—Gavin Koh, 30 October 2016 (23rd Sunday after Trinity)
Isaiah 1. 10–18.
2 Thessalonians 1. 1–4, 11–12.
Luke 19. 1–10.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19. 14.
This is my first time preaching here at St Stephen’s. I am a layman, one of the congregation. Therefore when I speak, I speak as one of you: A fellow traveller, sharing notes along the way.
This is how tax collecting worked in Roman times:
Rome demanded one tenth of the grain crop, one fifth of all wine, fruit, and olive oil. There were sales taxes, property taxes, emergency taxes. A tax collector could come up to you on the street
and demand a share of whatever you were carrying. Although a Roman official, a censor, was ultimately responsible for collecting all taxes, the right to collect tax was sold to the highest bidder,
who then became a tax collector.
The tax collector paid a fixed sum to the censor, but anything he collected over and above that fixed sum,
he was entitled to keep for himself. The Jews considered Roman taxes to be onerous and burdensome.
The tax collectors were themselves Jews, and taxes were often collected through extortion from their fellow Jews, and from this extortion, they enriched themselves. It is therefore no wonder that the Jews hated tax collectors and considered them traitors.
Today’s Old Testament reading provides important context. Isaiah instructs God’s people to defend the orphan and plead for the widow. God is not interested in burnt offerings or solemn assemblies: It is the poor and oppressed for whom God instructs us to seek justice. What is so striking about Zacchaeus, therefore,
is that Zacchaeus is not an orphan or a widow. He is not one of the oppressed of whom Isaiah speaks:
instead, Zacchaeus is one of the oppressors. If Zacchaeus is hated or ostracised, then it is Zacchaeus own fault. He chose to behave this way. Zacchaeus should be responsible for the consequences of his own actions.
[You all know that I am a medical doctor, so I won't apologise for using medical illustrations.]
We know that years of alcohol excess can result in liver cirrhosis and liver failure.
Does that mean that patients with liver cirrhosis due to alcohol excess should be refused a liver transplant?
A liver transplant costs the NHS roughly £500,000. That money could pay for a lot of hip replacements.
We know that smoking is a major cause of heart attacks, strokes, lung disease including lung cancer. Smoking costs the NHS £3 billion a year. Since smokers can afford to pay for their own cigarettes, why can’t they pay for their own healthcare? Why are they asking us, the taxpayer, to pay when something goes wrong because they’ve been smoking?
Diabetes: Studies from China and the US have shown that reducing the amount you eat and increasing the amount of exercise you take can prevent or delay diabetes. Diabetes and the complications of diabetes
cost the NHS £14 billion every year, which works out to an astounding £1.5 million every hour.
If you have diabetes because you did not eat sensibly or take exercise, then why should we the taxpayer
be paying for your healthcare?
Malaria: You decide to go to India to see the Taj Mahal on holiday. You come back with malaria.
If you can afford a holiday to India, why should I taxpayer be paying for your malaria treatment? You pay for it yourself!
Aren’t the crowds justly angry with Jesus and with Zacchaeus? “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” they complain. Zacchaeus is ostracised from society for good reason. His problems are his own creation.
Yet, once again, Jesus confounds our expectations. Jesus grants Zacchaeus a great honour:
he looks straight into that tree and says, “I am going to stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus is not deaf: he can hear the crowd murmuring against him. Zacchaeus does not deserve this honour. He is a sinner:
he has made himself rich at the expense of his own countrymen...but Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ offer and to the crowd's murmuring is truly miraculous: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."
So imagine that Zacchaeus has liver cirrhosis. Zacchaeus says to his doctor, “I know that I'm dying of liver failure. I’ll stay off the alcohol! From today, I'm teetotal. Surely there is something you can do?”
Zacchaeus’ family and friends say, “What good is that going to do? It's too late!
You've already got liver failure! How are you going to get a new liver?”
The doctor’s job is to meet Zacchaeus where he is:
Zacchaeus, if you stay off the booze, I can give you a liver transplant.
If I give you a new liver and
If you don’t stay off the booze, you are just going to get cirrhosis in the new liver as well. ...but if you stay off the drink…I can offer you a chance to live.
It is not the doctor’s job to tell Zacchaeus off for all the boozing he’s done in the past. If you go to the doctor, with liver cirrhosis or diabetes or malaria, it is the doctor’s job to see you as you are now and then tell you what you have to do next in order to get better.
God’s forgiveness is not about undoing the past, because the past cannot be undone. Forgiveness is about the future. In the gospels, repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand. Repentance is acknowledging to God that you are lost. It is Zacchaeus climbing down from the tree and hurrying to welcome Jesus. Forgiveness is about the future: It is about God meeting you where you are now, and showing you where you need to go next.
Zacchaeus says, “I cannot undo the hurt, betrayal and the damage I did to you in the past. But I will make up for the money of which I defrauded you, and I will pay back four times as much.”
The final verse of today’s gospel reading is the hope that God offers to us all.
“The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” In God’s NHS, you are welcome
whether you are alcoholic, whether you exercise, whether you eat too much, whether you smoke,
or whether you stupidly went on holiday without your malaria tablets.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Romans 3. 23].
As Paul says, in his letter to the Thessalonians: let us pray that we may be steadfast in the faith;
but for those who have strayed from the way, let us rejoice that Jesus comes to seek out the lost.