Homily preached by the Reverend Malinda Johnson, Guest Celebrant & Preacher
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – October 31, 2010
Early on in the novel Brideshead Revisited, there’s a conversation I love between the narrator, Charles, and his best friend, Sebastian. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Charles is an atheist at this point, Sebastian a devout Roman Catholic, and Charles just doesn’t have a clue yet what his friend’s faith is all about. Here’s the exchange:
Sebastian says to Charles: “ Oh dear, it’s very difficult being Catholic.”
Charles responds, “ Does it make any difference to you?”
“ Of course, all the time.” Sebastian says.
“ Well, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don’t seem much more virtuous than me.”
To which Sebastian replies indignantly, “ I’m very, very much wickeder…who was it who said, ‘oh God, make me good, but not yet?’”
Have you ever noticed how the big names in the Bible – Moses, David, Jacob and Paul, just to name a few – have you ever noticed how these icons of our faith might also be described as “very, very much wickeder” than most? Take Jacob, for instance. We heard about his wrestling with God two weeks ago and how he walked away from that experience both transformed and blessed; and yet this is the same guy, the same Jacob, who was a world class con-artist and cheat from the minute he was born. Other than perhaps congenital chutzpa, there was nothing about Jacob’s character, and even less about his behavior, to merit such a meeting with God — never mind that take-away blessing.
Here and elsewhere in our holy scriptures, we see epic figures with epic flaws, which underscores (or should anyway) that being “good” is largely beside the point where faith is concerned. Of course, it’s not that being “bad” is better. It’s just that too often we confuse being good with simply being respectable; or we think goodness gets the ball-of-faith rolling, whereas it’s usually the other way around; plus goodness can be a spiritual straight-jacket if it isn’t genuinely informed by love.
Jacob, Moses, David, Paul…not to mention all the folks we’ve heard about lately in the lectionary from Luke: various “lost sheep” or anonymous sinners; the dishonest steward; Lazarus as opposed to the rich man; the tax collector as opposed to the Pharisee…what all these folks and so many more in the Bible have in common is very simply this: no illusions about who they are and what they deserve. These people are commended to us for their faith, not their virtue, and it may just be their very neediness and shortcomings that bust open the doors to salvation.
If Jesus has a bone to pick with the rich and powerful, it’s not about their attachment to wealth or status so much as it is about the pride and sense of entitlement that these things so often produce. I think it was the tart-tongued journalist Molly Ivins who once said something like, people complain all the time about the undeserving poor but what about the undeserving rich? She’s got a point. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anyone, rich or poor, who hasn’t experienced the fickleness of fortune; the only difference, it seems to me, is whether or not we know it.
Which brings me finally to Zaccheaus, undeserving in his own way, and yet one more in a long line of sketchy characters singled out by Jesus to illustrate what faith is really about.
Over the years I’ve heard this gospel story preached as a story about repentance on the one hand or stewardship on the other. Now, I know these things are important to us — to the church — and they clearly impact our lives in community. Even so, my own sense is that Jesus is trying to get at something bigger and much more powerful about God, not us. This might explain why it was such a shocker for Jesus to make Zacchaeus of all people the hero of the day.
Sure, Zacchaeus was rich, but that wasn’t much for him to brag about since he was a tax collector and, of course, Roman tax collectors ranked right up there (or down I should say) with lepers and whores in that particular time and place. For one thing, according to Jewish Purity Laws tax collectors were considered unclean; but not only that, they were universally despised as the corrupt agents of a corrupt and oppressive system. It isn’t an exact analogy, but think shameless politician or cop on the take more than some hapless IRS flunky at work, and you’ll have a better picture of how Zacchaeus and his colleagues were regarded.
So first Jesus picks this guy – this almost stock villain – out of the crowd; and then he doubly honors him by being a guest in his home; and finally, after Zaccheaus either boasts about his generosity or promises to be more generous going forward (depending on the translation) but regardless, after Zacchaeus effuses a bit, Jesus proclaims emphatically, “Today salvation has come upon this house because he too is the son of Abraham.”
Zacchaeus – this outsider, this extortionist, this supposedly contaminated low-life – he too IS the son of Abraham, he too IS a child of God. Not he COULD BE or WILL BE as soon as he cleans up his act; not he COULD BE or WILL BE in another life; not he COULD BE or WILL BE when he’s ready, but HE IS, right here, right now.
Jesus goes on to say that he came to seek out and to save the lost and he does this, very simply, by modeling the alarmingly indiscriminate nature of God’s love. And let’s face it, this just doesn’t sit right. We tell ourselves and teach our children that cheaters never prosper, what comes around goes around, you reap what you sew. Oh, how we long for this to be true, right?
Like poor Habakkuk in today’s first lesson, most of us want life to be fair, for good to triumph over evil at the very least and, of course, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. However, it’s one thing to see justice thwarted among human beings and quite another for Jesus to rub our faces in it where God is concerned as well. But there you have it. Like all of the best stories in the Bible, the story of Zacchaeus is really a love story characterized by a peculiar kind of love that may be very hard to swallow.
Depending on your point of view, the good news or the bad news here is that God’s love is as promiscuous as any whore (not to put too fine a point on it.) It isn’t a reward for good behavior or an inducement to reform the bad. It can’t be bought and it can’t be shaped to fit our own moral imperatives, no matter who says otherwise. Simply put: God’s love is neither a promise nor a threat; it just is. And we can take it or leave it…but trusting this love above all else, including our own piety and virtue, is what faith is really about.
Today salvation has come upon this house because we too are the beloved children of God. Amen.