Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, 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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
This is one of our favorite Sunday School stories, right? With the little song about how Zacchaeus was a wee little man. But there’s so much more in this story.
Zacchaeus may have been short of stature, but he was not short of renown (infamy?), not short of money, not short of hospitality, and not short of desire to see Jesus. In this little story we have a man who wants so badly to just see Jesus that he is willing to run along the road, to climb up a tree, to do anything it takes to get a glimpse of the Lord. We have a Jesus who, very rudely, invites himself over to someone else’s house and gets the gossip train rolling again, both about himself and the much-maligned Zacchaeus, and who also offers a different kind of hospitality. While Jesus is trespassing on Zacchaeus’ (probably very excellent) hospitality, he also turns around and offers to Zacchaeus the one thing he was missing: God’s claim of him as a son of Abraham. This is a story of hospitality from all sides.
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Humility: good. Exalting self: bad. Discuss.
I’ve always been intrigued by the roots of the word “humility.” Humus=earth. Being humble means sticking close to the earth, close to the ground. It means remembering where you come from, staying rooted. “Exalting self” would mean trying to “fly free” from the earth (which is impossible), forgetting where we come from, trying to plant roots in the sky (which doesn’t work very well). Could it be that in some of the “escapist” versions of Christianity (focused on being caught up in heaven) there’s a subtle self-exaltation at work? I don’t know where the sermon is in all of this, but it’s interesting (to me, anyway).
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This is a parable about persistence in prayer. The conventional read draws a parallel between the widow who will not give up until she gets justice, and us in our passionate and persistent prayer. And this is well and good. The problem is: if we are the widow, does that make God the unjust judge? That doesn’t sound quite right. Sometimes it can be illuminating to turn parables on their head. The unjust judge does not fear God or respect people—frankly, that sounds more like us (in our worst moments) than God. Maybe we are the unjust judge. And maybe God is like the widow, calling out to us from all the broken people and places in our world, calling for justice. That means God is the one who is unrelenting and passionate and persistent in trying to get us to act justly. And prayer is the way we open ourselves to God, listen to God’s call, and commit ourselves to respond. I don’t say this is the only, or even the right, way to read the parable. But it does cast some new light on it and gives us a word I think we need to hear.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Jerusalem had fallen and many of its inhabitants had been dragged off into exile in Babylon. After this complete disaster, Jeremiah the prophet writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon (of course he writes “Thus says the Lord” so it’s presumably a letter from GOD). And what does God tell them to do? They are not told to despair, to give up. They are not told to resist or rebel. They are not told to seek vengeance on the people who conquered them. No, they are told to live: build houses, plant gardens, eat, marry, have children. When confronted with a disaster, and with no clear way out, God tells the people to go on living, to go on “planting seeds” in the future, no matter how desperate the present looks. And one other thing: God tells them to “seek the welfare of the city”—of the very people who conquered them!—because the exile’s welfare is tied to the city’s welfare. In other words: we’re all in this together. How might our world be a different place if we did not give in to despair or vengeance and instead continued planting seeds in the future, knowing that the welfare of everyone (indeed, all creation) is tied together?