TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, gracious and benevolent, through your Son you invite all the world to a meal of mercy. Grant that we may eagerly follow his call, and bring us with all your saints into your life of justice and joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In William Saroyan’s play, The Time of Your Life, protagonist “Joe” tells Tom, his young assistant and admirer, that he prefers to keep his wealth out of his own sight and management so that he doesn’t have to see the way it is hurting people. Perhaps Zacchaeus felt the same way. After all, he was a chief tax collector which meant that the dirty work of extorting from his own people the tax required by Rome, his own premium and that of his underlings was the job of his subordinates. He told them what he needed to get out of each individual and they got it for him. Zacchaeus didn’t have to see the arm twisting and the knee capping. He didn’t have to hear the desperate pleas of destitute farmers asking only to be left with enough to feed their families for one more day. No doubt he knew that the money coming into him was tainted with fraud, extortion and violence. But he also knew that life isn’t fair and only a fool expects it to be that way. Zacchaeus knew that, if he were to step out of his lucrative position, there would be plenty of others glad to step in. He knew he could not make the world one wit better by standing on principle, but in so doing, he obviously would make things a great deal worse for himself. So it made good sense simply to enjoy his wealth and not think too much about where it came from.
I don’t know that my own situation is much different. I don’t directly exploit, injure or discriminate against anyone else. But the lifestyle to which I have grown accustomed is clearly a burden on the planet. I know that the colonial ambitions of my ancestors produced a world order that perpetuates systemic poverty and injustice from which, as a white American male, I have benefited greatly. The funds held in my retirement account are invested in hundreds of companies. I hope they produce valuable goods and services, I hope they pay their employees a living wage and I hope they provide reasonable benefits for all their workers. I hope they do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. I hope they deal fairly and honestly with their contractors. I hope they do not pollute the rivers, lakes and oceans or deplete the forests. But I don’t know if all this is true, nor do I know how to find out. Yes, I have heard of socially responsible investment funds and have even invested in a few of these, but my review does not give me the assurances my conscience really needs.
The most troubling aspect of this story from our gospel is that we really don’t know how it ends. I would love to know how Zacchaeus lived his life going forward. How much did he have left after giving half his wealth to the poor and then paying back all the people he had defrauded over the years? How could he continue in his profession after encountering Jesus and hearing the good news of God’s reign? We don’t get answers to those questions and I suppose that is because the answers cannot be found in any book. They must be lived out in our lives. That is what makes the Bible such a difficult book to read. You start out reading what you think will be a story about a man who lived over two-thousand years ago, only to discover that the story is actually about you.
Here’s a poem by Peter Balakian giving us a glimpse into the other half of our world that those of us who live in peace, security and comfort would rather forget.
Slum Drummers, Nairobi
What were we watching on the tube under mildewed ceilings in Eastlands?
A Kenyan guy shaking a rattle made from a can
while another guy in the band was talking to the queen
about making sound out of anything? The queen smiled.
The Jubilee receiving line filed through.
We shimmied past tin shacks selling wigs and bananas, coke and goat lungs;
the tine of a kalimba kissed my face. My face kissed the blue plastic of
a soda bottle sliding down a hill of glass.
I paid the gang leaders for protection
and we walked into the hills of airplane garbage,
black and blue plastic bags glowing in the sun spray over the heads
of the marabou stalking the mounds with their knife-blade beaks.
Stevie Wonder and Elton John moved through the Jubilee line.
Prince Charles thanked God for the weather as the camera cut
to fireworks spewing over Hyde Park and then to an image of Nairobi
and the Slum Drummers picking metal out of the collages of garbage.
My jeans were charred from the tin-can fires,
and the grilling pig guts when some men looked up from scraps of wire—
and you went back and forth with them in Swahili before they offered us
some sizzling fat, before we thanked them with our coy smiles and moved on
with Michael who took us
down a maze of alleyways where tin shacks were floating
on polymers and nitrogen and a dozen pigs from nowhere snouted the garbage.
You were saying “Dad”—when a marabou-hacked bag shot some shit
on our shoes—“Dad, kinship roles are always changing”—
when a woman asked us for a few shillings and salt
for her soup. Salt? Did I hear her right? Or was it Swahili
for something else? And through the sooty wind of charcoal fires
and creaking rusty tin you were saying, “Hannah Arendt called Swahili
a degraded language of former slave holders.”
In the soot of my head—I was listening—
and Michael was asking for more shillings for the gang guys
who were “a little fucked up,” he said, “but needed help”—
and when I turned around the heads of chickens
were twitching, the feathers fluttering down on oozing sludge;
“Arendt called it a nineteenth century kind of no language,”
you were saying, “spoken”—as we were jolted
by a marabou eating a shoe—“spoken—by the Arab ivory and slave caravans.”
Out of bottles, cans, pipes, mangled wire—the Slum Drummers
twisted and hacked, joined and seamed their heaven
into the black plastic ghost of a mashed pot.
Pure tones blew from the vibrato holes
like wind through Makadara
where the breath of God flew through sewage pipes.
I heard in a tubophone the resurrection
of ten men rising out of coal and pig snouts
into the blue Kenyan sky where a marabou
swallowed a purse—and a woman’s conga
was parting at the seams above boiling soup cans.
Down a slope of stinking plastic you kept on about Arendt—
“a hybrid mixture of Bantu with enormous Arab borrowings”
I could say poa poa sawa sawa karibu.
We could make a kalimba out of a smashed pot
and pour beans into a can and shake it for the queen.
Yesterday in the soundless savannah the wildebeests and zebras
seemed to float through the green-gold grass toward Tanzania.
We could hear a lion breathe; we could hear wind through tusks.
On TV the guys were grinning into metal go-go drums;
hammering twisted sewage pipes and cut wire like sailors from Mombasa—
harder nailed than da Gama’s voyage down the Arab trade coast—
So, where are we—in a slum of no language?
Walking through steam shovels of light, breaking over
mounds of metal as if the sky were just blue plastic?
Isn’t English just a compost heap of devouring grammar,
joined, hacked, bruised words, rotting on themselves?
I keep following you, daughter of scrutiny, into plastic fields of carrion
between sight and site, vision not visionary, pig guts on the grill,
trying to keep balance
between streams of sewage and the sky,
as you keep hacking, Sophia, at the de-centered,
the burning text, anthropology’s shakedown.
A marabou just knifed the arm of a woman picking
bottles out of plastic bags.
A rooster crows from under a pile
of galvanized tin as if it were morning on a farm.
Source: Balakian, Peter, Ozone Journal (c. 2015 by The University of Chicago Press). Peter Balakian was born in 1951. He is the author of several collections of poetry and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey. Much of his poetry and prose reflect his deep interest in his Armenian ancestry and, in particular, his family’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. You can find out more about Peter Balakian and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century B.C.E. during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. It is nearly undisputed, however, that the verses from Sunday’s lesson are the work of the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E.
Verses 10-18 are part of a collection of separate and distinct prophetic oracles making up the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah. They probably were spoken on different occasions. Each of these oracles follows the outline of a legal proceeding containing a summons, an indictment and a final word of comfort or hope. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press, Ltd) p. 44. According to Mauchline, supra, Verses 10-17 make up a distinct section criticizing Israel for her immorality, castigating her for the emptiness and hypocrisy of her worship and calling her to cleanse herself from unfaithfulness. Id. at 45. Verse 18 opens with yet another summons directed more specifically to Jerusalem. Id. See also Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 13. Taken together, this first chapter of Isaiah is a fitting introduction to the heart of the prophet’s message, namely, that covenant faithfulness requires zeal for doing justice. Without that, worship, sacrifices and holy day observances are worse than hollow and meaningless. They are rituals that God “hates.” Vs. 14.
These oracles probably relate to the early part of Isaiah’s ministry during the relatively peaceful reign of Jotham, son of Uzziah. Riding the legacy of wealth and power built under the leadership of Uzziah, the people and their leaders were enjoying a false sense of security. The rise of Assyria to the north would soon destabilize the region and shake up the matrix of alliances that had sheltered Judah from fierce international conflicts thus far. Isaiah saw the threat coming and recognized it as God’s long overdue judgment on a people who had failed to live up to their obligations under the covenant. Nevertheless, there is still time: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Vs. 18.
Sodom and Gomorrah are, of course, the epitome of evil in Hebrew Scriptural tradition. According to the prophet Ezekiel, these evil cities “had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Ezekiel 16:49. Their people also displayed a shocking lack of hospitality and aggression toward helpless sojourners passing through their territory. Genesis 19:1-29. Like them, the aristocracy of Judah in Isaiah’s day was “crushing” the people and “grinding the face of the poor.” Isaiah 3:15. The covenant clearly required better of Israel. Concerning the poor, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.” Deuteronomy 15:11. As for the resident alien, “when a stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Leviticus 19:33-34. Failure to observe these commands to establish justice for the poor and the stranger cannot be cured by fastidious attention to worship and liturgy. Indeed, such worship is deemed an “abomination.” Vs. 13.
Isaiah does not reject temple worship as such. When properly grounded in the Exodus narrative, in which God liberates slaves of the Egyptian Empire to make of them an entirely different kind of community based on justice and compassion, the sacrifices, holy day observances and liturgical rites serve to call Israel back to her identity and mission. But when worship becomes detached from its moorings in salvation history and appropriated for the purpose of legitimating an oppressive hierarchical status quo, it becomes worse than empty and hypocritical. It is not an overstatement to call such worship idolatrous-even when performed with perfect liturgical precision.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self-examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self-examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
In our modern culture we do not ordinarily associate illness with transgression. Still, I would not be too dismissive of this insight. Sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” Eating habits, lack of exercise, smoking and many other unwise life choices can also contribute to illness.
So the psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.
Aside from all questions arising from the psalmist’s views on the causal relationship between his/her sickness and his/her sin, the psalm makes the very important point that honesty, integrity and transparency lead us to a healthy and life-giving existence. The narratives we believe about ourselves invariably cast us as heroes or innocent victims. This stories we tell on ourselves can blind us to faults that undermine relationships, blind us to opportunities and lead us into self-destructive behavior. It takes personal courage and honest friendships strong enough to bear truthful speech in order to maintain spiritual health which, in turn, is often key to one’s overall well-being.
The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN., for additional background.
As it appears in the lectionary, this short reading has Paul expressing his thankfulness for and pride in the church at Thessalonica while praying that the congregation will become what in Christ it already is: a people set aside to glorify the name of Jesus. Vs. 12. Once again, the lectionary people have insulted our intelligence (to say nothing of having perverted the scripture!) by excising from the reading material offensive to mainline, slightly left of center, white and ever polite protestants. Am I being a little too hard on these good folks? I invite you to read the censored material at II Thessalonians 1:5-10 and make your own judgment. If you think Hillary’s deleted e-mails are a big deal, this will really make you flip. I am sometimes tempted to spend a year of the liturgical cycle preaching on all the sections of scripture that have been deleted from the common lectionary. Perhaps I will call it the year of the Wiki Leak’s dump.
Paul’s actual message here is a good deal less benign. He tells us that “indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” and “that when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus…they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” Vss. 6-9. Is this language consistent with the declaration of a church that insists that there is a place here for everyone? Actually, I think it is. Perhaps the kingdom Christ proclaims is the only community in which there is a place for everyone. But it isn’t clear that everyone is eager to take their place in that kingdom. In fact, I suspect that a kingdom in which you are promised only your bread for today and where the greatest of all are the least of all does not appeal to a good many folks. I think there are a lot of people who might recoil from a world in which their medals of honor no longer hold any significance, where nobody remembers all the fine buildings with their names on them; where no one has ever heard of their school or cares about their class rank. World renowned artists, theologians, musicians, business people and political leaders might find it distasteful to be ranked beneath a nursery school teacher who receives and cares for children to make ends meet. I suspect that for many such people, the kingdom of God might be pure hell!
I have often questioned the line in one of our liturgical offertory pieces in which we pray that God would “gather the hopes and dreams of all and unite them with the prayers we offer.” I think there are a lot of our hopes and dreams that have no place under the gentle reign of God. Hope for the continuance of white male privilege is one that needs to die. Dreams for unlimited accumulation of wealth and power for one’s nation or for oneself are incompatible with God’s reign. Indeed, I venture to say that most of our hopes and dreams, even (perhaps especially) the ones we deem holy, selfless and pure, probably need to be crucified before the kingdom can come in its fullness. Salvation for us is not God’s giving us all that we long for. That would be a little like giving a gift certificate from Total Wine to an alcoholic. We must be taught to long for that which is true, beautiful and good. We need to become the sort of people who will recognize the reign of God when it comes as heaven rather than experiencing it as hell.
Zacchaeus, we are told, was a chief tax collector and rich. He was not the sort of tax collector with whom Jesus frequently socialized. Tax collection in Palestine was accomplished by way of a pyramid scheme of extortion. The Roman overlords informed their Jewish agents what needed to be collected and left them to extort whatever profits they could as their compensation. Bamberger, B.J. “Tax Collector,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 522. As a chief tax collector, we may presume that Zacchaeus had a ground crew of agents who actually did the dirty work of squeezing money out of merchants and farmers. Marshall, Howard, I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 696. They also had to extract their own fee over and above what Zacchaeus directed them to collect. That may explain why Zacchaeus is not in a position to say by how much he defrauded anyone. Vs. 8.
The name “Zacchaeus” is an abbreviated form of Zachariah meaning “righteous one.” Id. Not much significance should be attached to this in my opinion. There is no obvious literary pairing with Zachariah the father of John the Baptist or the prophet by that name in the Hebrew Scriptures. If there is any symbolic meaning here it might simply be Luke’s effort at irony. Zacchaeus would have been deemed among the least righteous in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, yet by his response to Jesus he is shown to be an example of the compassionate righteousness preached both by Jesus and John the Baptist.
Given what we know about tax collectors and the way they operate, it is hardly surprising that the people should hate Zacchaeus and resent the wealth he has obtained at their expense by collaborating with their Roman oppressors. As we have seen numerous times before, Jesus’ practice of sharing meal fellowship with tax collectors draws the ire of his critics. This, however, is a particularly grievous circumstance. One might find a degree of pity for the ground level tax collector whose earnings were likely modest-just as we might understand the addict who, in desperation, turns to dealing in order to support his habit. Zacchaeus, however, stands near the top of the food chain. He does not merely make his living by exploiting his own people. He gets rich from it!
Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ self-invitation with lavish hospitality and astounding generosity. Not only does he give half of his wealth to the poor, but he dedicates the remaining half to compensating all whom he may have defrauded. Vs. 8. That raises all kinds of questions for us. How do you measure the amount of compensation due victims of a profession that is by its nature little more than extortion? Moreover, what will Zacchaeus do with his life going forward? Will he remain in his position but collect no premium for himself? It is hard to understand how he could do that while continuing to pay his bills and keeping his agents happy. Will he abandon his unclean profession altogether and get an honest job? In his usual irritating way, Jesus leaves us to struggle with these difficult questions.