Friday, November 01, 2013

November 3, Proper 26: Contradictions 10: Zacchaeus

Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10

One of our elders was in the Midwest at one of our Christian colleges, and a professor there who is an acquaintance of mine introduced herself to him. He told me that she said that she wanted to meet him because Daniel was always boasting about Old First. She meant it well, but when I heard this I thought to myself, “Oh dear, I do go on, I must be such a bore.” So I was comforted by the epistle for this week, 2nd Thessalonians 1:4, where St. Paul writes: “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God.”

I do boast of you. I know there is significant self-interest in my doing so, it makes me look good, so please forgive me, but I celebrate the possibility of a real and vital Christian congregation. You exhibit what St. Paul writes: “Your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” Yet, while it’s true that Old First is facing some daunting challenges, we cannot really say that our church has to endure persecutions and afflictions, not compared to what churches endure in Syria and Egypt and Indonesia. Still, as individuals many of you are enduring great afflictions and even some persecutions, and yet you remain steadfast and faithful. And yes, we could always do better, and yes, we must always be praying that God will make us worthy of his call, but you can believe that God will continue to fulfill by his power every good resolve that you make, and every work of faith that you attempt, that the name of Jesus may be glorified in you, Old First. Oh yes, I boast of you.

You as a congregation are evidence that the Christian faith is not just an ideal, and it’s more solid than a mystery up in the air. It’s a real live thing for real life in the real world, and you give it shape and space within the structures and systems of the world.

True enough, our churchly structures and systems are always compromised, and always at least a bit complicit in the corrupted systems of the world, and we always fall short of the glory of God. As I said last week, the gospel both calls you to religion and also tells you that your religion never measures up. That ongoing contradiction we heard again this morning in Isaiah’s condemnation of the very sacramental practices which the Law of God ordained.

Of course the problem was that the sacramental practices were not accompanied by the more costly practices of seeking justice and rescuing the oppressed and caring for the poor. But then immediately the prophet offers cleansing and absolution if they confess the truth about themselves. That confession and absolution is what I’m going to call today a “feedback-loop”.

We can say that even though our practice of the Christian faith is never pure and that it never reaches its own ideal, it has built within it a number of effective feedback-loops for repentance and reconciliation and revival, which make the whole thing very doable in real time. It is doable and you are doing it. Yes, there are contradictions built into the Christian faith, as we have seen for ten weeks now, but those contradictions are not discrediting—they are rather honest to God and to our experience, and they are not deadening but generative and creative, and we can work them out in real terms in real life. It’s doable.

Which brings me to our gospel lesson, the story of Zacchaeus. I will offer an interpretation that contradicts the common one, including all my previous sermons on this passage. Until today I have always followed Calvin and other interpreters in assuming that Zacchaeus was converted here, that his encounter with the Lord had turned him from being a bad guy tax-collector to a penitential tax-collector. This common interpretation is what you would expect from our English translation (NRSV) of verse 8: “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anything to anyone I will give it back fourfold.” Notice the verbs in the future tense, “I will give to the poor, I will give it back fourfold.”

But this past week I noticed that the Greek verbs are in the present tense. The Greek original reads thus: “Look, half of my income I give to the poor, and from whomever I have wrongfully exacted anything, I give it back fourfold.” He’s already doing it. Do you believe that such is possible of a government official? I don’t think the crowd does. I don’t think the Pharisee would from the parable last week.

But he’s rich! Jesus just accepting him would contradict what Jesus said in Luke chapter 6, “Woe to you who are rich now,” and what Jesus said in chapter 18, that “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” But at the same time, how about if the rich man has built in a feedback loop, by giving the half of his income to the poor? Remember from last month the parable of the Crooked Steward, when Jesus said, “Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous mammon, so that when it runs out, you will be welcomed into the eternal habitations.” Isn’t that what Zacchaeus is doing?

Okay, he’s not perfect, indeed, he is complicit in a corrupting system, but who of you are not? (This is the true meaning of the doctrine of Total Depravity---we're all corrupted.) Look, the Romans would demand those taxes be collected anyway, so why not do it in such a way to benefit the poor? And if it also makes him rich, is there anything good that anyone of you does without some small measure of self-interest? Like when I boast of you?

You will ask why he wrongfully exacted anything from anyone to begin with. Well, that will have been inevitable, the way the system worked. As I said last week, the Roman system of taxation required some level of legalized extortion. But Zacchaeus, to his credit, had a feedback-loop, and the fourfold repayment was generous compensation for the trouble the system had caused. And so in complicated and complicit circumstances, Zacchaeus manages to find a way to demonstrate the economic values of the kingdom of God. I think this must have encouraged Jesus the week before he died.

So then why are the people grumbling? Are they’re jealous that he’s rich? Or that, even for all the good he does, he’s still complicit with the Romans, and he’s unkosher from handling unclean money? It’s really Jesus they are grumbling at, because he contradicts their expectations of whom the Lord accepts. They grumble at the sovereignty and freedom of the grace of God.

But the free and sovereign grace of God is very great comfort when you face the truth that everything that you do in your Christian life has some fault or flaw within it and always some complicity. Nothing you do is pure. Even every good thing that you do has some small measure in it of self-interest. And so you have to repent and be reconciled, and build into your life some realistic feedback-loops, some actions of selflessness and sacrifice. Not because God needs your sacrifice, but because you do. Not just to keep you humble, but to keep you tuned in to the grace of God. You have to build some contradictions into your own life in order to keep yourself on the homing signal of God’s free and sovereign love.

Tithing is one such thing. Because to be a Christian in the real world, in real time, with real things, must include your money. Tithing is a feedback-loop. It’s how you contradict the constant whispering of your evident self-interest, and how you set real limits on yourself. It’s a combination spiritual and economic exercise you need to do to keep in tune.

What we mean by tithing is that you give back to God the top percentage of your income. The Biblical goal is the top ten percent, but you can start with one percent if it is new to you, as long as it’s the top one percent of your budget, before you budget for anything else. And then every year you try to raise yourself by one percent again, till you reach ten. And yes, there is self-interest in your tithing, because of the services the church gives back to you. You get community, you get the Word of God in real terms, you get the means of repenting of your sins and reconciling yourself to God. You get music and education Look, you get back from what you give.

It goes without saying that teaching you to tithe is in the obvious self-interest of the church. Like, “you should tithe, and give it to us.” Which is why we build in many feedback-loops in the systems of Old First. But at the same time, it’s a realistic part of your participation in the Kingdom of God, because it’s in the form of congregations, like the Thessalonians, like the Park Slopians, like the Israelites, like the Brooklynites, it’s in the form of churches that the Christian faith takes real form in the real world. Old First is a "salvation-reality."

A church is not an end in itself, it must always look beyond itself and find its meaning in the larger scope and larger purposes of the Kingdom of God, and yet the Lord has made the church the necessary witness and first-fruit of the Kingdom of God. Your congregation makes the Christian faith something more solid than a mystery up in the air. Your congregation makes the Christian faith a real live thing for real life in the real world, and you give it shape and space within the structures and patterns of the world.

This shape and space deserve your participation. Every Sunday the Lord Jesus says to you, “You come down, because I’m going to your house today. And you are happy to welcome him. Today salvation has come into this house.”

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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