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Zacchaeus: On Living with Empire (sermon)

October 31, 2010

Luke 19: 1-10

A man is up a tree. Waiting, watching. A man reminded yet again that he is smaller than he would like to be has climbedup in secret because he really wants to see… but doesn’t want to be seen. This is not his normal everyday morning exercise. He has made a special effort. Waiting, watching. What does it mean for him the Jesus is passing?

We know this story so well – his moment of crisis is written on our hearts and imaginations alongside taxes, the Inland Revenue and things we love to hate. Jesus makes a bad man feel good, so the story goes… so he turns his life around.

Today I want to stay a little longer in the first century. What does it mean to be Zacchaeus?  I think it means that you live in particular way between the empire and the people of God. Ever since the Exile in the 5th century bc, till today, Jews have lived in what they call dispersion or exile, in different ways they have lived in the shadow of empires. In fact, even during Jesus time and beyond the cultural center for Jews has been in Babylon (present day Baghdad – little known fact). In exile they heard the voice of Jeremiah ‘seek the welfare of the city…’ and they took it to heart. Only a remnant went back to Jerusalem. But even back in Israel they lived in alienation under an oppressive Roman empire, still in exile from God’s promised kingdom, still struggling to sing the Lord’s song. Some rejected Jeremiah’s advice and fought to bring in the kingdom of God (you might have heard of the Maccabbean revolution of 2nd century bc). In the end it failed. And the book of Maccabbees was not accepted in the Jewish canon for good reason. Armed rebellion against empire was one way to live in the shadow of the empire – a way which was effectively rejected. Vengeance is mine says the Lord… God’s messiah will bring in God’s reign, not human violence. The mainstream of Jewish practice, even before Jesus time, is a kind of pacifism. Living in the empire for God, by living differently. Throughout the ancient near east and beyond Jews became the translators, the traders the people who lived within empires but didn’t belong there, so they could negotiate between cultures. They were practicing how to live in the world but not of it, long before St Paul used the phrase, and Jesus called them to love their enemies. And on either side of this calling two kinds of temptations lay. On the one hand the Maccabees and the Zealots represented a violent impatience with God and God’s messiah, a sense of taking the future into one’s own hand by the only means that seemed practical – i.e. military force. The zealots represent a practical solution to a theological problem – the slowness of God. On the other hand there are the Sadducees and people like Zacchaeus who chose instead to ‘seek the welfare of the city’ but by becoming agents of the city. If the Zealots use the empires means against it, the Sadducees and tax collectors use the empire’s means for it. They are Jews who have effectively joined forces with the empire and lost their spiritual identity. Rather than seeking the welfare of the empire (in Jeremiah’s terms) Zacchaeus has become an agent of the empire… And that’s the distinction I want us to think about today… it’s a distinction, we don’t really understand until, as Jesus puts it, “salvation comes to his house”.

Why does Jesus say that salvation has come to this house? He says it in response to this speech by Zacchaeus. “Listen sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone. I will pay back four times as much.” It’s not clear that he has cheated anyone. What is clear is that he has discovered the economics of the God of Israel by having dinner with Jesus of Nazareth. He didn’t have a WWJD bracelet but after eating with the man, he seems to understand intuitively what it looks like to live like Jesus.

Incidentally you might have heard that the question on people’s mind recently is not so much what would Jesus do, as what would Jesus steal. Apparently one of the large chains of Christian merchandise stores in Australia is having a problem with burglary. Guess what the most stolen item is? Yep… the WWJD bracelets.

You see the real alternative to using the empire’s means against it – the holy war option of the Zealots and the Maccabbees – and using the empires means for it – the Sadduccees and Zacchaeus – is a kind of letting go of control for the sake of the poor. The real alternative is a sacrificial and costly commitment to the poor. Jesus says ‘this man is a descendent of Abraham.’ Not because he was a biological Jew – he was that already – but because he knew what it meant to be a member of the people of God in exile among the Empire. He knew the call of Abraham, the call of Abraham’s God. We don’t know why this small man with an urgent need to compensate by climbing was turned around that day by Jesus, and a lot of preachers spend a lot of time speculating about it. What we do know is that Jesus set him free from one set of economic practices, one way of living in the empire and gave him the freedom to find a completely new way.

Let’s bring it into our world. What does it mean for you to live as a descendent of Abraham and a follower of Jesus the Messiah in the shadow of an empire whose God is the Gross Domestic Product? What does it mean for you to seek the welfare of the city, without becoming an agent of the city?

Perhaps you think we don’t live under Rome. It’s not so black and white nowadays. We live in a democracy with a strong commitment to human rights.

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending the WCRC Grand Rapids Michigan as one of two PCANZ reps…

One of the key items on the agenda was what to do with a Confessional commitment made 6 years earlier at the last meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (before they united with other reformed and Presbyterians around the world to become the World Communion of Reformed Churches). Back in 2004 Presbyterian Christians throughout the world reached a moment of insight and they wrote what become known as the Accra Confession (gathered in a church built on the site where slaves used to be kept before being shipped from Ghana to the US)… “we see that the current world (dis)order is rooted in an extremely complex and immoral economic system defended by empire” According to this international body of Presbyterians ‘empire’ is still here. Zacchaeus still has his bosses… This statement about empire was written prior to our current economic crisis. Back in 2004 they wrote. “In using the term ‘empire’ we mean the coming together of economic, cultural, political and military power that constitutes a system of domination led by powerful nations to protect and defend their own interests.” Later in that document they wrote about some of the ideologies that drive this empire (neoliberal economics) – the idea that the best thing for the world is unrestrained competition, unlimited economic growth, unrestrained capital speculation, deregulation of markets. That was before the crash. Not that we should be surprised. After all Jesus warned us that we would always have the poor with us – so unsurprisingly we also always have empire.

But Zacchaeus is not a neutral player with respect to empire. He has gone from living within empire, to acting for the empire. He has lost his Jewish identity. For the God of Israel lives for the poor. Zacchaeus has been playing empire games with the poor.

The hard challenge of the Zacchaeus story is only faced when we look at the global context and can see how the system relates to the poor.

But if the global context shows up our link to Zacchaeus’s life… how does it challenge us locally? After all we meet with Jesus here. Jesus comes to us for a meal . And if it’s true that Jesus and the salvation of God has come to our house, our nice new community complex, our home in the suburbs, the first question it raises is how does it impact our economic life? the God of Israel is interested in the poor, the financially poor and the spiritually poor – those who know their need of God. Jesus is interested in the poor.

The thing is it is so easy to say that we are interested in the poor, but the empire still forms our habits and routines. we are called to develop together different habits and routines… not just talk.

Giving half of his assets to the poor was a pretty dramatic start for Zacchaeus. Everyone starts somewhere. The point in the end is to start to be a child of Abraham again… and a follower of Jesus Christ in economics and politics and relationships. Salvation comes to our house like this.

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