Sunday, November 04, 2007

30th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 19
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

As someone that spends far too much time in a darkened movie theatre, I have to fight off the temptation to mention movies from this pulpit. The dangers are legion: maybe you’ll feel left out, maybe I’ll inadvertently spoil the film, maybe you just won’t care. Whatever you feel about film references, today will be different: I have yet to see the movie.

The film in question is American Gangster, a biography of Frank Lucas, the notorious 1970’s crime boss who’s chief claim to fame is first African-American to head criminal organization. With a huge promotion budget, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, I guarantee you are going to hear a lot more about this film. The question, however, is why make a film like this at all?

First, the 70’s are in. Not just the clothes, but there are interesting parallels between this decade and the 70’s, with oil shocks and economic uncertainty, and even an unpopular war. Second, there is new interest in the social history or African-American’s, and while Frank Lucas is hardly a role-model, he does contradict the idea (widely held in the 60’s and 70’s) that African-Americans were not smart enough to run large organizations. Finally, Hollywood looks for success and creates copies: think Sopranos.

Personally, I don’t go in for Mafia stories. Yes, the Godfather is a remarkable film, but I don’t like the subject matter. The Sopranos, hailed by some as the greatest television show of all time (have they never heard of Lucy), is success that the business end of Hollywood is quick to replicate. Add to that the link between the success of certain video games and similar movies, and you will need to brace yourself for more films like American Gangster.

Interest in organized crime, of course, is not new. Every time you see the words “tax collector” in the gospels, you are being directed to the Bible’s own version of the Mafia. Zacchaeus, the “wee little man” of our gospel lesson, as chief tax collector, was the head of a vast criminal organization that operated throughout the city. We don’t usually think of tax collectors this way, but it is a bit like the difference between a pirate and a privateer, both plunder and destroy, one with a license and one without.

Rome gave these men a license to collect the appropriate amount of tax. Whatever else they could force from people was counted as their fee. Zacchaeus, as the chief tax collector sat atop this pyramid collecting his own fee, getting very rich off the people who were getting rich by coercing everyone else. So to suggest that Zaccheus was unpopular would be an understatement. As the head of the local crime family, he would use threats and intimidation to protect himself and his family. He was the Tony Soprano of Jericho, a wealthy city where trade routes met. He was a big man (and little at the same time).

So you can imagine the reaction when Jesus waves down Tony’s Cadillac and says “I’m coming to your house for tea.” It’s not just an odd choice for the man who ate with outcasts and sinners, it is deeply disturbing that Jesus would head to Jersey and enter the home of a prominent don. You are known by the company you keep, and by entering Zaccheus’ realm, Jesus has made a powerful statement: he is without shame.

So how is it that this shameless saviour can get away with such a provocative act? How can he call down Zaccheus, invite himself to dinner, and accept his repentance? How can he call him a “son of Abraham,” an honourific on par with giving Tony Soprano the Order of Canada? I wonder if we have become too familiar with the accusations brought against Jesus, that they have lost their power?

Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

The words appear again and again, and yet Jesus is quick to answer that only the sick are in need of a doctor, and that sinners need him more than the righteous. Wherever Jesus can find someone on the margins, he is quick to heal and forgive and make whole. Whenever broken people call to him, follow him or seek to touch him, he is quick to stop and do his work. People on the margins came first, in need of the medicine him promised.

So why call him a “son of Abraham?” How did Zaccheus come to receive such honour? First, there is the magnitude of his turnabout. He pledged half his wealth the poor, much more than the usual tenth that righteous people set aside for widows, orphans and aliens. He also pledged to return four-fold what he stole from others, beyond the usual one-fifth that the law demands. And since all his wealth was stolen, he was in fact pledging four times half of everything he already gave away. He ended with nothing, and more than nothing. He became a slave.

And like Abraham, he did this without the law. Abraham pledged his loyalty to God and lived righteously without the law, a law that was yet to be given. Zaccheus lived so far beyond the law it didn’t apply to him either. He was subject to Rome rather than Moses, but by finally meeting and exceeding the law, he is named “son of Abraham.” Like Abraham, Zaccheus believed the impossible (that he could be saved) and God more than met him halfway. God stood at the foot of the tree and shook him out.

Like Abraham, Zaccheus had only faith to guide him, only the assurance that the very act of seeking God would carry him home. I haven’t mentioned Habakkuk yet, but he holds the unique honour of uttering words that sit at the centre of our faith. “Look at the proud!” he said, “Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by faith.” Paul repeats these words, in his introduction to Romans and elsewhere. Martin Luther read these words in Romans and wrote a single word in the margin of his Bible: sola. By writing the Latin word “only” he defined the doctrine that would inform all his work: The righteous live by faith alone. John Wesley would hear Luther describe this insight, and his heart was strangely warmed.

From Abraham to Habakkuk to St. Paul to Luther to Wesley: faith in God and God’s ability to save is the only test of faith there is, the only force that can turn Zaccheus and knock Paul off his horse and crush Luther’s fear and warm a cold heart.

Soon, we will read a lengthy Great Thanksgiving and take bread together. We will toast to the memory of Jesus, in whose name we dine. But I could just as easily hold up broken bread and not-quite-wine and say “come and get your medicine.” Jesus came to save sinners, to cure the sin-sick soul, to offer grace to those who only know sadness and shame. The righteous are invited, and they will come. But the broken, the cast out, the people written in the margins of society, they are urged to come, sought after, and offered the head of the line.

There in the margins it says “sola,” for only God alone can save us, only God can offer the bread of heaven and the new wine of forgiveness. Only God can shake us from our tree and come to the table and offer himself for the sins of all. Only God can speak from the margins and say “come, for all things are now ready.”


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