Oct. 30, 2022
Last week Jesus tells a parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” A Pharisee was exhibit A in the story and his prayer was contrasted to the very penitential prayer of a tax collector. The parable led us into thinking about the spiritual significance of humility and we considered two key points: The first message was that humility is not the act of feeling appropriately bad about yourself for God’s sake, rather, it is the act of embracing our contingency, our createdness, and our dependency on a Creator for life, and fullness, and meaning and purpose. Humility, by acknowledging our sense of incompleteness apart from God, enables us to be receptive to God and to God’s life within the center of ours. Humility also has the effect of increasing our capacity for empathy and compassion. Because it gives us permission to be works in progress, humanly imperfect and incomplete, it helps us to see others the same way. It helps us to see others as “persons,” just as we are with no fewer reasons to receive grace than we have.
Now, on the tail end of these reflections Luke gives us another story featuring Jesus and a tax collector. It’s probably worth noting here that tax collectors were despised in ancient Israelite culture because in most cases they were fellow Jews making a living by extracting funds for an occupying foreign government. There was a layer of betrayal to their position and especially so if, like Zacchaeus, they were wealthy.
I’m not sure the original shock value of these stories that place tax collectors in a positive light translates all that easily for us. No doubt the hearing of them would have been a pretty big gut punch for many. In fact, I think the gut punch is an important point of the message for Luke. When the crowd sees Jesus’ attention to Zacchaeus Luke tells us that they “grumble.” They say, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Prior to this point it’s the scribes and the Pharisees who grumble and who use this line. As with the previous passage it is the religious authorities, people like me I suppose, who object to the grace that Jesus has been dishing out. It’s too broad and it dismisses the rules and customs that have given the faithful a framework within which to live. But, we and Luke’s readers have celebrated this grace. We love the boundary breaking that Jesus does, which may translate a little too easily into a kind of contempt for those who’ve been tasked with guarding the tradition.
In the last parable, when we’re told that it was directed at “those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” we could pretty comfortably point to the guilty party. But this time it is pretty clear that the guilty party is made up of the very people who previously loved the boundary breaking grace that Jesus gives out. If people like me were the guilty previously, it’s people like you this time. It’s the gathering of people who’ve come to receive a bit of Good News. It’s the congregation of lay people who’ve come together in hope that Christ has grace for them too that are the ones putting the brakes on grace this time.
I hear the passage as a kind of warning to us all about how easy it is to fall into the trap of “holding others in contempt.” It’s not just the Pharisees you see who grumble about the reach of God’s grace. All of us run the risk of righteousness and its accompanying blindness when grace goes too far.
That again is why humility matters so much. I’m reminded of meeting Leonard Sweet back at the start of my career in ministry. He was a big name in the emergent church movement and to have his presence at our assembly of new pastors felt like welcoming a celebrity. He greeted the auditorium, “Hello, saints!” We all felt encouraged and appreciated, if not needlessly honored, and responded “Hello.” “Hello sinners,” he then said, and we realized that to be fair and honest we should answer to that greeting as well. “Hello,” we all said back.
It has stuck all these years because that, I think, is the balance that we’re asked to live. We’re called to hold both truths at once. At once, we are both saint and sinner. Saved and still seeking. Loved and changed by that love, yet prone also to lesser instincts, selfish ambition, and limited thinking. We carry simultaneously the love of God along with the need for God and when we do that with faith and intention that is when we also find ourselves equipped to be part of a grace that is big enough for people who do and don’t deserve it.
Last week I said that the only way to learn humility is to practice it. To hold this “bothness” together, to be both saint and sinner capable of both receiving and extending grace we must practice. So, this week, I thought we could practice by engaging in a prayer experience together.
Place yourself in that scene. Jesus is making his way through town and a crowd has gathered around him. At this point people know who Jesus is; they’ve heard about his teachings, healings, feedings, and all the miracles. Take a moment to feel the hope and anticipation running through the crowd.
Jesus stops and looks at Zacchaeus up in the tree. And so do you. You don’t know what’s brought him there. You don’t know what need or hope it is that’s compelled him to go to such lengths to get a view of Jesus, but you see him – you see the surprise and the wonder in his expression as you hear Jesus say, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
The crowd grumbles, but as Jesus and Zacchaeus walk off the moment plays over again in your head. This time it is you in that tree. What has compelled you to get a better glimpse of Jesus? What need, or hope, or desire – what longing – has brought you to this place? Spend a moment identifying what it is that is bringing you to Jesus?
Watch as he stops and looks at you now. He calls you by name and says, “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Repeat.) How do you feel in response to those words?
Hear them again, but this time when Jesus says “house” you understand that he also means heart. Understand that it isn’t simply a visit; he plans to stay, to make his home within and with you. Take a moment to rest in his presence.
I hope that was a nice experience for you. I hope the grace of Christ’s desire for you felt real and true. Though we’re going to stop here for now, the prayer isn’t really over just yet. I want to invite you to continue it later today or tonight. And when you do, imagine that it’s someone else who needs your prayers in that tree. Choose a loved one, or a friend. Choose an enemy or someone you are struggling to love. Choose someone you don’t even know, someone whose plight you saw on the news. Choose somebody, and then choose somebody else. Your prayer could go on for a long time, and I believe that both you and the world will be the better for it.