Archive for November, 2010

Transforming Love

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Today we meet one more “outcast” before we finish our journey in the gospel of Luke. Jesus is almost to Jerusalem, and we’ll soon be moving on to the gospel of Matthew on November 28, when Advent begins.

Luke loves to tell stories of outcasts, the marginalized people rejected by society yet welcomed and affirmed by Jesus. The extravagant welcome of all that we in the United Church of Christ are fond of was definitely practiced by Jesus, and we see that very clearly in the gospel of Luke.

The outcast we meet today is Zacchaeus of Jericho, a rich man, normally the type of person feted by ancient society. His name actually means “innocent!” But he is far from innocent in the eyes of the people. His wealth comes from his job as chief tax collector. His title might as well read Chief Crook and Traitor. As an instrument of Roman oppression, the other Jews would have despised him. Every penny he earned came from their pockets, and whether he actively defrauded them or not, that would have been their assumption.

The Bible tells us that Zacchaeus was a short man. But we don’t know why Zacchaeus was so drawn to Jesus that he embarrassed himself by running and climbing a tree like a child, just to see him. No doubt he had heard some gossip about Jesus. There were all sorts of stories going around the grapevine—many hoped he was a revolutionary, gathering support to take on the Romans in armed conflict. Others saw him as a charismatic rabbi and leader of a Jewish renewal movement.

On Jesus’ and his disciples’ long walk to Jerusalem, each of the people he meets and stories he tells, reveals a little more about his nature. He heals people with leprosy, and restores the sight of blind men. He tells stories of dinner etiquette, the welcoming of children, justice, and money management. Often, he tells the disciples he is going to Jerusalem to die, and to rise again—but who can understand that? Only Peter begins to suspect that Jesus is divine.

When Jesus looked up, and Zacchaeus looked down, what did they see in each other’s eyes? Did Zacchaeus feel that he was in the presence of holiness? Did Jesus?

Some believe Zacchaeus was converted to righteousness earlier, and that is why he went to such lengths to see Jesus. The look they exchanged was just the icing on the cake. On the other hand, some prefer to think that Zacchaeus was instantly converted by this encounter, and that from that moment onward he knew that Jesus was the Son of God.

In that look, I believe that Jesus saw the depth of Zacchaeus’ feelings of pain and rejection. Perhaps he also saw all Zacchaeus’ grasping, cheating and thieving, and loved him deeply anyway… Radical acceptance. …Radical grace. Transforming love!

As if the look wasn’t enough, Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. A simple thing, you might say—but remember that throughout the New Testament, dinner is very important. It is not only daily sustenance, in a culture of scarcity and hunger, but in the story-telling language of the Bible, also a place to meet God. Jesus fed multitudes on a small amount of bread and fish, and we learned that it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Jesus frequently ate with tax collectors and sinners, to demonstrate that God’s love is available to all who seek.

In the ancient world, and in land-based cultures still today, hospitality is everything. It would have been expected that a rich man would entertain a traveling rabbi, and offer him hospitality in the form of a dinner invitation. Zacchaeus was obviously not thinking along these lines, since he concealed himself in the top of the tree. Perhaps that’s why he did it! Maybe he thought if he stood around, people would notice he wasn’t springing for dinner!

As usual, Jesus turns the tables and does the unexpected. He invites himself to dinner, and to the house of the most despised person in town, no less. And Zacchaeus is transformed! He excitedly begins to give away half of his belongings, and says, “If I have defrauded anyone, I pay back four times as much!” Four times is a stunning amount, way more than Jewish law required. What are we to make of this sudden change?

We modern folk find quick conversions suspicious, whether in movies, literature or real life. They cause us to grumble and sneer much like the crowd who grumbled to hear of Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house.

Mainline Protestants in general and Sojourners in particular, worship in a mostly intellectual way—the reading of prayers is honored above incense and holy water; sermons are expected to challenge thinking rather than exhort to faith; and the faith journey with its ebbs and flows is celebrated more than some final moment of truth. Generally, Protestants appreciate thinking more than feeling. And this can be an obstacle to church growth. Studies show that younger generations appreciate not having to check their intellects at the door, but they want much more than that. They want an experience of God, something that the WW II and Boomer generations haven’t been looking for as much.

The story of Zacchaeus challenges the intellectual approach to faith. I think that in that one look exchanged with Jesus, Zacchaeus fell in love with God. This kind of faith is what’s been described as a “song in the heart.” An experience of God like this doesn’t mean that he never had another bad day, or that doubts never entered his mind, or that he never sinned again. But it does mean, I believe, that his eyes of faith were opened, and he was given the ability to see the healing, love, joy and beauty all around him. For the first time, he was able to see money as merely a possession to share rather than an obsession to hoard. He was able to both give and receive love. Cheating and grasping ceased to be a way of life for him. This, I believe, is what salvation means.

Salvation does not mean that “If you believe X, you will go to heaven and not hell when you die.” No. Salvation, I believe, is wholeness and healing. Salvation begins in this life, when an encounter with God makes you feel renewed and released from the heaviness of your burdens. Once you let God in, nothing else can knock you off your feet for long. Everything else—money, possessions, what you do for a living, sickness, even the death of a loved one, as painful as that is—falls into perspective. As Simone Weil, a 20th century philosopher once wrote, “All the goods of this world…are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire that perpetually burns within us for an infinite and perfect good.” 1

That “infinite and perfect good” is our gift, our wholeness, our salvation, from God. It is offered to all—to some it comes in a moment, to others as part of a long journey; a perceptive few (the saints!) recognize it in themselves
from the beginning. But we can all experience it. It is a wholeness, a healing, and goodness that calls forth a response from us. To quote another 20th century philosopher, the African American Episcopal lay woman Verna Dozier, “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?” 2     Amen.

1 As cited in Huey, Kate, Weekly Seeds Reflection, October 25-31, 2010, www.ucc.org.
2 Ibid.