Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Zacchaeus Story as a Post-Modern Conversion Parable. A Homily for 11.3.13 from Luke 19:1-10 for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for 11.3.13
LUKE 19:1-10
(see below)
31st Sunday in 
Ordinary Time
Year C
(an original homily 
based upon 10-10-13 
from a homily first posted 
on 10-25-10 & a post on 3-19-09)

The Gospel Lectionary reading for today brings to us the endearing account of the conversion of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. 

New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright reminds us just how well the story of Zacchaeus fits in the overall purpose of St. Luke's regular themes:
  1. the problem of riches and what to do about it
  2. the identification of Jesus with sinners
  3. the faith which recognizes Jesus as Lord and discovers new life as a result.

So, what are we to make of this conversion? We must ask because, in our familiarity with the text, we are sometimes only offered a quaintly presented account of the wee little man coming to Jesus. But, we would do well to remember that what is at stake here is more than a happy story-song we sing with Sunday's children, as important as this is. No, what is at stake is the: 
  • the picture of a person burdened down by personal sin and guilt and in need of a new life, and
  • the picture of a person ostracized by his community

At once, therefore, the conversion of Zacchaeus opens to us perhaps the purest post-modern questions of all: 
Where might today's sinner go to find relief from the burden of sin? 
Where might one find genuine community that links humanity? 

As we attempt to think this question through, I have the sense that it is not nearly of the same magnitude or degree of concern that it once was to this old, sad world at war with itself. In fact, we might well ask if post-modern people really see the need to find a place of sin relief? 

Or, said differently, is sin real anymore as an actual burden to anyone? 

Notice, I am not asking if they (or we) are sinners, the answer to that would seem self-evident, I think, not only to the biblicist, but to the unbeliever as well. Clearly, the religious and the non-religious would see themselves as just as good as the next fella. But, what I am asking is different. I am asking if the post-modern/post-Christian person would see themselves as sinners in need, as the man in the sycamore tree saw himself? Here the answer is much less self-evident.

Or, asked another way: For most religious types — those of us who sometimes think about GOD — the problem of sin still registers on the radar of the heart. But, I wonder, if for the average person in the West there is any burden over sin? I suspect that a burden about sin ranks as a fairly low level of concern. Of course, we still love a good scandal, do we not? That is, as a heightened voyeuristic culture -- for we are mostly watchers -- we love to see another’s dirt brought out in the open. But, as to any sense of self-shame, well that seems to have gone out with high-collars and neckties.

I now think I can hear the howls of the enlightened: 
“Shame is what’s wrong with this culture, dullard!” 
Still, I stand by what I am saying, while understanding of course the damage done to the psyche of many by a religious or a non-religious judgmentalism -- which is a true reality and not a myth. So, to be sure, there is a toxic shame, but that is decidedly not what I am describing.

No, what I have in mind here is the work of the conscience which, when allowed to be active, directs us to know when we have done wrong to another, and which brings the knowledge of guilt and the important feeling of shame. Sadly, it is evident that many if not most post-moderns are immune to this feeling, having endured the many parental and institutional guilt-trips, and having finally rejected them outright?

We must, therefore, consistently understand the difference between true, moral guilt and false guilt feelings. Guilt feelings are mostly trumped up charges we level against ourselves that feed the false view of self; while true, moral guilt flows over us from deeds actually done. 

Thought about in a different way, true moral guilt is based in reality and conscience -- 
“I did this. I am ashamed; I am sorry,” 
while guilt feelings are based upon false cognitive scripts that run in loops inside ourselves - 
“I'm a bad person.”
But, Brothers and Sisters, without the true moral guilt and the shame that flows from conscience, much has been lost.

And, for post-moderns the struggle here comes directly at the point of conscience, which, if it functions at all, is no longer informed by the Almighty. This means that what it means to be a person in the West has fundamentally changed and teetered off its historic base. I believe this is bad, but I am in a minority.

That is, for most this loss is a cause for a joyful liberation -- 
"the wicked moralists have lost their grip!” 
But, think about it. What we lost is the basis of personal responsibility, and eventually what we lose is the humanness of the soul.  Notice what is also lost is the existential need for the Gospel -- the recognition of Jesus' Kingship and his reclamation of the world damaged and marred by the selfish of sin!  

There is now seemingly no obvious need for the victorious death of a Savior, a death at the hands of willfully sinful people just like us. Here, then is the monumental question:
How is the Gospel to be applied to someone, if that someone no longer believes in sin and carries no guilt?
Or, asked differently: 
What then will be the basic appeal of the Gospel, if we cannot offer forgiveness for sin? 
I do not have the answer, but I have a possible direction, and in this we are especially close to Jesus:
Zacchaeus is offered forgiveness, yes, but he is also offered a new life and a new way to live. He is offered a life built for the good of others. He is offered a life which looks beyond the self.
 Here is an appeal that rings true to post-moderns because they clearly see how the world is now lived for nothing but the individual self, and in this they find the ruination of the planet.

For example, many post-moderns have seen their parents split for reasons of self-fulfillment, leaving them and their siblings in the lurch of emotional poverty. And many of them have followed suit, doing what they know, but rather than seeing this as just the way things are, often they search for a new way to live. 

Instinctively, they know that being a Western Christian does not offer this to them, but what they do not know -- because they have only a caricature of the Gospel -- is following the ways of Jesus ultimately leads them to a new place, to being part of a new people, to the new life of wholeness.

This, I would assert, is what Zacchaeus found. Freedom from sin, yes, but freedom to live differently, as well. This makes life in the now meaningful, which is the height of the post-modern angst.
"Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over."
For this newness to occur, therefore, the mystery of GOD must somehow be rediscovered. We must offer the GOD beyond the formulas and proofs, the GOD, who in fact comes to your house, eats a meal with you and loves you just as you are -- sin and all -- and then demands that you make new choices. This power for this kind of change is only found in the narrow Jesus-way.

At the end of the account, St. Luke tells us that Jesus decides to offer himself up to the un-antiseptic risk, that of going beyond his community and into the home of the sinner, even eating with him! Of course, the community balks: 
"the crowds were displeased." 
But here, Jesus, as in other places, did not care for the crowd's opinion. That is, popularity and a following were not the ultimate goal.

OK, then, so what was the goal? The Evangelist tells us: 
Jesus responded...I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and save those like him who are lost.
That is, Jesus' reclamation project, by design, especially includes the left-out and the lock-out. It's fairly simple to translate this into today's thinking: 
Whomever we would exclude from the community, Jesus seeks to reclaim and include! It's as simple as that.
The roles are reasonably straightforward here -- the Savior, the sinner and the closed community. But, what might not be so clear is our place in the story! 

Rarely, would we place ourselves on the side of the closed community, but that is exactly where we are when, with our mind if not with our mouth, we assign someone or some group a place outside the circle of grace and the community of faith. Clearly, sinners must repent, but just as clearly to go with the closed community after that repentance occurs violates the Gospel of Christ.

No doubt, we religious types most often we feel more aligned with the Savior, as those who are called to do his work, to seek the lost. But, we must be very careful here, as well. We must discern our motive in any ministry endeavor; this is critical. So much so that things done to build our kingdom and not God's Kingdom, must certainly be called suspect.

Perhaps the least used role and the most appropriate for us is that of the sought for sinner. What comfort there is in the hope that the Savior still seeks those who are lost in avarice and theft. And how comforting to hope that the Savior still hunts us out of trees and terraces, from backyard barbecues and designer boutiques, and (tell in not in Gath) even our churches.

While I understand the nature of the historic doctrine of justification, I also understand, personally, the on-going pursuit of the Savior for the lost man. Said another way, I do not presume with levity on the grace of God. Instead, I am grateful for the relentless truth that God somehow hunts me down in spite of my stony heart. For, I own a heart like Zacchaeus, hard from possessions and privilege. This means I probably need the Savior to seek me out everyday so that I might, in the end, be included in this new discipleship community.


LUKE 19:1-10

At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. 
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature. 
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
"Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house." 
And he came down quickly and received him with joy. 
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
"He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner." 
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
"Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over."
And Jesus said to him,
"Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. 
For the Son of Man has come to seek

and to save what was lost."