Proper 26C

Last revised: November 8, 2019
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PROPER 26 (Oct 30-Nov 5) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 31
RCL: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
RoCa: Wisdom 11:22-12:1; 2 Thess. 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10

Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation

A resource cited below is Richard Rohr‘s Things Hidden (whose title pays obvious homage to Girard). He sums up a longer passage in which he references the Zacchaeus story with this summary of the Gospel message:

My lifetime of studying Jesus would lead me to summarize all of his teaching inside of two prime ideas: forgiveness and inclusion. Don’t believe me; just go through the Gospels, story by story. It is rather self-evident. Forgiveness and inclusion are Jesus’ “great themes.” They are the practical name of love, and without forgiveness and inclusivity love is largely a sentimental valentine. They are also the two practices that most undercut human violence. (150-51)

Encountering Rohr’s work was the last piece of the puzzle for me in coming to a theology of a completely nonviolent God. My journey found it’s first key in Girard’s work and especially James Alison‘s spinning out a theology from it. The anthropology provides the insight into how gods were generated in the religions of sacred violence that shaped humanity from the beginning — prompting the long journey to the truth with the nonviolent God beyond our violent gods. We still have a ways to go in that journey. Rohr provided the last key for me in my personal journey through the spirituality of contemplative prayer as a practical way to encounter the God beyond our gods — the God of forgiveness and inclusion in place of gods of punishment and exclusion.


Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Resources

1. In the Catholic/Lutheran option of the Revised Common Lectionary, this same passage falls on Proper 22C, just four weeks earlier. See the reflections on this text at Proper 22C. How to interpret Paul’s quote of Hab. 2:4 in Gal. 3:11 and Rom. 1:17 are crucial to understanding Pauline theology.


2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12

Resources

1. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 120; the skipped-over verses, 2 Thess. 1:6-8, are quoted as an example of apocalyptic language from Paul. Alison takes on the view that Jesus was wrong about expectations of the coming of the Lord’s Day. See an excerpt of his basic argument from pp. 124-127, “The Apocalyptic Imagination.”

2. N. T. Wright is also challenging the view going back to Schweitzer and Bultmann that Jesus was wrong about apocalyptic expectations. He argues that Jesus used apocalyptic and prophetic language to correctly predict the “earth-shattering” events of the Roman-Jewish War as the logical end to insistence on military revolt as the way to liberation. For more on this, see Part III of “My Core Convictions” essay. (Another good source on Wright’s views here is his Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians.)

Reflections and Questions

1. Once again I wonder about deleted verses — in this instance, verses about apocalyptic expectations that especially make sense out of verses 11-12.


Luke 19:1-10

Resources

1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 371-79. In an essay entitled “Inhabiting texts and being discovered,” section 4 gives a close reading of the Zacchaeus story. Alison brings out how Jesus incarnation of God’s loving desire enables Zacchaeus to separate from the crowd:

But Zacchaeus is no longer cowed, no longer hiding, no longer small, no longer run by the way he was tied in to the crowd before. Luke emphasizes the physical gesture: Zacchaeus stands tall, and immediately sets about reconstructing a whole new way of being together with his fellow citizens, not concerned with his goodness or badness, happy to work through the details of accusations of impropriety, about which the murmuring crowd will have had more than a thing or two to say, but more than that, completely concerned with his new way of belonging to Israel.

And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”

And this is what Jesus emphasizes here, as in our previous passage from Luke, where the straightened woman is also a daughter of Abraham: YHWH delights in including people in, in bringing the most improbable, and indeed unsuitable, people back in; YHWH has no delight in resentful righteousness.

“For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Luke ends by pointing up something which was, I hope, also clear in the Emmaus passage which we looked at in Essay 2. There the two travellers thought they we the hosts and Jesus their guest, only to find that he was hosting them, and had been the protagonist of the story of which they had thought themselves knowledgeable, all along. Part of what the presence of Jesus in the midst of people feels like is just this curious inversion of perspective, and of protagonism. At the beginning of our story here, it is Zacchaeus who seeks to see who Jesus is, working around all the complexities of his relationship with the crowd so as to get a glimpse. But from the moment that Jesus looks up at him, calls him by name and tells him he must spend the night in his house, it is clear that the whole protagonism has been inverted. Not only is it, once again, the apparent guest who is the real host. But all along, it was the regard of Another other that was deliberately seeking out this particular person, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ seeking of Jesus had been real, if still embryonic; it was the seeking of someone who was tied up in a very complex pattern of desire. Perhaps the beginning of Zacchaeus’ being found lay in the fact that, as part of his lostness, he had had to begin to uncouple himself from the immediacy of crowd desire, just so as to be able to get a look at Jesus. Even that uncoupling, leading to his moment of unexpected vulnerability, is part of the process of his receiving the regard which recreated him, is part of what being sought and found by Another other looks like. (pp. 377-79)

2. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 101ff., 208. In a section on “Acts of Healing,” Marr comments at length on the Zacchaeus story in the context of healing conversion:

Matthew was not the only enemy Jesus befriended. Zacchaeus was another. Both were tax collectors who made fortunes at the expense of their own people by colluding with their imperial bosses. When Jesus came to Jericho, he was famous, or notorious enough, that something of a hubbub arose as a result of his passing through the town. People gathered and crowded one another to gawk at the man and his followers. Why the stir? The mayor wasn’t exactly giving him the key to the city. Throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was set upon by Pharisees and scribes and questioned in front of the crowd. Such questioning, of course, was made with the intention of publicly discrediting the freelance itinerant preacher who was becoming famous for his clever retorts. The result was bound to be entertaining. The scribes and Pharisees were surely on the prowl in a town that large. Zacchaeus’s act of climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus need not be taken as an indication that he was inclined to have his life changed by this stranger. His eagerness to see and hear the duel is enough to account for his action. And yet the anticipated debate does not occur. Why? Because Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree. The signs that Zacchaeus was a rich man hated by everybody in town were there to be seen by a person with eyes to see.

That Jesus had discerned the social matrix of Jericho rightly was immediately manifest when Jesus called out to the tax collector and invited himself to that man’s house. St. Luke says that “all who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”’ (Lk. 19:7) Here is another example of Luke’s astute anthropological insight. It isn’t just the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Zacchaeus. Everybody grumbles about him. Like Simon when confronted with the Woman Who Was a Sinner (Lk. 7:36-50), the people of Jericho were thinking that if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of man this was who was sitting up in a tree — that he was a sinner. One doesn’t have to be a demonically possessed man or a sinful woman to be a communal scapegoat. A rich man who is a traitor to his people can hold the same position. And deserve it. After all, he was treading down the downtrodden. For scapegoating others, he deserved to be scapegoated. As it happened, Jesus did know what kind of man Zacchaeus was. It is through showing us that anybody can be the scapegoat and anybody can be a persecutor that Luke shows the communal scapegoating phenomenon for what it is. Given the fact that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem with a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen to him there, it behooved Jesus to give his followers every opportunity to see how collective hostility against one person works, in the hope that they would learn to recognize the process when it happens in the Holy City, and that is what he has done here.

As with the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus performs an exorcism of the communal scapegoat, a quiet one this time, but just as effective. The result is that the homeostasis sustained by the scapegoating process is destabilized. There is some ambiguity as to whether or not Zacchaeus is actually converted by his encounter with Jesus or if he had repented earlier but nobody believed it. Bible scholars disagree as to whether the verbs used by Zacchaeus are in the present tense or the future. That is, Zacchaeus may be saying that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anybody he has defrauded, but he could be saying that he is already doing these things. If Zacchaeus is using the future tense, then he is announcing a change of heart. If Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense, then he is claiming that he is better, or less terrible, than he has been made out to be. I think our best bet is to look at the implications of either interpretation of the verb tenses.

If Zacchaeus has been converted on the spot by Jesus, and we assume that Jesus did not zap people with a magic wand to override their free will, then we may ask ourselves how this conversion happened. The information in Luke suggests two possibilities. As the communal scapegoat, Zacchaeus had “the intelligence of the victim” and perhaps that intelligence led him to understand what it meant to other people to be the victim of his tax collecting. The other possibility is that an undeserved commendation from Jesus freed Zacchaeus from the necessity of acting in such a way as to justify his designation as communal scapegoat. It is more than likely that both factors played their part here. On the other hand, if Zacchaeus was speaking in the present tense, the implication is that the collective attitude of the townspeople was unjust, which would underline the arbitrary aspect of scapegoating. Generous actions on the part of a rich person who has drawn the collective resentment of the community often do not diminish resentment against him or her. It is also possible, of course, that Zacchaeus is trying to make himself look better than he really is. That is, he is boasting of his good deeds while overlooking the unjust means used for gaining the wealth that he uses for his acts of largesse. If I am right in taking this story as being primarily concerned with communal scapegoating, then the ambiguity enriches the story and there is no need to solve the grammatical problem once and for all.

The challenge of this story, however, is not limited to the possible conversion of one person. It extends to the possible conversion of the whole community. Whether or not Zacchaeus needed to be converted and, if so, whether or not he did change his life, is immaterial for the greater challenge. Either way, by singling out Zacchaeus and inviting himself to that man’s house, Jesus has already robbed Jericho of its scapegoat. The unanimity has been irretrievably broken. That everybody turns to grumbling at Jesus for going to the house of a man who is a sinner suggests that Jesus is well on the way to becoming a unanimous object of hatred. Since Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he would, once again, become the object of hatred, it is no surprise that it should happen in Jericho, while he was on the way to the Holy City. This development does not bode well for Jericho becoming a social climate of healing. (101-03)

3. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden, p. 150; Jesus’ Plan for a New World, p. 113. In his book that honors Girard’s magnum opus by echoing its title, Rohr briefly cites the Zacchaeus story in a crucial section on the basics of Jesus’ message, forgiveness and inclusion. It is worth quoting at length:

The only thing more dangerous than the individual ego is the group ego. That’s why, when Jesus calls the apostles, he immediately calls into question the two sacred institutions inside of a Semitic culture, or most cultures for that matter, job and family.

He told them to “leave their nets” (Mark 1:18), their only occupation, which is your extended self-interest group, and in many ways your very identity. He also tells Matthew to leave his job as a tax collector (Luke 5:28).

Finally, even more nonsensically, they leave their father “and the men he employed” (Mark 1:19-20). He repeats this demand in shocking form by speaking of “hating” (radical detachment) all blood relatives (Luke 14:26) and even illustrates it in relationship to his own mother (Matthew 12:48 ff.). These are clear indications that we are talking about some form of radical discipleship, change of lifestyle, countercultural world view and not just religion as attendance at worship services. All three absolutes that keep people small and paranoid have been undone by Jesus: my identity or power group, my job, and my family.

Jesus is moving his Jewish disciples beyond any kind of narrow worldview. Not surprisingly, we often find outsiders understanding him and responding to him more than the insiders. Take the Roman centurion who called him the “Son of God” (Mark 15:39). Or take the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28), the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10), the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), the “foreign” leper (Luke 17:19), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and other non-Jews who respond strongly to Jesus.

What does he usually tell them? “You have great faith” (Matthew 15:28), or “Nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this” (Matthew 8:10). You’d think he’d call them to Jerusalem to join his group, or to accept John’s baptism. But, no, even to public sinners he says, “Go in peace. Your faith has made you whole” (Luke 7:50). No wonder the religious zealots killed him!

This is Jesus’ simple message: Holiness is no longer to be found through separation from or exclusion of, but in fact, the radical inclusion (read “forgiveness”) of the supposedly contaminating element. Any exclusionary system only lays the solid foundation for violence in thought, word and deed. So he has to lead us on a new path: “He will give the people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77) and inclusion of the enemy (Matthew 5:44), and even departure from what we think is ourself (Mark 8:34-38).

My lifetime of studying Jesus would lead me to summarize all of his teaching inside of two prime ideas: forgiveness and inclusion. Don’t believe me; just go through the Gospels, story by story. It is rather self-evident. Forgiveness and inclusion are Jesus’ “great themes.” They are the practical name of love, and without forgiveness and inclusivity love is largely a sentimental valentine. They are also the two practices that most undercut human violence. (150-51)

4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 4, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).

5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “It’s Always about Jesus“; a sermon in 2016, “Cataract Distortions.”

6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on this passage in 2016, “Zacchaeus and His City.”

7. Vitor Westhelle, “Exposing Zacchaeus,” an essay in The Christian Century, October 31, 2006 (in pdf at Westhelle’s website).

8. Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, p. 44. In a section on “Jesus’s Unflinching Emphasis” on Love, he writes,

Love was not only the heart of Jesus’s teaching; it was also the heartbeat of his daily life. The disciples see a bunch of noisy children and try to send them away; Jesus welcomes them. The disciples see a crowd of hungry people and try to send them away; Jesus feeds them. The disciples see a woman of another culture and religion and ask Jesus to send her away; Jesus (eventually) listens to her and meets her need. A crowd refuses to show common courtesy to a social outcast named Zacchaeus; Jesus sees him up in a tree and treats him with dignity and respect. A group of prestigious people at a formal banquet look at a disreputable woman with disdain; Jesus sees her as someone who has loved much, and so must be forgiven much. His love even brings him to tears (John 11:5, 35). In story after story and without a single exception, we see that the driving motivation in Jesus’s life is love.

9. Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine, p. 139, where he cites the Zacchaeus story in highlighting Jesus’ shift from temple to table, from sacrifice to sacrament:

Feasts and banquets are Jesus’ most common metaphor for the kingdom of God. When Jesus wasn’t talking about a metaphorical table, he was often sitting down at a literal table. In Luke’s Gospel alone there are nearly three dozen references to eating, drinking, and sitting at table. Throughout the third Gospel, Jesus is moving from meal to meal, table to table. Jesus is constantly announcing and enacting the kingdom of God by a common meal at a shared table. The most radical aspect of Jesus and his moveable feast was his penchant for sharing the table with all the “wrong” people — the sinner, the outcast, the excluded. In a culture where table practice was closely associated with personal holiness, this was bound to raise eyebrows . . . and it did. The scribes and Pharisees grumbled, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1). And Jesus was happy to live up to their criticism. Jesus was clearly willing to share the table with anyone who would come to him. For Jesus, a shared table was the way salvation came to sinners. When Jesus sat at table with Jericho’s chief tax collector Zacchaeus, the meal was not over before the notorious sinner was saved. When Jesus was asked “Will only a few be saved?” he responded by saying “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:23, 29). For Jesus, salvation could be described as eating in the kingdom of God, and he anticipated all kinds of people coming to his table. In his preaching, parables, and practice Jesus made it clear that salvation and the kingdom of God are centered, not in a temple, but at a table. Jesus relocated the holy of holies from a veiled chamber reserved for a solitary high priest, to a shared table to which all are invited. Jesus overturned money-changing tables in the temple, but set up banqueting tables in his Father’s house. (138-39)

Reflections and Questions

1. In 2010 I’m seeing this passage as a companion to last Sunday’s Gospel (Proper 25C), the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. Luke’s redaction places the end of Mark’s journey to Jerusalem (Mark 10) in between these two uniquely Lukan passages about tax collectors. But the lectionary skips over the Markan material to bring these passages together in consecutive weeks, making it easy for the preacher to connect them. If a tax collector such as the one in the parable, for example, goes home delivered from his sin (“justified”) and empowered by the Spirit to live a life of repentance, is Zacchaeus an illustration of what that life looks like, by his promising to pay back his ill-gotten profits to the poor?

Here are some further comparison’s between the two stories:

  • Instead of a Pharisee who lives by human justice based on divisive categories such as righteous-unrighteous, we have Jesus following God’s justice of mercy and reconnecting Zacchaeus to the family of Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar?).
  • Instead of the Pharisee looking down his nose in judgment on the tax collector, we have Jesus literally looking up in mercy at Zacchaeus in the tree.
  • Instead of a tax collector going to God’s house, the temple, praying for salvation, we have God in Jesus going to the tax collector’s house, proclaiming salvation.

2. In 2004 we moved this lesson up a week to use for our “Commitment Sunday” (stewardship pledge campaign) since it otherwise falls on either Reformation Sunday or All Saints Sunday in the most common of Lutheran practices. It speaks well to the claim that discipleship makes upon one’s life. Jesus calls Zacchaeus to be follower and that makes immediate changes upon how he must live out his vocation: “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” (Luke 19:8).

We paired this text, however, with a different text from the Hebrew Scriptures to help ring out our overall stewardship theme of “Sharing Our Blessings.” That text is Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Link to a sermonBlessed to Be a Blessing.”

3. “I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing” has also been a personal/family motto as we adopt (in April 2005) two children from Liberia. Link to an article that appeared in our local Racine newspaper under the banner of this verse, “‘You Will Be a Blessing.’

4. In 1995 I preached a sermon, indebted to Robert Capon‘s work on the parables (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Part 3, Ch. 6, pp. 412-425), entitled “Salvation Makes a Housecall.”

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