Proper 26C / Ordinary 31C / Pentecost +24
November 3, 2013
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
In today’s Gospel reading, we meet the comical figure of Zacchaeus, a tax-collector whose encounter with Jesus changes his life. Zacchaeus – a man “short in stature” (Luke 19:3) – wants to see Jesus so badly that he climbs a sycamore tree so that he can see above the crowd. The persistence of Zacchaeus is often taken as a sermon topic: Zacchaeus’ zeal for Jesus is so commendable, that the Lord invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ home, where the tax-collector repents. Is our zeal for Jesus that great? Would we be willing to climb a tree for the Lord?
However, if we think that First Century listeners thought that Zacchaeus’ zeal was commendable, we would be sadly mistaken. In the first place, people who were physically unusual (“short in stature”) were sources of shame and embarrassment – since it would be assumed that their physical deformity was the result of sin. In the “honor and shame” culture of the time, if you were a short man, if anything, you would do anything not to call attention to yourself. Not only does Zacchaeus fail to do the honorable thing and stay out of sight, he runs his stuff up a tree, in front of God and everyone. (Also note: There was no underwear in those days. People under the tree would have gotten a real eye-full.)
Zacchaeus, on top of being short, was a tax-collector. This meant that a) he was a collaborator with the Romans; b) he regularly defrauded his fellow Jews; and c) he was ritually unclean, because he went rooting around through peoples’ possessions to assess them – both Jew and (unclean) Gentile. So Zacchaeus, rather than being seen as admirable, would have actually been seen as completely vile and contemptible – comic at best, loathsome and shameful at worst.
So Zacchaus’ zeal for Jesus was not laudable. He was doing exactly what a reputable man of his time should not have been doing: Making a spectacle of himself.
In many cities around this time of year, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) communities have some pretty spectacular Halloween celebrations. In Washington, DC, the annual High-Heeled Drag Race draws spectators from miles around to see men dressed as everything from Dorothy of Oz to Paula Deen, run shrieking down 17th Street to the finish line. Everyone’s Id is run up a tree for God and everyone to see. And, in some cases, there is not much left to the imagination.
“But don’t these people have any shame??” some may say. “I mean, it’s one thing if you’re Gay” (huff, huff) “but do you have to rub peoples’ faces in it??”
But Zacchaeus was certainly rubbing peoples’ faces in it. And not only does Jesus not shun him (which would have been the honorable thing to do), He approaches Zacchaeus in the tree and invites Himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ home. If we think think that Jesus was doing a laudable thing, the text corrects us: “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (vv.7). So not only was Zacchaeus dishonoring himself, so was Jesus. Everything about this situation completely flew in the face of decency and respectability. But that was what was required for love and healing to take place.
So decency and respectability is not a prerequisite for Jesus’ grace. If anything, the opposite seems to be true. Time and again in Luke’s Gospel, it’s the people who are not behaving well (Zacchaeus; the irate widow – Luke 18:1-8; the shouting blind man – Luke 18:35-43) who seem to attract God’s grace and healing – much to the consternation of those nearby, including the Disciples.
So the next time we’re at a high-heeled drag race, rather than huffing to ourselves, turning aside and hustling home, maybe the right response is to at least congratulate the winner. (Or to help someone to the curb who has a sprained ankle.) Maybe they’re running it up a tree for a reason. And maybe you’re the person who’s meant to notice and respond in love and friendship.