Saturday, March 24, 2007

Lent 5 - Luke 19.1-10 (Zacchaeus)




From time to time Alison and I get away on holidays and go down to a caravan park on the south coast – we’ve got a favourite spot that I’m not going to tell you about! – but I remember when we first started going there just after we got married we were amazed to find what looked like a village of vans in various states of permanence.  The ones up on blocks, that you assume aren’t going anywhere, especially when you notice they’ve got little white picket fences and lawns and fibro annexes.  These people look like they’re there to stay.  It’s easy enough, also, to pick the ones that are just down for the summer holidays – medium sized vans, a bit untidy-looking, surrounded by kids’ bikes and fishing rods.  But the ones that fascinate me are the permanent nomads and gypsies, well-equipped vans pulled by four wheel drives, all the creature comforts, the owners pull in and have everything unpacked, sitting down to a cup of tea and the evening news within 20 minutes, interstate number plates and often as not a little sign in the back window of the van saying who they are and where they come from. 

It’s a romantic dream, for some of us anyway, the idea of not having any ties, no need to stay where the weather’s not perfect or there’s nothing interesting to see.  For real nomads and gypsies, the reality has always been a bit less romantic, never quite belonging anywhere, never quite accepted, always a stranger and people always happy to see you go. 

I think the image of the caravan is actually a useful metaphor for what it’s like to be God’s people - especially for the Jewish people who, right down deep in their psyche, have got this sense of themselves as having being displaced, of being dispersed and homeless - and it’s out of this experience that the most profound understanding is born of what God is like.  There’s a Greek word for this that you might know because we also have it in English, diasporosthe Diaspora, or Dispersion, and it’s not a modern phenomenon, Jewish people even today have a profound sense of their identity as the descendents of a wandering desert nomad, Abraham, who found favour with God.  A sense of having been slaves in Egypt, of having been guided by God through the trackless desert.  But maybe the most searing, the most appalling experience of having been scattered – prior to modern times and the Holocaust, at least - was the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 538 BCE.  You can read in the book of Lamentations, and in the prophet Jeremiah, the devastating impact of exile that in Hebrew is called ????? – a hard, ugly word that means to be stripped bare, utterly humiliated and exposed.  It was only through the vision of the prophet Jeremiah, who came to understand that the God the people of Israel had worshipped in the Temple at Jerusalem had not abandoned them but was with them wherever they went, that God’s people began to recover any sort of sense of who they were.   It was Jeremiah who told the people to put down roots in Babylon, to build houses, give your sons and daughters in marriage, build a future, and it was Jeremiah who came up with the stunning insight that - through the disaster of exile - God intended God’s people to be a blessing to the goyim, to the non-Jewish peoples around them.  It was there, at that point, that the beauty of Judaism was most fully revealed, the understanding that to be chosen by God was to be chosen as a blessing to the nations.

And I think we in the Christian church today need to recover this sense being off-centre, the sense of being God’s exiled people, because it’s also foundational for the earliest communities of Christians.  In the first letter of Peter, the apostle addresses his readers not only as diasporosthe Dispersion – but also as parapidemosa word means an alien who has the right to settle somewhere but never to actually belong, a person without legal rights because their citizenship is somewhere else.  This community of Christians isn’t actually Jewish, like us they are Gentile Christians but they have understood that to be followers of Jesus Christ that their real sense of belonging has to be somewhere else, their real citizenship is in the reign of God that in one sense we already experience and in another sense we long for.  The reason for the Greek lesson is that this Greek word – parapidemosis related to another word - paroikosor as we pronounce it in English – ‘parish’.  And for at least the first three centuries of the Christian church that was exactly how we understood ourselves – God’s gypsies, always passing through but never quite belonging, resident aliens whose whole purpose for being here is to be a blessing to others.  God’s outsiders, sensitive to the presence of others who are excluded or lost.

Well what, you might be wondering, has all this got to do with Zacchaeus?  A story that is so familiar that it’s difficult to penetrate beyond the cute Sunday School image of little Zacchaeus up his sycamore tree.  But the image of little Zacchaeus up the tree isn’t meant, I think, to be cute.  This is a powerful and dangerous man, the idea of Zacchaeus climbing the tree to see Jesus so utterly inappropriate and even humiliating, as undignified as the picture we had last week of the aged father running through the streets of the village to reclaim his lost son.  And notice that Zacchaeus comes along in Luke’s gospel just after the story about the rich man whose great wealth made it impossible for him to follow Jesus.  There’s something symmetrical about this story, here’s another rich man who does make the right response to God – a response just as foolish, just as extravagant, as God’s own response that we see in the story of the Prodigal Son.  The other thing is that this is a story not about forgiveness, but about assumptions and the power of stereotypes.  We do know, not only from the gospels but from historical sources, that tax collectors who worked with the occupation forces were despised and hated, and when they got wealthy as they often did, it was assumed they were corrupt.  We actually don’t know whether Zacchaeus was corrupt – but the crowd assumes he is, and it’s this assumption that is the point of the story.  Because Zacchaeus is ostracised, he is an outsider and an alien in his own country.  We know that he was eager to see Jesus, Zacchaeus had apparently been attracted for some time to what he had heard about Jesus so it’s not a sudden change of heart.  But the point of the story is that Zacchaeus, an outsider and an alien - Zacchaeus who is in exile ????? - is restored to human dignity, restored to social visibility and a place in the community because he is recognised and taken seriously by Jesus.  And for that reason he responds with generosity and with joy.

The wonderful thing is that this story really tells us what God is doing for us in Jesus himself.  Jesus, of course, is the gypsy in this story, the one who comes among us as an exile, his true citizenship not here but with the one he calls his Father.  It’s the story of the Incarnation – God welcoming those who are alienated – Zacchaeus and us - restoring us to our true selves and our true relationships - with God and with each other. 

That’s why God’s people should never start to feel too comfortable.  Psychologically, we need to remain nomads, always off-centre, always aware that we are away from our true home.  As the people of God’s blessings our purpose is to be a blessing to outsiders, to the lost and the marginalised.  The first job is to recognise them, and the more settled we feel, the harder that is – who are the Zacchaeus-types in our neighbourhood?  Who has to climb a tree to be noticed?  Who in our community feels alienated, or unwelcome?  The second job is to enter into conversation, as one caravanner to another, to take them seriously as partners on the road.

Then, and only then, will we become a church in mission.