February 25, 2008

My Favorite Publican
by Pastor George Van Alstine

In our current sermon series on “The Seven Deadly Sins,â€? our emphasis last Sunday was on the sin of PRIDE. The text chosen by Pastor Connie was Jesus’ parable about “The Pharisee and the Publicanâ€? (Luke 18:10-14). She explained why “publicans,â€? usually translated “tax collectorsâ€? in modern versions of the Bible, were so despised and feared by the Jewish common people of Jesus’ day.* They were seen as agents of the Roman government who were getting rich at the expense of their own people.

In the parable, the surprise was that this man, whose economic upward mobility might make him proud, was absolutely humble before God. In contrast, the Pharisee, the religious purist who was supposed to know a great deal about God, didn’t know enough to bow down before him. His pride kept him from God’s forgiveness.

A chapter later in Luke’s Gospel (19:1-10), we read the story of Zaccheaus. Children who hear about Zaccheaus are fascinated by the fact that he was so short that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus. But he was not short on prestige, power or money. He was not only a publican, but the “chief publicanâ€? of the Jericho region.

And yet, there is nothing proud about the man Luke portrays for us. He comes across as very open to Jesus and his message, not at all cynical or worldly-wise, almost childlike in his hunger to hear all Jesus was saying. Clearly, he had been prepared by life’s disappointments to enter a new spiritual phase of his life. He was ready to turn his back on the entire materialistic, ambition-driven Zaccheaus of the past, and he signaled this by saying, “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.â€?

Jesus sought this man out, focused on him over the crowd, actually invited himself to Zaccheaus’ house for supper. Jesus’ attention was like a compass, magnetically attracted to the one ready soul, whatever his external appearances, station in life or résumé. Zaccheaus was the man!

People in the crowd criticized Jesus for such associations. His response was that he had come “to seek out and save the lost.â€? In fact, Jesus showed in this incident, and over and over again in his teaching, that anyone who is too proud to say “I’m lostâ€? will never be found. Jesus’ inner compass seems to be repelled by any hint of pride.

*People today may be tempted to compare the publican’s role to that of the Internal Revenue Service. This is not fair. Publicans earned their living by cheating the citizens. IRS agents earn their living by catching cheating citizens.