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By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
Jericho – you know the song. “Joshua fit the battle of…” But it was there seven thousand years before him. It was and is the oldest city in the world. Oasis of green and palms in the midst of desolate wilderness. Cross roads of trade from Egypt and Syria, Asia and the West, gateway of the climb to Jerusalem. Jericho’s streets in Jesus’ day would have been full of publicans and courtiers, fanatics and ascetics, traders and thieves, priests and pilgrims on their way to the yearly festivals in David’s city.
Mark Anthony made it a gift to Cleopatra and threw in Arabia for good measure. Here Herod the Great of Christmas story died, ordering with his last breath the slaughter of leading citizens so that there would be mourning at the time of his passing. His son, Archelaus rebuilt for himself a magnificent palace set in sumptuous gardens, the ruins of which you can still see today.
And Zaccheus, wealthy agent of Rome. The town would have known him, both envied and despised him. Rome had no interest in this province except for its strategic location as a land bridge to Egypt and what taxes it could extort. But Rome could not be everywhere and so it outsourced its Internal Revenue Service. Contracted with natives of the country to do the job. They paid Rome in advance and received the right to extort whatever they could from the locals.
Tax collectors have never been particularly popular. Have you heard about the latest proposal for a simplified form? All they ask is: What do you make? What do you spend? What have you got left over? Send it to us.
But in those days the title tax collector automatically meant traitor and thief to the average Israeli. In their minds he was stamped as corrupt. In their minds he had abandoned their community and was therefore abandoned by God as well. He was on his way to hell. His name would have been said as a sneer. When born, his mother had chosen Zaccheus because it meant – the righteous, the good, the pure. Some righteousness, some goodness, some purity.
Isn’t part of his problem right here? Everybody knows him, or thinks they do. He is the wealthy crook. Sinner and tax collector were said in the same breath. All anybody knew was that he was rich and resented. No matter that he might be a lot of other things as well, truly caring husband, loving father, struggling to create a safe and secure life in a dangerous and uncertain world, somebody’s son. They had named him and that was that. Fat cat tax collector.
Don’t we do that a lot, imprison one another in a name. Sum others up in ways that destroy their humanity. You hear it among the young —nerd, jock, geek. In more subtle ways, it happens in the adult world. We too label and lock up our minds. She’s the talker. He’s the chauvinist. And so we sum them up, simplify them into stick figures we do not need to understand because, of course, we know who they are.
Labels are dangerous, deadly, labels like failure, average, unstable, stupid, insensitive, black, white, feminist, chauvinist, intellectual, elitist, homosexual, racist, because they reduce human beings to categories, see only aggregates, rather than as complicated beautiful mysterious struggling individual human beings. Tax collector. That summed him up.
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But the thing that made him different than others of his class, different than the other wealthy bureaucrats, was this. Some discontent still stirred in him. We know this because we know something about that culture. And there were at least two things a mature male of the wealthy elite never did. Run in public and climb trees. Some of us don’t even do these today, because we can’t. But he could and he did.
Which tells us that he was still hungry for and open to something more in life? And he was willing to look the fool to find it? God seldom becomes important or real to the comfortable, the self-satisfied.
It is only when we are still sensitive to some emptiness this world cannot fill, only when we still long for some transcendence in our life, some tie to the eternal, that God becomes available. “If with all your heart you truly seek me…” writes the prophet. And Zaccheus was willing to run ahead and climb a tree.
So Old Zack, for all his wealth and comfort, was still searching. He had heard of the man of Nazareth, that he was something special, someone from God, and he had to see him. But he was short—or as we say today, vertically challenged. But in that gathering crowd waiting for the parade, not a chance. With his name and reputation and lack of stature in the town, he stood only to be jostled, elbowed, smothered in the smells of those around.
So he swallowed his pride of bearing and ran, on ahead of the mob, to a Sycamore tree which he climbed, high in the overarching branches, a quite ridiculous sight hanging there in the middle of the street. They still show you the tree. A tree that produces an almost inedible fig, but a great tree for climbing.
And while he is hanging up there embarrassed and hungry, God comes to him. Now that is what this story is really all about, how God enters our life. You say, but isn’t this Jesus, the teacher from Galilee. What’s with this God business? But even as a prophet Jesus teaches about God not only in words, but by how he acts. Jesus acts out the way his Father works in this world. And so as Christians we trust that the Eternal One functions in our lives much as did Jesus in the lives of those who encountered him so long ago.
And what do we see here? Not a God who is passive and distant and impersonal and judging. Rather, a God who pursues us in love and acceptance and embrace as we are ready for him, open to his presence, available to his friendship.
We miss something of the power of this story because eating together no longer has the same symbolic and social power that it had in that time, and still has in more traditional cultures. In Jesus’ day, to eat with someone was to offer him the most intimate form of friendship, was to allow him into one’s community and circle which is why the uproar among literally the whole town of Jericho. “He has gone to be to be the dinner guest of one who is a sinner,” that is, someone who is outside, who doesn’t belong to them or to God, clearly outside the love of God. It is entirely fair to say that Jesus was finally killed because of his eating habits, his determination to include those whom everybody else had excluded out.
So the God that Jesus portrays is a God who turns aside and takes a chance, who pursues, embraces, forgives before he demands. So this story is a word to Zacchaeus and to you and me that no matter how we have messed up, no matter how downhill the day has gone, no matter how we have tended like Zacchaeus to put our own survival first, God does not abandon us. We are welcomed unconditionally, just as we are, by the most important person in our life, our God.
You don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to become somebody. You with your falling hair and your sometimes foul temper, your credit cards and college degrees, your forgetfulness and your failure to always be sensitive, your political clout and corporate power, your occasional defensiveness and tendency to neglect others, all the stuff that does bother you really if you are honest, that drags you down, and all the stuff that slides you into self-sufficiency and complacency, never-the-less you count with him. He wants you to know him and trust him and eat with him. “Zaccheus, hurry up and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
That’s the God in Jesus come to dinner, the God who accepts and embraces just as we are. But then there follows another, somewhat sobering note. We can tell when this God has come to dinner, by whether anything is happening to us. The test of our trust in God’s love is whether we find ourselves loving like Jesus, reaching out beyond our crowd to the outsider, the lonely, the lost ourselves. Zacchaeus responds to his dinner partner’s presence by saying, “Look, half of my estate I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Jesus hasn’t asked this of him. Perhaps he would have. But before he can, Zacchaeus reaches out. It is the transforming power of the love of God taken seriously. And the language makes it clear that he is doing far more than conventional morality requires. Half of his estate. Four-fold restitution. There is no law in the book that requires anything like that. But Zack has ceased to worry so much about his own life, and out of gratitude for Jesus’ generosity he has become a generous and giving human being. Here, friends, is the only power that really changes anyone, the power of relationship freely given and gratefully received.
You can tell who has really encountered the love of God. Like Jesus they are always growing, changing, stretching, giving, including, embracing. Fred Beuchner in his remarkable little autobiographical statement The Sacred Journey tells of how he learned after having given himself rather one-eyed to his professional writing career, allowing it to dominate.
He tells of one evening toward the end of his teaching career when he went to have dinner with his mother who was living alone in New York. “It was to be just the two of us, and we had both looked forward to it, not simply as mother and son but as two old friends who no longer got to see each other all that much. Then just as we were about to sit down to eat, the telephone rang, and it was for me. It was a friend I taught with at Lawrenceville, and he had not spoken more than a word or two when his voice broke and I realized to my horror that he was weeping. His mother and father and a pregnant sister had been in an automobile accident on the West Coast, and it was uncertain whether any of them would live. He was at the airport waiting for a flight to take him out to them. Could I come down, he asked, and wait with him till the plane left?
“My instinct was to be nothing so much as afraid. I was afraid of my friend’s fear and of his tears. I was afraid of his faith that I could somehow be a comfort and help to him and afraid that I was not friend enough to be able to be. I was afraid of opening the door into his pain or anybody’s pain. So although I knew as well as anybody that I had no choice but to say that I would come, what I said instead, Heaven help me, was that I would come if I possibly could but there were things I had to take care of first and would he phone me back in about ten minutes.
“In the other room dinner was on the table and my mother was waiting, and on that placid stage there was played out a preposterous little scene that was nonetheless one of the watersheds of my life. Because when I told my mother what had happened and that I was probably going to have to leave and skip supper, her reaction caught me completely off guard. The whole thing was absurd, she said. My friend was a grown man. He had no business carrying on like a hysterical child. What earthly good could I do anyway? It was outrageous to think of spoiling an evening together that we had both been looking forward to for days. Everything she said was precisely what at some level of my being I had already been saying to myself…as much out of revulsion at myself as out of pity for my friend, I resolved that as soon as he called again, I would tell him that I would come immediately.
“Then, as the final absurdity, when he did call again, he said that he had gotten hold of himself and there was really no need for me to come at all, and the consequence was that I did not go … But in the long run the consequences went much farther than that. The result of that phone call and of my response to it was the start of a journey, the journey an old monk had referred to when he said I had a long way to go. My mother’s apartment by candlelight was haven and home and shelter from everything in the world that seemed dangerous and a threat to my peace. And my friend’s broken voice on the phone was a voice calling me out into the dangerous world of human need not simply for his sake, as I suddenly saw it, but also for my sake. The shattering revelation of that moment was that true peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat but only in the thick of the life. To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake, even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death — that little by little we start to truly come alive.”
That’s Zacchaeus. And we who have so much can find our way there as, day by day, we let go a bit of our demands on life and stay open to the needs and opportunities that fall our way in home and labor and beyond. Then, in fact, we may have everything in new and more carefree ways and find rare adventures and needy places and grateful strangers with us.
Oh, and there is one thing more. Wonder of wonders the camel does make it through the eye of the needle. Zacchaeus starts out a wealthy tax collector. But Jesus gives him a new name. Zacchaeus ends up a son of Abraham. That’s what you always get from him, a new name, son, daughter of Abraham, child of God. Because in the last analysis that’s the only name that counts.
Copyright 2005, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.