in this fashion, salvation as a commodity relieves the believer of any responsibility of real change in this life.  In addition, the Kingdom of God becomes imagined as a place (and in a time) beyond the present reality.  Except that Jesus continues to insist that change in this life is the goal; that “the Kingdom of God is very near to you”.

Jesus isn’t making this up – his ideas about the nature of salvation are rooted in the ancient promises of God to be with God’s people; Jesus call for change echoes the prophet’s cry to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, (and) plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 17).  Jesus may indeed wait for us at the heavenly throne, but he asks us to engage our salvation in the here and now – just as Zacchaeus did.

He was trying to see who Jesus was; was he worth the bother?  Was he really so special?  Could he be the one whose approach to faith – whose ideas about God – might give you the courage to make a radical change?  Zacchaeus’ curiosity cost him his fortune – likely his career – but it gained him a new life; not such a  risk after all.

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