Come on Down Shirley K. Macemon
Luke 19:1-10 October 31, 2010
The scripture we’ve just heard is a familiar one – Jesus comes to town; crowds gather to hear him, short Zacchaeus climbs a tree (much to the distain and humor of those around him) so that he can hear and see Jesus. The unexpected consequence is that Jesus notices him, has him come down, and proclaims that he’s going to eat at Zacchaeus’ home that evening. Zacchaeus proclaims that he’s going to be an honest person from now on, and the saving nature of Jesus teachings is proclaimed. Zacchaeus is an example of instant salvation. The townspeople who sniggered when Zacchaeus climbed the tree and were horrified when Jesus announced his intention to eat with him were proven to be fools, and Jesus is the hero of the day.
(OK, Jesus is still the hero of the day – hard to knock him off that pedestal) BUT, there is a odd thing about biblical interpretation. I don’t know if it is new, or even recent. But this year, a funny thing happened to me as I was studying this scripture. Commentaries I thought I kept pretty close attention to, and commentaries I haven’t pointed in a direction I hadn’t internalized. Since I don’t do Greek, I depend on the commentaries!
Evidently, for all these years we have read and preached, taught and heard about Zacchaeus’ instantaneous turn-around. He heard Jesus teach, and suddenly he was a changed man. Evidently, we’ve been missing a “small” piece of information. The verb tense used in his exhortation “I will give” and “I will pay back” isn’t that at all, despite what our “modern” and “intellectually superior” translations tell us. Evidently, the much-maligned KJV does better:
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
Now, truthfully, translators and commentators are somewhat split on whether this verb is, in fact, a future/present tense or whether the present action is the better reflection on Jesus and the writer of Luke’s intention. One vote for the latter is that the “present future” tense is used only one other time in scripture or any where else. And, I am generally suspicious of the more convenient reading, usually believing that the more difficult one more likely to be historical. So, Zaccheaus, the “evil” tax collector isn’t really that at all.
But where does that leave us??
As you know, today is Halloween; tomorrow, All Saints Day. If we were a reformed church (Lutheran, Presbyterian), we’d probably be at least tipping our hat to Reformation Sunday. (Martin Luther tacked up his objections to the Roman church on October 28) There is a wealth of amazing, church related stuff that we could talk about and listen to this morning. But I’d have to be at least multi-tasking (or we’d need a multi-hour service) to do each of these threads justice. But there is, I think, something of a common thread. Let me try.
More than a thousand years ago, Pope Urban IV instituted “all saints day” to remember the martyrs who’s martyrdom is unknown or forgotten. That is, lots of saints have “saints days”, but there are many others faithful to their beliefs who were martyred and not granted sainthood. So, Urban proposed (instituted) a “none of the above” celebration. (you know, not “a: St Mary, B: St Joseph, c” St Paul; or d: none of the above) The celebration, like all our good Christian festivals, happened to be scheduled at the same time as an existing a pagan one: Samhain. Ancient people believed that as the seasons changed, the days got shorter and darker, and nature seemed to die or hibernate. Powers, especially the power of death strengthened and became more active. In the old beliefs, Samhain was the festival of the Celtic New year when, it was believed, spirits of the dead would rise from the grave. Bonfires were built to ward off these evil spirits. Urban IV intentionally placed All Saints day on November 1: we have nothing to fear – neither powers of evil or death itself, for Christ has triumphed over death.
Some Christian churches preach mightily against Halloween as a continuation of a “death-god pagan ritual”, and lots of false and bad press has surrounded “what Samhain really was/is” much of it the result of really bad research on behalf of our more conservative brothers and sisters. But that is Halloween. All Saints Day continues to be somewhat problematic as well. What is a saint? If we’re not Catholic, do we have saints? If a saint isn’t canonized, is he or she still a saint? (probably yes to this one – Urban’s “none of the above” nature of All Saints Day) What do we do with saints anyway? Pray to them? Name cities and churches after them? teach our children the stories of their lives that may or may not ignore the realities of their day? Junipero Sierra has run into trouble: he founded the missions of California on the backs of Native Americans that he kept in slavery. The Carmelite sisters of St Therese of Liseaux, a 20th century nun were so unimpressed with her that they had trouble putting more than one sentence in her obituary. Saint Augustine – a 4th century African bishop and prolific writer clarified the extra-biblical concept of Original Sin: frankly, I can’t thank him for that.
The church in Corinth was full of folks who might be called unruly at best, but Paul calls then saints:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord. (1 Cor 1:2)
Called to be saints – literally, holy ones. For the folks in Corinth, their sanctity was not a moral achievement, or even a triumph of grace, but rested on their having been made holy by nature of their baptism. The church in Corinth was a mess, but Paul reminds them that they are indeed the holy ones – Christ’s own, made holy by baptism, and in need of reminding who and who’s they are. The Pauline imperative is to “become what you are” – to be the person God has called into being.
According to theologian Paul Tillich, Jesus spoke to two kinds of people (the ones who believe there are two kinds of people and the ones who don’t…)In short, some of us live in hope for the future, and some of us live fully endowed in the present: First are “broken” in their relationship to the present time, Lets face it, if you are suffering under the condition of your life - disinherited, marginalized, insecure, hungry, oppressed - hope for the future may be what you’ve got left. Jesus makes no distinction between spiritual and material want, or between spiritual and material fulfillment. These folks needed and hungered after both. They didn’t have fulfillment in this world, so could only turn their hearts to the coming of a new kingdom. In the world, but not of the world.
The other folks who Jesus spoke to were “unbroken” in their relation to the present stage of the world. Pharisees come to mind. They enjoyed prestige, power, security, living with their hearts in the world around them: being of the world, and in the world.
According to Tillich, Jesus didn’t target the rich simply because they were rich – but because their riches inevitably bond them to the current order; “the way things are”. If you believe “everything is ok”, then there is no reason to change.
Zacchaeus presents us with a problem because he seems to be one of the second types – though hated by fellow Jews, living with prestige, power and security. Owning a home that could host Jesus and his entourage at a moments notice.
But despite all outward signs, Zacchaeus and our saints have somehow come to terms with living in the current age, but “as if” the future age. Both the reality of today (that for Zaccheaus includes working for the occupying government), and the hope for tomorrow (that leads him to deal as fairly with all as he possibly can. This is tremendous tension: what we hope for tomorrow is, by definition, a reversal of what we’ve got today. Some days it may not seem like such a big difference (but then listen to the political ads…)
If we can imagine reading the Zacchaeus along any of these lines – or maybe even all of them! Then we might have to disagree with Tillich – that there are more than two kinds of folks that Jesus talked to. (or maybe there still are only two – just a different two: instead of the steryotypical, two dimensional, cut-out folks of “just good” or “just bad”, Zaccheaus presents us with a “costume” of a bad guy, but the heart of a “good one”. We might ask who in our lives, both in our congregation and outside, have been left on the margin and been ruled out of bounds, but despite that surprise us by their generosity and faith.
In my last congregation, we had a couple of real characters (ok, every church is filled with real characters.) Larry began attending about two years ago. Although generally basically clean, Larry always wears a baseball cap (which he takes off in church). His jewelry is some what bizarre – a small clock duck taped to a wristband serves as his “wristwatch”. He frequently sports a large rhinestone cross, buttons (both political and otherwise) from who knows where. Larry generally arrives early so he can get a cup of coffee before church - and generally brings his own cup. He joined us for every potluck, but it took him awhile to actually sit with others in the congregation. I had a couple of congregation members who were uncomfortable with his presence…I was thankful for their concern, and invited them to suggest Larry sit with them for worship and lunch. When we started an informal food shelf, Larry was a frequent user. The food shelf was specifically kept low key – if you needed something you took it, if you had extra, you brought it. Larry let me know if stuff had “aged out” or didn’t look right. And when he had something left at the end of a week– he brought it. Larry is right up there, for me, with someone who “wears one costume, but lives another”. He was not alone – congregation members who met their pledge, even when faced with eviction. Families who depended on our food shelf, and volunteered for every work day, mission outreach, and fellowship opportunity.
Who in our communities may have been kept at bay when they really just want to see Jesus?
Zacchaeus a saint? Zacchaeus wearing the “costume” of a “biblical bad guy”, but in reality, already living the life of a “good guy”?
Sounds to me like an appropriate scripture for Halloween, and a lesson on looking for the reality, not settling for the typical impression of those around us.
Life would be so much easier if, as the folks running for office would have us believe, persons ONLY were good or bad. (that is, the advertiser can do no wrong, the opponent can do no right)
Just as in Jesus time, and like the biblical translators who can’t figure out if Zacchaeus was a bad guy with instant conversion, or a good guy doing a dirty job, things are not always what our first impressions would have us believe. Our “favorite” grandmother is not our only ancestor. Not all our ancestors are saints (or sinners) That funny uncle is part of the family, whether or not we like it. We are, and the church is, what it is today because our ancestry not only includes those favorite grandmothers, but also biological and spiritual ancestors who sat on their hands, who cared only for themselves, who thought little about the impact of their actions on future generations. We are also the products of those who were apathetic in their witness, of those who advocated a racially segregated society. We are related to people who argued against women’s suffrage, rights and ordination. Some in our heritage shrugged their shoulders in the face of oppression and greed.
We are products both of those ancestors who fought for the faith and of those who fought against the faith. We are the descendants of both sets of grandparents. We have saints in our blood and skeletons in our closets. We descend from both Zacchaeus of the KJV AND NRSV.
As a Congregation, we also are the spiritual grandchildren of wonderful stewards who gave their all, and of generations of curmudgeons who threw water on the Spirit’s fire every chance they got. Every congregation, every family has both. One of these All Saints Days our own name will be read. We are the saints for future generations. We are the shoulders on which others will stand. Are we be ancestors who sat on their hands or ancestors who raised their hands? So I ask:
What type of ancestor are you? The Zacchaeus whose actions match his costume, or the surprising one who is living for the now and not yet Kingdom of God?