Proper 26, Year C
There's a game called "Angels and Devils" that I made up for youth groups as a way to start conversations about discernment and what it means. Here's how it goes: A barefoot and blindfolded volunteer tries to navigate an obstacle course, with the obstacles being things that are rather unpleasant to step in (e.g., piles of ice cubes, sopping wet bread). Helping the volunteer through the course is an "angel" or two, whose job it is to provide reliable guidance ("step about a foot to your left") so the volunteer doesn't step in the icky stuff. Not so helpful is the "devil" or two, whose job it is to say whatever it takes to get the volunteer to step in as much of the icky stuff as possible. "Angels" and "devils" are chosen in silence after the volunteer is blindfolded, so s/he has to sort out as s/he goes which person is playing which role. After the course has been run a few times, we then wash the feet of the volunteers and sit down together to find out what it was like to play various roles -- the blindfolded person, the "angels," the "devils," and those who can watch but not intervene -- and how the experience does and does not match what discernment is like for us.
In one memorable experience of "Angels and Devils," Ryan, a particularly insightful young man played a "devil" in one round and an "angel" in the next. During the discussion, he observed that it was really frustrating to try to be an "angel" under those circumstances. The person whom he was trying to guide as an "angel" had in the previous round been a helpless bystander, wincing in sympathy each time Ryan (very effectively) "deviled" another volunteer into stepping into obstacles, so no matter how much good advice he gave as an "angel," the new volunteer did the opposite of anything he said.
It was a vivid dramatization of some of the least helpful behaviors we're prone to in Christian community. I think most, if not all, of us have some category deep down in our psyches for "sinners." When pressed, we'll say, "we're all sinners," or "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," but on some level, we're still tempted to put some people in a special category -- THOSE people. "Those people" are the ones who commit the REALLY bad sins, by which we usually mean the sins that we like to think we're not particularly tempted to do. (In most cases, I suspect that we're really just projecting our own shadow onto others -- but I digress.) "Those people" are so far beyond the pale that they just don't belong in fellowship with the rest of us, or at least not until they demonstrate repentance -- and we mean, though we don't say, that they need to do it to our satisfaction.
It's a tragedy. Our preconceptions about "those people" prevent us from seeing them for who they really are, and from hearing their stories of redemption. Two cases in point present themselves in the Hebrew bible and gospel readings for this coming Sunday.
Our reading from Isaiah is God's word to the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah, two of our favorite examples of those who are beyond the pale. The Isaiah text speaks against a prejudiced reading of their story. Far from being stereotypes of pagan hedonism, they observe the sabbath and offer sacrifices and prayers. The evil that they do, according to Isaiah, is failing to "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." And perhaps most importantly, while they remain free to turn down the invitation, they are invited into the presence of the God who says even now, "Come now, let us argue it out" (who says that contentious relationships can't be loving!) "... though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow." Sin has consequences, to be sure, but it does not and cannot override God's character. God's mercy is as relentless as it is gentle. We move through it, but not away from it; we can no more cut ourselves off from God's mercy than a diver immersed in the middle of the ocean get get dry by swimming.
That's very hard for us to take in, though. Perhaps that's why we so often try to turn God's love and fellowship into some kind of a prize won in competition with others. If we don't feel worthy ourselves, at least we can feel more worthy than someone else. The real tragedy, though, is that taking this approach increases rather than alleviates our anxiety that there won't be enough of God's love for us. As long as we treat God's love as a limited good, a commodity that can be exhausted, we'll always worry on some level about coming up short, because as long as we project our sense of unworthiness onto other people, we'll never be able to hear God's invitation:
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the LORD;
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow.
That's what's going on in the story of Zaccheas too -- in the narrative itself, and in a lot of interpretations of it. Our translation of verse 8 and 9 doesn't help. That's where the NRSV has Zaccheas saying, "half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." It's an OK translation in every way but this: the verbs Zaccheas using are not in the future tense, but are in the present. The crowd presumes that Zaccheas hoards his possessions and not only cheats the people, but fails to pay the penalty, and so when Jesus invites himself to Zaccheas' house, Jesus joins their set of THOSE people, the sinners. But Zaccheas is not a cheat, nor does he hoard his wealth; as he says, "I give half of my wealth to the poor, and if I find I have defrauded anyone, I pay back four times as much." These are things he is already doing, even before meeting Jesus. This chief tax collector, who receives only disdain from his neighbors, is actually far more generous and intentional about doing justice than is the respectable ruler of Luke 18:18-25.
The funny thing is that in our retelling of Zaccheas' story, we often commit the very sin that the story condemns. We present Zaccheas not as a righteous and generous man who is wrongly scorned by his prejudiced neighbors, but as the story of a penitent sinner. Worse yet, I've heard retellings that ignore the chronology of the story (Jesus insists on dining in Zaccheas' house even before he hears of Zaccheas' generosity and scrupulousness) to suggest that Zaccheas' fellowship with Jesus depended upon his repentance, that he was another example of those told to "go, and sin no more" (which, interestingly enough, doesn't appear in any gospel at all in our earliest and most reliable manuscripts -- it comes from the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11, which most likely was an addition to the gospel by a later scribe!). We say, "Look, if Jesus could forgive this penitent sinner Zaccheas, he might even be able to forgive you -- assuming, of course, that you toe the line from here on out." What an unfair reading -- to Zaccheas, to Jesus, and to God's justice and mercy!
Fortunately, even when we do this, we aren't beyond God's mercy. God listens patiently to our disbelief in God's mercy before pointing out, like the beautician in the Palmolive ad ("it softens hands while you do the dishes") of the 70's, "you're soaking in it!" (Real Audio clip here).
That's something to think about next time we're tempted to point to someone as one of THOSE people, a sinner -- someone who makes a better sermon example than a dinner guest. Like the crowd murmuring about Zaccheas, we may be blinded by prejudice, and find ourselves accusing someone we should be emulating. And like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, we will still be invited to join the feast, alongside Zaccheas and all the children of Abraham.
Thanks be to God!
Thanks for pointing out the present tense in Luke 19:8 and 9.
Posted by: firstname.lastname@example.org | Nov 3, 2007 2:59:57 PM
Thanks for the great theological thread! The present tense makes all the difference in the world in looking at this passage. Though disdained as one of THOSE people, Zaccheus is doing social justice and is one whose home Jesus chooses to enter.
Posted by: Rev. Jon Haack | Nov 4, 2007 9:39:08 AM
The note that the verbs I give and I repay are in the present tense clarifies a lot. Thank you. So why do ALL the people NOT just the usual suspects (Sribes and Pharisees) grumble? Have they lost a favorite target for scorn or a scapegoat (Gidardian analysis)? Not a hard trap for us to fall into today.
Posted by: Henry Simmons | Oct 24, 2010 3:27:39 PM