When Life Puts You Out On A Limb
Opening comment: I find it interesting that on All-Saints day the scripture hold up for us Saint Zaccheus. Leave it up to those liberal lectionary writers to sanctifier a Tax Collector
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Several years ago I was watching the Canine Frisbee contest on the Washington Mall. Itís a hoot. The dogsí trainers throw intricate patterns of Frisbie for the dogs to catch before the disc hits the ground.
This day an oval space on the grass just down the hill from the Washington Monument was surrounded by people at least ten layers deep, craning their necks for a better view.
I was about three layers in, my head bobbing and weaving, looking for a visual opening. Suddenly I felt pressure on my right thigh. It wasnít a pick pocket. Instead I discovered a five-foot four elementary student elbowing and squeezing his way up. Within minutes he had twisted, turned, elbowed, and squeezed his way to the front of the crowd.
Well the tax collector Zaccheus must have spent a good portion of his life barging into places. He would sharpen his elbows, grease his hips, stomp on feet and weasel his way up to the front of things. He engaged in a constant battle for position. How often he would say "If you don't look out for yourself in this world nobody else will."
I have never been short and small in my life. I suffer at the other end, big and tall. Until recently, in fact, I bought my suits at big and tall shops. Big and tall has problems of its own that I won't go into. Today we focus on short and small.
Now Zaccheus' stature shaped his character. He elbowed and squeezed his way up to chief tax-collector in Jericho. Riches and wealth comprised part of the equation as well. Chief tax-collectors squeezed the last drop of tax-money from the people of the land. All they could get beyond the going Roman rates was theirs to keep.
Evidently Zaccheus practiced the art of intimidation and extortion to perfection. In short, he had elbowed and squeezed his way to the top of the tax-collector world and money was no problem.
It brought a kind of recognition to him. Not positive recognition. Farmers feared him. Rivals envied him. Shop-keepers hated him. But after all, negative recognition was better than no recognition at all. At least people thought he was somebody. Zaccheus looked after himself very well.
The problem, of course, was loneliness. The more recognition he got the lonelier he felt. The wealthier he became the more he
separated himself from the rest of the people. Living a competitive life-style has a way of doing that to a person.
People become objects to manipulate. Colleagues become rivals to subdue. We choose friends by how valuable they are in boosting our status. We schmooze only with important people who look at us in the same way we look at them- people to be use. They become objects to manipulate and rivals to subdue. Loneliness presents the problem for Zaccheus. Loneliness sends him out onto that limb of the Sycamore tree.
Notice what happens next in this story. In the midst of a pushing crowd, all of who want to catch a glimpse of him or press his flesh, Jesus recognizes Zaccheus. "Zaccheus hurry and come down, for I must stay at your home tonight.Ē Jesus says. Jesus offers a lonely man the relationship he needs.
No one knows what prompted this incident. It is one of those serendipitous events where someone in deep need, almost at random, has that need met.
We can only speculate why. We know Jesus was deeply conscious of the separations and fragmentation of Israel in his day. We know that religion seemed to deepen and increase this sense of fragmentation. A deep gulf between the righteous and the unrighteous existed in his culture. Religion both created and accentuated that gulf. And it grieved Jesus to see it.
Jesus, sure of God's mercy and compassion, sought to bridge that gulf. It's what eventually killed him. He was so friendly to tax-collectors and sinners that religious and political leaders of the day felt threatened. They thought they quieted him on the Cross.
So here we have one sensitive to the loneliness and separation in people and society sensing in this little runt the loneliness and alienation that he feels. "Zaccheus hurry and come down, for I must stay at your home tonight."
My son went out to manage a senatorial campaign in the Mid-West one year. Two weeks into the campaign the candidate withdrew from the race. He had a great chance of winning. His poll numbers increased every day. Still he pulled out.
Why? He and his wife had a heart to heart talk. He realized that if he won, his life would become lonelier and even his family would become strangers to him. Somehow recognition and all the perks that come with political office didn't seem worth it.
We pay a cost for everything in life. Nothing comes free. No free rides exist. A "Yes" to one thing means a "No" to another. In a competitive society, success requires that we pay the cost of loneliness. Making it requires we pay the cost of separation. Achievement requires that we face the threat of fragmentation.
I find Zaccheus' response to Jesus puzzling. The scripture records Zaccheus responds this way: So he hurried down and welcomed him. I find that unusual.
Lonely people usually react more cautiously to the first offerings of relationship. A suspicion exists when we have lived too long with loneliness. We wonder what the person is after. We question what they got up their sleeve. We speculate about what angle they may be playing.
If I were Zaccheus I would wonder if Jesus was after my money. After all, here is an itinerant minister, living off the land and other people's hospitality, seeing an opportunity for solvency and the advancement of his program - a veritable Elmer Gantry of First Century Palestine.
Perhaps I have lived too long with Amherst College development officers. Most of their handshakes end with one finger on your pulse, judging how long they have to wait for the bequest. Or maybe it is just Washington Politics. Everyone has an angle.
Lonely people don't drop their defenses as quickly as Zaccheus. Desperation has to build. Unhappiness must grow. Pain must accentuate. The full consequences of being a successful loner must be paid. Evidently Zaccheus paid the ultimate price for the loner stance in life. So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
The point of this parable presents itself to us. Zaccheus meets the power of God's love. His desperation allows him to trust Jesus. He is ready for connection. He is ready for a graceful inflow of love.
I remember the emotional breakthrough I had with my father. He was in his late 80's and moving into senility. He lived alone in a Venice, Florida apartment and his life was disintegrating. I realized that he needed care. I also realized I could not give him the care he needed unless I had durable power of attorney over his affairs.
He resisted mightily giving up that control. Despite all my pleading nothing would get him to let go of an independence that no longer could sustain him. Finally, I said,"Look, it's a matter of trust. You need a care you can't give yourself. I want to care for you. I can't do it unless I can pay your bills. You have to trust that I have your welfare at heart. If not, you will just have to live in this continued loneliness.
After a pregnant pause, my father began to cry. "I will trust you," he said, "You have always been a good son." With that began a relationship full of more tenderness than we had ever known. My father did not die a lonely man
Something similar happened to Zaccheus. It required him to put his faith out on a limb just as he had put his life out on a limb and he met the power of God's love.
The power of love has the power to transform. It happened to my father and it happened to Zaccheus. After the encounter with Jesus, Zaccheus reconnects with his society.
In his case it takes the form of restitution. He says, Look, Lord, half of my possession I will give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much."
Someone once said that "Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving." It's not true. Guilt is only a short-term motivator of good deeds. Eventually, when the person feels they have paid enough, the former behavior recurs.
I think that is how we can understand the present racial crisis in our nation. White guilt motivated our attempts to right race relations. Now many whites figure they have paid enough. Racial tensions are, therefore, on the increase. Guilt only motivates for a short time.
This story about Zaccheus asserts that love is the long term motivator of behavioral change. A positive vision of love and an experience of its unconditionality will, in the long run, bring change. Jesusí love brought change to Zaccheus. His love motivated change in the Jewish and Roman world of his day.
Jesus declares it. Today Salvation has come to this house. The Greek word for salvation also translates as the word "Wholeness. Salvation means a restoration of wholeness and balance in life. For Zaccheus, loneliness was balanced by love, transformation occurred, balance was restored, Salvation arrived. In the end it will be God's love that motivates real change in our lives and restores us to balance. In the long run it is Godís love that will bring empower us to bring peace and justice to Iraq, openness and acceptance to all people and all faiths, food shelter and empowerment for the poor of the earth, healing to the earth and the environment Let that empower and motivate us and let that be our prayer and our motivation in these apocalyptic times!