Come, let us argue it out

A sermon for October 30, nine days before the US midterm elections. The readings are for Year C Proper 26, Track 2, and include Isaiah 1:10-18 and Luke 19:1-10, the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus.


What does repentance look like? “’Come now, let us argue it out,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

Let’s be honest, it’s been a wearying week. We have heard more of wars and rumours of wars. We have heard of the callous attack upon an octogenarian man by another man who apparently prefers violence to the vote. We have too often turned our faces away from the antisemitism spouted by the influential. We have witnessed gun violence again and again across our own country: in a labour and delivery ward, in another school, at another family home. More loved ones whose lives have been lost or irrevocably altered, from a newborn baby whose very first hours witnessed such things to a grandmother of seven who died defending the children of others under her care; can you imagine the number of lives affected by the stench of violence?.

“Such incense is an abomination to me,” says the Lord. “I am weary of it,” says the Lord. “Your hands are full of blood,” says the Lord (Isaiah 1:13,14,15).

What does, what could repentance look like, under such circumstances?

Well, when Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming through Jericho, he wanted to see him for himself. The text is ambiguous: either Zacchaeus or Jesus was short in stature; either way, the crowd came between Zacchaeus’ field of vision and the sight of Jesus (Luke 19:1-3).

Another time we might talk about the ableism, assumptions of masculinity, and more that have led centuries of commentators and songwriters to assume that Zacchaeus is the short one, and not Jesus, the Messiah; but that’s for another time.

In the meantime, Zacchaeus climbed a tree for a better look at Jesus, and Jesus saw him up there, and called him down, called him out, called him in (Luke 18:4-5).

We might, another day, contrast Zacchaeus to the man with the friends who tore apart a roof to lower him into Jesus’ presence; the woman who crept through the crowd to touch his cloak; the centurion for whom even the Jewish elders pleaded (see .Luke 5:17-20; Luke 8:43-38; Luke 7:2-5). Zacchaeus had made no such friends to speak up for him, let him through the press of bodies to the closer presence of Jesus, or carry him overhead to lower him into view (although I would quite like to see an icon of Zacchaeus crowd-surfing).

In the meantime, here is the man: a chief of tax collectors, chief executive of corruption and assimilation to the empire, with few friends except for those who could be bought for cool cash. And he wanted to see Jesus; but now Jesus had seen him.

The people who knew Zacchaeus thought that they knew him better than Jesus. They thought that they were better than Zacchaeus, that Jesus should have asked to come to one of their houses instead of Zacchaeus’. But Jesus saw him as clearly as they did. “I must stay at your house today,” he told Zacchaeus, “for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:7,9-10).

It’s kind of a backhanded compliment, when you think about it; but Jesus was not in the business of flattery, but of salvation. Zacchaeus went out to see Jesus, but now Jesus has seen Zacchaeus.

So here’s a question, when the townspeople grumble about Zacchaeus’ corrupt lifestyle, and he counters by promising, pledging to give away half of his wealth, and if – if, mind you – he has defrauded anyone, to pay them back with compensation (Luke 19:8). Here’s the question (three, actually): who assesses Zacchaeus’ worth; who assesses the potential fraud and damages owed; most importantly, will Zacchaeus actually follow through on what he has promised in a desperate moment, afraid that Jesus might, after all, decide to go elsewhere?

You remember the old riddle: five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many frogs are left on the log?

Or, to return to our opening question, what does repentance look like?

I’d like to think that Zacchaeus followed through on the promises he made; that the curiosity he had about Jesus that led him up the tree was sparked by a real connection with the God of his ancestors, the God about whom his mother told him growing up, and his father and the rabbis. I’d like to think that Zacchaeus was transfixed and transformed by the way that Jesus saw him, and knew him, and said to him, “Come, let us argue it out. For I am coming home with you today.” I’d like to think that Zacchaeus could not walk away from that encounter unchanged.

But we see daily how easy it is for each of us to rationalize, to forget, to break our promises, however heartfelt in the moment, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), in a moment of pride, or anger, or fear.

If it were not so, to take just one example, we would already have taken action to reduce the access that children and people who are unsafe to themselves and others have to guns, to ammunition, and to mass murder. The young man who committed murder and life-altering injury and trauma at that school in St Louis this week was refused the sale of a firearm by a licensed dealer. He went instead to a private citizen who was not required to run a background check in order legally to sell him a gun. It is in our power, as the people, to change that law, to close that loophole, if we choose. The young man’s mother had asked law enforcement to remove the gun from her son’s possession, knowing him to be in danger of using them. The police declined to keep the weapon, although they helped transfer it to a friend. We can strengthen our communal ability to restrict access to deadly weapons away from those in danger of committing deadly force against themselves or others if we choose.

A one-time thought, or prayer, or promise, does not do the deed of repentance, though. If it did, we would already have made reparations for the harm that we have done, in so many ways, to so many people, in the interest of preserving our own privilege and income. We are the tax collectors. We all take our toll.

Like Zacchaeus, we make our confession, we promise better, and we delight in the absolution that Jesus visits upon us: Today, salvation has come to this house, because Jesus has come to this house, whose name is saviour.

And do we follow through? When the visit is over, the meal is finished, the table cleared and the doors closed behind us, will we make good on the promises that our hearts make when they are full of grace, to cease from evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphaned children? (see Isaiah 1:16-17)

In order to become transformative, for us as well as for Zacchaeus, our spiritual and sinful ancestor, repentance requires follow-through. It requires persistence in prayer and confession and the willingness again and again to sit down and argue it out with the Lord, who sees us, who knows us, who loves us and wants better for us.

For salvation has come today to this house. Jesus shows up, whether we are scarlet or snow. We have come looking for him, for whatever reason, but he has already seen us. And the life that he calls us into?

Well, “’Come, let us argue it out,’ says the Lord.”

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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