"Zaccaeus come down!" - a sermon preached at the Anglican Centre in Rome - November 17th, 2020
November 17th, 2020
who are you in this story of Zacchaeus up a tree? Do you find that an odd question?
The characters are all here on a page, after all, and you, well you are sitting in the chapel here in person. These events and conversations took place a long time ago and you are a contemporary person in Anno Domini 2020. But….one of the ways to study a passage together is to ask yourself at the outset who you identify with.
Are you Jesus, making peace in a situation where folks imagined no peace was possible. Do you have some relevant experience of this in your families or in your workplaces? Or do you identify with the crowd looking on, first with loathing upon a man they hated, and then with some sort of outrage when the hated man isn’t equally despised by Jesus? Do you, yourselves, have some gripe with somebody who was “let off the hook” when they should have received both barrels from the boss, from the parents, from the courts, from the parish priest or the bishop? It wasn’t just, you say, they deserved more punishment than they got. Or are you Zacchaeus up his tree looking longingly at something you believe you have no right to share in?
Who are you in the story of Zacchaeus up his tree?
We pass on what we receive and any number of parents find themselves horrified that they have become the very men and women who raised them – that they make the same mistakes – they find themselves using the same words and even adages that their mums and dads used. People who have been bullied over the years often turn out to be bullies and abusers themselves one day. The Gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector” and here we need to read “professional bully”.
What does the old adage say? The polite version is that you should not get into a tussle with a skunk. You’ll end up covered with smelly stuff and the skunk will enjoy himself. Best to keep your head down. Best to practice active avoidance.
It was a part of Zacchaeus’ job description to tolerate – maybe even enjoy - being feared and disliked by his own neighbours. Luke is here describing a nasty man in nasty employment. “Tax farming” was standard practice in Jesus’ time. While the taxes – or most of them – ended up in the hands of the Emperor, the job of collecting those taxes was outsourced to men who were thugs or who, at least, had a few handy thugs in their retinue. Of course, they added a percentage for themselves. They were opportunists and bullies in the pay of oppressive powers (be it the Romans in Judea or the Herodians in the Galilee).
It might come as no surprise then, given my opening statement, that St Luke further describes Zacchaeus as being “short in stature” - “a wee little man” as the children’s song goes. You might use your imagination. One could editorialize the whole episode and see a lifetime’s worth of payback against his own community - the slow working out of a well-developed grudge. Short no longer. Little no longer. No longer wee. He remains an outsider but now a powerful and dangerous outsider.
The story hinges around Jesus’ shouted command to Zacchaeus up a Sycamore tree, where he listens to the sermon from a safe but privileged vantage point. “Zacchaeus!”, Jesus shouts. “Come down!”. The community’s (and perhaps the reader’s) expectation is that Jesus will now confront and damn the unlovable traitor and exploiter of the people. Charismatic leaders do that with bullies - they confront them. Win or lose they will not leave them unchallenged.
Jumping to the end of the story, one finds the onlookers robbed of a bloody confrontation and a satisfying denouement. Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a form of confrontation but one which leaves the hated man unbloodied. There has been no fatal blow. The “righteous” expectations of the community are unsatisfied.
Back to the question I began with. Who are you in this story? I think it is clear that the Gospel writer sees us in the crowd – having our minds changed about God. Generations of pious religious folks have seen the dividing of the world into dark and light, good and bad as one of the traditional roles of the rabbi, the priest, the guru and the prophet. Tell us who is in and who is out – we ask. Show us how to be in – we mean. Give us a clear example of who is out – we really mean.
Our interest in the perfect justice of God might be ideological or even theological.
Our interest in his blessed mercy is intensely personal.