“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Sermon Series Continues

Date: February 18, 2017

Title: “Come On In!”

Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus… we all know him, or at least we think we do. We know his story, or at least we think we do, from Sunday School songs and countless sermons about repentance and acceptance. We think of him as that “wee little man”, suffering from a shortness of ethics as much as stature, who desperately wants to meet Jesus. And in his desperation to see over the crowd, he climbs up in a tree.

Zacchaeus – we think we know all about him. But maybe we do not know as much as we think we do. To begin with, his name – Zacchaeus – itself means “righteous one”. How can that be, when the Gospel of Luke describes him as the sort of despicable character we love to hate? We are told he is a Jew, collecting taxes for the Roman oppressors, and a wealthy one at that. Zacchaeus is a traitor to his people, an obvious outcast amongst his neighbors in Jericho.

He is for the people in that crowd – and also for us – a prime example of “Otherness” – what Simone de Beauvoir suggests is “A fundamental category of human thought, where one group sets itself up by setting itself against the Other.” So that, as Zygmunt Bauman put it:

Woman is the other of man

            Animal is the other of human

            Stranger is the other of native

            Abnormality is the other of norm

            Deviation the other of law-abiding

            Illness the other of health

            Insanity the other of reason          

           Foreigner the other of native

            Enemy the other of friend

Zacchaeus is a prime example of “otherness”. Certainly the crowd has demonized him. But remember how Jesus praises him, calling him a “son of Abraham”, and asking him not only to come down out of the tree, but to “come on in” to supper, to “come on in” to life with Jesus!

If we were to read this story in the original Greek, we would find that when the crowd grumbles Zacchaeus defends himself by saying, “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy, I always make a fourfold restitution.”   The verbs Zacchaeus uses are in the present tense, although we typically read it into the future – as a promise he makes out of his repentance.

It turns out that this future-oriented grammatical category known as a present-future tense is only found in this one story. Nowhere else in the Bible do we find it. Translators have created language here to fit a theological interpretation, where it is a story about a sinner repenting, rather than a story about a crowd intent on sinning.

It turns out that Zacchaeus does live up to his name. He is in fact the righteous one… and Jesus apparently knew that all along. Once again Jesus turns our world upside down. Once again he challenges our assumptions about neighbors, strangers, and friends.

Just like the crowd murmuring against Zacchaeus, we can be blinded by our expectations and prejudices against the Other, and we can end up accusing the very ones we should be emulating, the very ones we should be asking to “Come On In!” All too often we act like the Gospel crowd – or like the townspeople of a small town in France, when newcomer Vianne shows up in the movie “Chocolat”.

Vianne is definitely the “other” – a single mother, a drifter, a stranger who appears to place no limits on her love. She is a woman who offers an exuberant welcome to anyone and everyone, even including the gypsies who camp by the river. So it is hardly surprising when things go from bad to worse, and the mayor of the town suggests “We cannot force them to leave; but we can help them understand they are not welcome here.”

Finally, the mayor comes face to face with his own brokenness, as the town begins to recognize what Parker Palmer calls “the highest form of love”…

Love that allows for intimacy without the annihilation of difference

And in the end, we find that Easter comes to them all through chocolate.  As the priest says in his resurrection homily:

We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do

By what we deny ourselves

By what we resist and who we exclude…

We must measure goodness by what we embrace

By what we create and who we include.

Maybe, Zacchaeus was not such a “wee little man” after all. Maybe he was a giant in his own right. So can we become like giants ourselves, when we measure our goodness by what we embrace, by what we create, and by who we include.  Won’t you be my neighbor? Because it turns out that with God, there is no “Other” at all. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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