Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Up a Tree with Zacchaeus

You can tell Advent is drawing near because yesterday we started the "final days" cycle of readings from the book of Revelation. The Gospels, too, are pointing us toward Jerusalem and the consummation of all things (which began with the Passion and Death of the Lord). Interestingly (to me, at least), there is a shared image in today's texts: an image of hospitality.

In the book of Revelation we get a series of chilling prophetic messages, delivered in the name of Jesus: "you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead"; "because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth"; "you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." And then, wrapped in an invitation to repent, we get the most remarkable promise: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne, as I myself first won the victory and sit with my Father on his throne."

That promise is being fulfilled before our eyes in the Gospel story of Zacchaeus. You know the one: the wealthy tax collector who wanted to see Jesus so badly that he (in tunic and robes) climbed into a tree for a birds' eye view. But instead of Zacchaeus seeing Jesus, it was Jesus who looked right up at him, called him by name and promptly invited himself to the tax collector's house.

As the crowd began to murmur in disapproval, Zacchaeus did not back away. He did not cower at the unstated threat, the intimidation implied by the dismissive epithet "sinner" that was used instead of his name. He still heard his own given name as spoken so joyfully by Jesus, the Jesus who did not categorize him according to class or behavior or politics, but who saw him as a person and reached out to him. There is a hint of that also in the passage above from Revelation: the person who "opens the door" to Jesus is not responding to the sound of knocking, but to the voice that calls by name: "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter..."

A book I read recently added another dimension to my reading of this story. Actually, two books. The first was a cultural reading of this encounter, which only Luke narrates for us. In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, the author draws on thirty years of living in Middle Eastern cultures. He points out that when Jesus came to Jericho, "intending to pass through," and then changed his plans for the sake of the tax collector, he was basically disrespecting the whole town. Notice that the crowd "began to grumble, saying, 'He has gone to stay...' " Jesus triggered the scapegoating mechanism of the upstanding citizens of Jericho, effectively deflecting it from Zacchaeus to himself. Luke is showing us the Lamb of God, actively taking upon himself the sins of the world. (For more on how Jesus challenges and changes the sin-weighted scapegoat mechanism we see at work in this story, don't miss Reading the Bible with René Girard.)

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There are, of course, still plenty of people who "want to see Jesus" but who are crowded out, kept from Jesus by the very people who surround him. The trees they climb may not be sycamores, and we may be tempted to put them in categories: losers, liberals, conservatives... How can we be the voice of Jesus, seeing them where they are, calling them by name and inviting them to "hurry down" from the safety of their high perch?

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