First things first, who remembers the memory verse from last week? “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” Great job. I’ll get back to you on the prize. If you didn’t have it this week there’s still time, write it down in your bulletin and you can be sure to have it down next week so you don’t get embarrassed in front of the kids next week.
I introduced the theme of Rolling River Rampage last week, the idea that each session is focused on one thing we could potentially find on a white water rafting trip and things we can definitely find in a relationship with Christ: Adventure, Acceptance, Joy, Rest, Peace. Trying to do a broad look at all of those seemed like it would leave us wanting so I decided to focus on just one, this will be session three for the kids, “Find Joy on the River,” focusing on the story from Luke 19 of Zacchaeus. If you’ve ever spent time at a Vacation Bible School you probably know the story, but we’ll hear it now all the same.
With the theme of finding joy and the story of Zacchaeus you can probably connect all the dots here: Zacchaeus has gotten rich off of cheating his neighbors so they’ve all turned on him, but when he meets Jesus he is so moved by that meeting and that experience of acceptance that he pays back all he’s gotten by illicit means and turns over a new leaf. He chosen out of the crowd, and in Christ he finds the joy that a life spent acquiring wealth and status with the Roman empire failed to bring him. Jesus is the only source of joy that will truly fill us. That’s a great message, but it isn’t the one I want to focus on this morning. What I’m interested in this morning is not Zacchaeus’ joy, but the joy of the people in the crowd.
First a word about Zacchaeus and how he ended up in the position he found himself in, tax collectors aren’t strangers in the Gospels, we see them pop up throughout all four, Matthew even gets called while sitting in his booth collecting tax collectors, so Jesus interacting with Zacchaeus in this story shouldn’t be a big shock to us as readers, that fits his pattern. Zacchaeus isn’t just a run of the mill tax collector though; Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. Which means, and this is simplifying a little bit, Zacchaeus decided what everyone in this town had to pay in taxes. The way the Roman tax system worked is that the government would divide territory up into smaller regions based on population and decided based on how many people were there and what kind of resources they had what the tax on that particular region was. So it isn’t a system like ours where as an individual you pay a certain percentage of your income or like sales tax where a certain amount is added to purchases, it would be like if everyone here had a number we as a group had to pay in taxes. And you might think to yourself, “that’s not so bad, we could all look at the total and divvy up how much we each owed based on what we were bringing in and the expenses we know each other has, and if one of us had a tough year someone else could pick up a little extra that year, that system might work.” Good for you. That’s not what happened. Because the Romans didn’t tell the entire tax region what they owed, they hired a chief tax collector, and once a year they told him what was owed and he paid the total himself and then collected from the rest of the people. Are you seeing the problem? Zacchaeus is the only one who knows how much is owed. So the people have no way of knowing if what he comes demanding of them is a real number or not. He can demand any amount from people and there’s nothing they can do about it, because he can also send the Romans after them if they refuse to pay. Zacchaeus probably terrorized these people. We know he cheated them. We know he stole from them. And there was nothing they could do about it. Until one day a traveling teacher was coming into town. And everyone had heard about the amazing things he did and the miracles and how great his teaching was and everyone wanted to see him, including Zacchaeus. But Zacchaeus was short. Too short to see over the crowd. Now I know that sometimes parades can become a free for all of pushing and shoving and all that, I’m going to assume that everyone here is not that kind of person. I’m going to assume that we’re all civilized enough that if there was someone behind us at an event who couldn’t see and we were tall enough that letting them in front of us would impact our vision that we would let them forward so they could see too. The crowd doesn’t let Zacchaeus where he can see. The crowd refuses to make a place for Zacchaeus, to the point that he has to climb up a tree to try to get a good look. Here’s where this kind of being a children’s story and having a song and all that messes with our ability to hear it clearly: Zacchaeus is a grown man. In a tree. I’m going to say that again: Zacchaeus is a grown man, in a tree. If you’re like me, deep down you thought of Zacchaeus as a child and therefore its cute that he climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. He’s a grown man. I’m assuming he had a beard. He would have looked ridiculous up in that tree. Jesus didn’t notice Zacchaeus by luck, he was noticed because of course you would notice a grown man up in a tree clinging on to a branch. And the crowd would have loved it. Because they couldn’t do anything about him cheating them, they couldn’t do anything about him stealing from them, but they could make him look like a fool when the teacher came to town.
There is a perverse joy is seeing people get what’s coming to them, isn’t there? There’s a German word for it, schadenfreude, a pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. The Germans aren’t the only ones with a word for it, almost every language has it. The Japanese have a saying “the misfortunes of others taste like honey.” And we all feel it, deep down. Its why there are so many magazines with “you won’t believe what celebrity x looks like now,” its why, CO, its just as fun for me when Clemson loses as when South Carolina wins. Neither has happened much lately but you know what I mean. Its why I bet our UNC fans, even though they’d never admit it, felt a weird pleasure when Zion Williamson’s shoe burst. If you watched the NBA Finals you saw the biggest example of it, Game 5, if the Toronto Raptors win they win the championship, Kevin Durant of the Warriors goes down clutching his leg and the place erupted for a second. And then they caught themselves and felt bad, because that’s the trick of Schadenfreude, realizing how much we like it takes the joy away.
The crowd is enjoying Zacchaeus suffering. He’s finally getting what he deserves, he’s being made to look foolish. Jesus is looking up, he’s going to laugh too…except he doesn’t. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, and calls him a son of Abraham. He shames the crowd.
Its fun to see people get what we think they deserve. Unless we’re serious about the kingdom of God. Because God gives us grace we didn’t earn. There’s no joy in this town, that we see, maybe they saw the error of their ways later, but that we see there’s no joy in this town over Zacchaeus being changed, only disappointment that Jesus didn’t join in on their cruelty and anger that Zacchaeus doesn’t get punished. If we’re going to be people who are serious about bring other people to Jesus the first thing we have to get over is a need to see them get what they deserve. God doesn’t need our Schadenfreude. God doesn’t want our pettiness. God will use us when our joy comes from helping people see Jesus, not keeping them away.