WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
November 3, 2013
SMALL AND DESPISED
Psalm 119:137-144 Luke 19:1-10
Psalm 119:137 – 144 was our Call to Worship this morning. When I was reading it as I put together this morning’s service, one verse jumped out at me. Verse 141 says, “I am small and despised, yet I do not forget your precepts.”
Small and despised. Do we like to use those words, that description, with the “I am” in front of them? Do we like to think of ourselves as “small and despised”? I don’t. I admit, there are times I wish I were smaller, but “small and despised”? That’s not anything I aspire to, not anything I seek to be.
It’s not just me. Which sounds better – to be “small and despised” or to be “large and in charge?” The smallest animal born is called the “runt of the litter” – is there anyone here who actually likes being referred to as a “runt”? The word “little” can even take on negative connotations. “Listen, man, I didn’t mean anything by it.” “Listen, little man, I didn’t mean anything by it.” One of those actually sounds something like an apology, and one sounds like an insult.
So it can be a little bit of a challenge to us to say that we are small and despised and mean it when we say it. We’re in good company, though. Just take a look at our reading from Luke.
Zaccheus was small and despised. How do we know he was small? Well, the Bible gives us that one. It says that Zaccheus was “short of stature”, short enough that he couldn’t see over the crowd lining the streets and had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus.
And how do we know that Zaccheus was despised? The Bible gives us that one too, although it’s a little more subtle. It says he was the chief tax collector. I don’t know if there is any society anywhere at any time that has looked kindly on tax collectors. If you asked Americans to name their least favorite government agency, I’m pretty sure it would be the IRS.
Now here in the DC area it’s not quite so bad, because we know how essential the IRS is to the work of government. We have friends or family members who work for the IRS, or we ourselves may. So here in the DC metro the antipathy towards the IRS isn’t as great as it might be in other places. Even so, no one really likes to pay taxes, and so tax collectors are never going to win popularity contests.
It was even worse for Zaccheus, though. The way taxes worked in that time and place is that the tax collector got to keep anything he collected over and above the taxes owed. If you owed $100 dollars and the tax collector could cheat you or intimidate you or trick you into paying $200, then $100 went to the government and $100 went to the tax collector.
But wait – there’s more. People hated tax collectors because they were often corrupt. Jewish people in Jesus’ day also hated tax collectors because the tax collectors were traitors. Zaccheus was a Jew who worked for the Roman occupation. Zaccheus helped fund the people who conquered and ruled the Israelites. Between the corruption and the collaboration, it’s no wonder that Zaccheus was despised by those around him. Small and despised.
What happened to Zaccheus? Jesus invites Zaccheus down from the tree, and Jesus invites himself over to Zaccheus’ house for supper. In this political season a lot of newspapers and groups endorse one candidate or another, and the different candidates boast about who has endorsed them. Maybe the endorsement matters, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you care what the Post thinks, and maybe you don’t. How much effect does Jesus’ endorsement have on Zaccheus’ standing?
“All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” It looks like Jesus’ endorsement is not going to swing the election for Zaccheus. All who saw it, everyone who saw it began to grumble. It didn’t change the crowd’s opinion of Zaccheus at all. Still small and despised. And just for good measure, it lowered the crowd’s opinion of Jesus.
Zaccheus sincerely repents of his sin. He promises to give half of his possessions to the poor, and to pay back anyone he has cheated four times the amount he cheated them. Did he do it? Did Zaccheus follow through? Or was this some sort of foxhole conversion, and after Jesus left and the crowds went away Zaccheus returned to his old ways?
I don’t know for sure, but there is a book from around 200 AD by Clement of Alexandria. It claims that the disciples gave Zaccheus a new name, Matthias, and that this is the same Matthias that was chosen after the resurrection to replace Judas Iscariot as one of the disciples. Is that true? I don’t know. Clement lived after this would have happened so he doesn’t know first-hand himself. He’s repeating oral traditions and stories.
But it’s nice to think it’s true, isn’t it? Zaccheus, small and despised, became Matthias, one of the disciples, one of the most important men in the early church. Maybe still small, but no longer despised.
Except. What happened to Matthias? Some traditions say that he went to Ethiopia to preach and died there. Other traditions say that he was stoned to death in Jerusalem. Whatever happened to him, don’t forget that the apostles were the leaders of a small group that the state thought were revolutionaries and the existing church thought were heretics. They were persecuted, discriminated against, and killed. Even if he really did become one of the twelve, Zaccheus may have lived the rest of his life small and despised.
You know what? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Go back to our first scripture reading, Psalm 119:137-144. The Psalm writer says that he is small and despised. Why? Because he is being faithful. Because he is doing what God wants him to. The writer remembers God’s decrees, but those who despise him are the ones who have forgotten God’s words. The writer tries to be righteous and faithful, but trouble and anguish have come upon him anyway.
The writer does not ask to be made big and strong and popular. He doesn’t even ask to just be tolerated, for the unrighteous to put up with him and leave him in peace. No – our writer knows that those who follow God will always be small and despised in the eyes of the world. He asks for understanding, understanding of God’s law and understanding of God’s righteousness so that he may live; so that he may continue on as small and despised in the eyes of the world.
It points ahead to 1 Corinthians chapter 1, where Paul says, “…we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles…” And listen to 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
God chooses the lowly things and the despised things. They may still stay lowly and despised in the eyes of the world. But they will find righteousness – exactly the thing the Psalm writer prays for – in Jesus Christ.
Our faith calls us to make difficult choices. Our faith leads us into unpopular stands. Our faith is in constant struggle with our culture. When we give in to the culture, when we worry about what is popular and what is trendy, when we take our cues from the big and strong in the world around us, that’s when we start to run into trouble.
There is sometimes an assumption that when you do the right thing, you will be rewarded with success and fame and power. Maybe you will, but maybe you won’t. As the Psalm writer says, “I am small and despised, but I do not forget your precepts.” Salvation came to Zaccheus’ house even when he was small and despised.
When you feel small and despised, remember God’s precepts. Seek God’s understanding that you may live. Trust in God’s righteousness and judgments. You may still be small. You may still be despised. But salvation will come to your house as well. Amen.