One of the elements of humor is that it’s often unexpected, it surprises us. It turns a phrase in a way that catches us off guard. “Autumn leaves. Jesus doesn’t.” [seen on an outdoor church sign yesterday, theme of children’s moment today]. So, imagine my surprise and the smile that came over my face when I read this in a Biblical commentary–
“Even in antiquity, the only exercise some people got was jumping to conclusions.” (John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Yr. C, p. 160) It’s a wonderful image, but of course, jumping to conclusions can have devastating or even deadly consequences. Take the issue of racial profiling. Or perhaps less dramatic but no less hurtful, all those prejudices–which means, “pre-judgement”–we all have. We judge people by the way they look, by who they remind us of, by what we’ve been taught about them, all before we ever speak to them, let alone get to know them.
The gospel of Luke is full of “reversals,” of having common assumptions turned upside down, beginning with Mary’s song when she is pregnant with Jesus– about the mighty being taken down from their thrones, and the poor lifted up. About the hungry being filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. There’s the unlikely Samaritan rescuer of the man who had fallen among thieves, or the rich man who went away sadly from Jesus, because for all his righteousness, he couldn’t let go of his possessions. There’s the defenseless widow who persistently comes to the judge to demand justice. There’s the shepherd leaving the 99 and seeking out the 1 lost sheep, or the woman sweeping her entire house to find the one lost coin.
So here at the end of Luke’s travel narrative about Jesus’ determined journey toward Jerusalem, we find Jesus seeking out a tax collector, of all people, even one who was hiding out in a tree so he could catch a glimpse of Jesus. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus calls up to him, “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
So Zacchaeus scrambles down the tree, suddenly full of hope and joy, but he can hear the crowd grumbling around him. My guess is his ears were pretty well-tuned to that sort of thing. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” is what they were saying, and Jesus looked at Zacchaeus as if to say, “Hey, they grumble about me all the time. This isn’t about you.”
But Zacchaeus stands his ground and protests. Most of the versions we read, and most of the versions we learned, have him say, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Another sinner repentant in the presence of Jesus.
But what usually gets translated in the future tense–”Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor…. and I will pay back four times as much”–now is recognized by may reliable translators as actually the present tense–the progressive present tense. In the Greek, this has the meaning of a repeated, ongoing action. So, “Look–half of my possessions, Lord, I already give to the poor. And if I [find that] I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay them back four times as much.” Roman law required a payback of four times only for convicted criminals, and the Torah required restitution of the object or amount plus 20% interest. Zacchaeus has more than fulfilled both laws.
In fact, the name “Zacchaeus” means “innocent,” “pure,” or “righteous one.” Maybe he is. Maybe instead of a story of redemption, this is a story of revelation. (Richard Swanson, cited in Kate Huey, Sermon Seeds, 11/3/13) Zacchaeus knows he is part of a system that oppresses. He’s part of the 8% of Palestinian culture who were the “retainer class,” serving the 2% of elites, who controlled and acquired their wealth which was produced by peasants. Rome taxed every aspect of daily life, and they depended on a system of tax collectors, set up at crossroads or harbors or markets to collect those taxes, but those tax collectors all worked under “chief tax collectors,” like Zacchaeus, who had to pay the tax upfront to Rome, and then recoup their payout. It was only by surcharging or graft that any of the tax collectors could make a living. Zacchaeus, “the righteous one,” one commentator (Huey) suggests, wants to make reparation for his gain from the system, and can’t live with the fact that he has benefited from the system which has oppressed others. “The fact is,” writes Fred Craddock, “that one is not privately righteous while participating in a corrupt system that robs and crushes other persons.” (Huey, op cit.) How many of us sit uneasily with the fact that we benefit from a system that crushes so many? I wonder if certain outwardly pious politicians ever are challenged to think about that from the pulpits they attend to.
Stan Duncan, a UCC pastor who went on the trip to Honduras with Sue Wiskoski and Vic Callirgos and me 10 years ago, writes that tax collectors in almost every instance were viewed negatively by the wealthy, including the Pharisees, while almost universally befriended by Jesus. (Blog, 11/3/13) Again, I wonder how many “Christian” Tea party members are aware of that.
So maybe Zacchaeus, like his name implied, was in fact, a “righteous” tax collector, just like the other tax collector whom Jesus named in his story about the Pharisee and tax collector both praying. Jesus saw that; in fact, sought him out. The crowd, though, had already formed their opinion of him. “Even in antiquity, the only exercise some people got was jumping to conclusions.” There seemed to be “conclusion-jumpers” all around that day.
But then there is that other detail that must have been so remarkable that Luke retained it in his story. Zacchaeus had trouble seeing Jesus because “he was short.” Now, actually, it’s not clear whether it’s Zacchaeus or Jesus who was short, but somehow a “short” savior is unbearable. So, let’s say it was Zacchaeus who was short. Maybe he had been teased and even bullied his whole life because he was small. Maybe that’s why he became a tax collector–at least he then had Roman soldiers to back him up. Zaccheaus was aware that he bore some guilt for what he did–for the job he apparently did well–and so he went over and above to repair the breach. “Half of my possessions, I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I pay back four times the value.”
But Zacchaeus also knew shame–not for what he did, but for what he was–short. “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” She was trying to eat at the lunch counter, but because of the “crowd” she could not, because she was black. He was trying to rent an apartment with his partner, but because of the “crowd” he could not, because he was gay. Shame is about who you are, not what you’ve done. You’re black or brown, you’re Latino, you’re not physically attractive, you battle with depression, you’re gay or lesbian or bisexual or transsexual, you’ve never married, you’ve never had a child, you’re not cool, you don’t have the right clothes, you’re a band geek instead of a jock, your mother drinks too much, your father is unemployed. Shame. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” Everybody’s experienced shame, she says, but shame grows exponentially when kept in secrecy, silence, and judgment. Shame that is kept secret and silent is lethal, Dr. Brown says, and “we [as a culture] are swimming in it deep.” (Super Soul Sunday interview, OWN) Think about it. Is this not true in your experience? Have you not experienced that “intensely painful feeling,” that hot face and churning stomach, when someone or something has triggered a “shame storm” in your? I happen to think Bennington is swimming in shame.
What shame cannot survive, Brown says, is empathy and being spoken; though, I might add, as she does elsewhere, that our stories of shame should only be spoken to someone who can be trusted. Zacchaeus knew Jesus was someone who could be trusted. He responded “whole-heartedly [as Kate Huey says] to God’s radical grace in his life.” (Op cit.) “Here’s the good news,” writes another commentator (Peter Woods, I am listening, 10/26/10)–”Jesus is drawn to shame. Shame and sadness are the pheromones that attract the amazing grace of Jesus.” In a culture that was based on honor and shame, Jesus consistently zeroed in on the people defined as shameful by that culture–the outcasts, the possessed, the sick, the non-attached– and reconnected them to community. “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and connection,” remember? This isn’t shame as we use it when we say, “Have you no shame?” Or “Shame on you!” What we mean then is really, “Have you no conscience?”
The church is often perceived as being in the shaming business, the finger-wagging business, but that in itself is “a shame.” I see Jesus confronting the shame– that “intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and connection”– head-on and being the vehicle for transforming that shame into re-connection, healing, the embodiment of love and worthiness. In fact, Jesus took the shame on himself, up to and including the excruciating pain and shame of crucifixion. Part of the good news of the resurrection is that even death cannot make us unworthy of love and connection.
Brene Brown writes of those who are able to overcome shame as whole-hearted people, people who live with courage, compassion, and connection. (“Gifts of Imperfection”) Zacchaeus experiences such joy and wholeheartedness when he scrambles down that tree to Jesus and tells him who he really is. Not so with the rich young man who had followed all the rules but couldn’t detach himself from his money.
“Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus said, reaching out to touch Zacchaeus’ arm, “because he too is a son of Abraham.” This one whom you thought you knew but never took the time to know, this one whom you have kept out of the circle of community, he too is a son of Abraham. He is part of the family. Salvation, wholeness, restoration, has come to this house today. There is no shame here.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. You are welcome to this table. Jesus must eat at your house–at our house– today. Come, let us keep the feast!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark