Sunday, November 03, 2013

All Saints-Anniversary Sunday

Luke 19
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

I heard Linda say Zacchaeus, but all I could think was Louis De Palma.

Who on earth is Louis De Palma? TV Guide ranked Louis De Palma number one among the 50 greatest television characters of all time (1999). Played by Danny Devito, Louis De Palma was a distillation of the worst boss you ever had: rude, uncaring, and seemingly without morals.

The show, for those old enough to remember, was Taxi, set in New York, in the fictional Sunshine Cab Company. Danny Devito’s character played along such greats as Judd Hirsch, Andy Kaufman, Carol Kane and Christopher Lloyd. And along with such a rich ensemble of characters we can add more, the city itself.

Again, for those old enough to remember, New York in the 70’s and 80’s was a city at war with itself. Gone was the Mad Men optimism of the 60’s and what followed was stagnation and crime, and a growing gap between the success of Wall Street and what was happening in the rest of the city.

The show Taxi, beginning in 1978, became a sort of proxy for the struggles of the city itself. Was the city going to give into the stereotype of being rude, uncaring and seemingly without morals, or embrace the ensemble of workers who had each other’s back and had to struggle together against a common foe? For viewers, it was a delightful tension: for New Yorkers to laugh at themselves and for the rest of us to look in.

Of course, it may simply be that both Zacchaeus and Louis De Palma (as played by Danny Devito) are not-so-tall. Or the fact that Zacchaeus and Louis De Palma were both outcasts, in a sort of self-imposed exile from the rest of the community: one for being so difficult, and the other for being a tax-collector. You see, even the setting is similar, Zacchaeus up a tree and Louis De Palma up in his wire cage, seemingly safe from everyone who despises him.

Before we look at our passage in more detail, what about tax collectors? Last week it was the tax collector who was truly faithful, repenting before God. Jesus was regularly abused for hanging out with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ and we know that at least one of his disciples (Matthew) was formerly a tax collector. The occupation looms large over the New Testament, so how does it work? I think we’re far enough from April that we won’t be traumatized by a conversation about tax collection, right?

It was really quite structured. Tax collectors, also known as publicans, would vie for the opportunity to collect taxes in a particular region. Publicans would pay the tax for everyone for a certain period of time—a massive outlay—assuming that they could collect the amount back and more. The Roman government also paid interest on the original outlay, adding a second revenue stream to the already profitable task of strong-arming the population. Of course there were risks: If famine came you might be unable to collect from anyone, and you’ve already turned over the full amount to Caesar.

Despite the risks, tax collectors generally did quite well, but with a cost: they were hated, and it was the kind of hate reserved for members of the community who cooperated with the occupying power and made life difficult for everyone. In order to get a sense of the gravity you might imagine a tax collector in Vichy France or occupied Holland, adding additional misery to an already miserable population.

For the tax collectors themselves, they lived in two worlds. They were local, and could therefore understand the people they were exploiting, but they also aspired to some status among the occupiers, becoming Roman in a world ruled by Rome. Having money helped in this—offering protection from those who might harm you—and giving you the opportunity to impress those who liked a good show of wealth, namely the Romans.

But there was more. Aspiring to being Roman meant adopting Roman virtues, living out the values that made Rome Rome. In other words, if Zacchaeus wanted to join the club, he had to not only play by the rules but exhibit the values of the occupying power. And they were actually quite simple, and based on a single idea: honour.

To achieve honour, a good Roman needed to adhere to the principles of fidelity (to others and the state), piety (justice toward the gods), discipline and gravitas ("dignified self-control"). Taken together, these virtues would give you dignity and authority, the latter being the kind of prestige and respect every Roman longed to have.

And on top of all this, there was the traditional structure of Roman society, a society based on a complex series of patrons and clients. In this system everyone was both at once: the tax collector was a client of the governor and the patron of his own tax collecting network. And on it went, everyone somehow linked to everyone else in the society, from Caesar down to the newest slave.

This is a rather long way of telling the story of the day Jesus met Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Jesus, increasingly well-known in the region, attracts a crowd that day including our wealthy friend. Zacchaeus can’t see very well, so he heads for a sycamore tree and finds a nice perch. Jesus stops beneath the spot, and tells the ‘wee little man’ to come down at once, “since I’m staying at your house today.”

But the real action happens back at Zacchaeus’ place. Our host tells his famous guest that he will give half of all he has to the poor, and return four times the money he has stolen. “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”

Do you see what just happened there? Guests were honoured, money was shared and returned, but chiefly someone made a choice: son of Caesar or son of Abraham. The way of fides, disciplina and gravitas, or remain a son of Abraham, heir to the covenant God made long ago.

The details of the story are intentionally spare. We don’t know if there was a lengthy discussion over lunch before Zacchaeus made his decision. We don’t know if the disciples were in on the discussion. We don’t know if Mrs. Zacchaeus and all the little Zacchaeus’ had an opinion, seeing most of the family wealth go out the door. Whatever else happened that day, and whatever was said, we know that a choice was made and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was honoured instead of Rome.

I want to make a couple more points, but I know beef-on-a-bun is waiting, so I’ll make it brief. The first is that we are all faced with the same choice: do I serve myself, maybe be a little rude, sometimes seeming uncaring, or do I serve others, the people who have my back, and the people who need my help? It is a choice many make every time they go to work, and every time they see trouble, and every time they vote. But Jesus says ‘come down’ and be with others, be a son or daughter of Abraham instead.

Secondly, since the beginning of the century before the last century, faithful people here and in our sister churches in Weston and Mount Dennis were trying to live differently. They rejected expressions of religion that were only about personal piety, or place in the community, and took the risk to become Christians concerned about the social order.

It found full flower in 1925 with the formation of the United Church, setting aside doctrine in favour of creating a Christian Canada: not Christian in identity but Christian in values. But long before that, so-called non-conformist denominations had a different vision of Canada, not ruled by social betters or those with more money, but by farmers and labourers, loyalists and recent immigrants, and every person of goodwill.

Every time and place faces the same choice: deciding what kind of society we wish to have and what values will be foundational. And as always, Jesus says “come down, I must stay at your house today.” Thanks be to God. Amen.


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