10/30/2016 Welcome the Outcast

Ordinary Time (Proper 26)
Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 119:137–144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12; Luke 19:1–10

Niels Larsen Stevns: Zakæ

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So you mean to tell me that Jesus promised salvation to a sneaky, two-faced, “I’ll do just about anything for money even if it means being considered an outcast by my own people” guy like Zacchaeus and to top it all off, promised to go to Zach’s house for dinner while all those good, “synagogue-going,” respectable people were ignored by Jesus?

Well, to start with: Doesn’t Jesus realize who pays the bills to keep the synagogue (i.e. “church”) open? He keeps this kind of stuff up and he’ll drive away every respectable person in town!

You know that if somebody ever makes a movie about Zacchaeus, Danny DeVito will be playing the title role. Or maybe that would be too obvious typecasting. (And in case you missed this link last week, here’s an interesting spin on modern-day tax collectors, who apparently never got the memo about repentance from Zacchaeus.)

In any event, there was a reason why the crowd grumbled when Jesus chose to talk with Zach and invite himself over for dinner. (I have to wonder just how Zach broke that news to his wife.) How often have I heard people say how while it’s all well and good for Jesus to reach out to somebody so obviously on the margins of acceptable society (today we might even say it was the “Christian thing to do,” but then I recall that Jesus was a Jew and Christianity hadn’t been created yet…), but let’s get real here: there’s a “right way” to go about these kinds of things, isn’t there? That’s why we have well-thought-out programs and ministries matched to human and physical resources at hand.

Sadly, we religious folks are among the best there is at designating people (and issues) as belonging out on the margins of acceptability. In Jesus’ culture it was tax collectors, foreigners, and lepers. We do the same today, of course, although we use different designations. (Yes, you wouldn’t be mistaken to be thinking of “Make America Great Again” at this moment.) There’s gay people, and Muslims, and the poor in general (hey, aren’t they in that situation because of laziness anyway?), or people in the “other” political party. Or maybe you accept the idea of global warming and climate change–or not.

When I look around my suburban congregation here in the U.S. Midwest on just about any Sunday I see people who look an awful like me: white, middle-class and leading a relatively comfortable existence (for example, I don’t have to worry about a roof over my head, where my next meal is coming from, or that somebody will automatically put me down; now that I think of it, as a self-identifying progressive Democrat with all kinds of crazy people [who came up with that “alt-right” name, anyway?] running roughshod during this truly disgusting election season–maybe I better not go there right now…).

Which is to say that if the modern-day equivalent to Zacchaeus were to show up at church, there’s a pretty good chance there just might be some grumbling or at least sideways glances. Fortunately, my congregation has official greeters.

After two thousand years we Christians have commandeered that word “salvation,” giving it over almost exclusively to the idea that there’s a promised mansion in heaven waiting for us because, well, we’re the “good guys” in God’s eyes. But what if we’re not? What if God does, after all, exhibit a partiality to all those folks out there on the margins of society–whether it’s to do with economic or social status? Who’s to say those marginalized folks aren’t metaphorically jumping up and down or climbing trees to catch a glimpse of Jesus Christ, but we God-fearing, church-going, respectable Christians are blocking the view?

What if, after all, salvation isn’t a personal, private, interior, individualized state of being? What if it’s something connected with the idea of community? Do we find that hopeful or damning?

Last week’s Gospel lection featured a repentant, breast-beating tax collector too humble (or maybe ashamed) to come out of the shadows in the Temple courtyard and a not-humble-at-all Pharisee thanking God he was “not like other men” (meaning, naturally, “better than”). We don’t know what became of that first tax collector, but we do know about Zacchaeus. He promised to repay four times whatever money he might have stolen from taxpayers and give half of all his no-doubt considerable wealth to the poor. Zach not only recognized his situation, he declared his intention to do something about it–and that made all the difference. He joined the 12-Step group and followed through!

Hearing that “good news” you’d think the respectable folks watching all this would shout a few “Hallelujahs” or “Amens” or “Thank you, Jesuses.” But no, they grumbled. And I don’t think it was because they recognized that Zach was actually making them look bad–exposing their outward and inward sins. How dare Jesus do such a thing!

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About Rich Brown

Rich Brown is a writer, blogger, editor, and publisher. His most recent book is "Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile" (Isaac's Press).
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