Sunday 3 November 2019
Seeing the change faith can achieve
Context: a main Sunday service for a suburban congregation of about 50. A faithful and older congregation with a younger group just starting to come through
Aim: to take a risk and change our judgements into encouragement of ourselves and others
Zacchaeus the tax collector, has at times been portrayed as a comic figure. But I wonder how we would have felt if we had been in the crowd that day. We may not have been amused by Zacchaeus if we had been one of the people he had swindled. As a wealthier member of the community, who could afford being overcharged, we may have been resentful of his showy wealth and anyone with strong traditional views would have taken the moral high ground against him. We would all have judged him according to how he had treated us and how our circumstances compared to his. Zacchaeus would have been a pariah, someone others love to hate, someone we can blame for our ills and the ills of the world. And yet something brought him to see Jesus passing through that day and something led him to climb that tree.
In this story of Jesus’ choosing Zacchaeus, there is opportunity, challenge and change. Jesus offers Zacchaeus a new vision and a chance to live differently, and Zacchaeus finds his heart opened and his mind changed. Jesus also challenges the judgements of the crowd looking on. The opportunity and challenge are not only to Zacchaeus but also to us.
The challenge to us is one of Jesus’ strong familiar messages ‘judge not, lest ye be judged.’ Our own prejudices and judgements are always with us. We hear them every day when we talk about, politics, or football, the state of the Church, or the people who irritate us the most, usually because they think and act differently from us. Jesus urges us to let these judgements go, but it can be hard to let go of hardwired attitudes, especially if we feel that we are on the wrong side of an unequal and unfair world. The hardwiring is usually there for a reason, we may have been hurt or harmed by others, or experience the world as hostile or rejecting. Sometimes these attitudes, fears and anxieties, can lead us to be unkind and unfair to people in turn. Maybe, this is why Zacchaeus treated people in the way that he did.
Letting go of our judgements, when fear and anxiety hold them in place, can feel very risky, especially when our communities create ingroups for us to feel safe in and outgroups for us to be fearful of.
One of the outgroups we have that are on a par with Zacchaeus, are the heads of large corporations who pay little tax. Jeff Bezoz is the founder of Amazon, a company often vilified in the press, he divorced his wife Mackenzie this year, and as a result she is now worth 36 billion dollars. She made a public declaration, just as Zacchaeus did, vowing that she would give half her fortune away, she said:
I have no doubt that tremendous value comes when people act quickly on the impulse to give. No drive has more positive ripple effects than the desire to be of service … I have a disproportionate amount of money to share … And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.
Mackenzie describes her positive impulse to give and to serve and how important it is to act quickly when that impulse arises. In the story of Zacchaeus, we see a positive impulse awaken in him when he learns that Jesus is coming through and when he climbs the tree. He acts quickly to accept Jesus’ request to come to his home, and he begins to change with his immediate declaration to give to the poor and to those he has wronged. Zacchaeus and Mackenzie show us that, if a person wants to change, they need to start acting differently, and to start acting differently, a person’s heart and mind must be transformed to see a new vision of the future. That is what Jesus did for Zacchaeus, and what he can do for us. But for change to be sustained people need the support of those around them to help them when they falter, a supportive community could provide the happy ending to both these stories.
Why do we love these stories about the conversion of baddies to good people, and cheer the impulses that took Zacchaeus up the tree?
Maybe we all want to see the change that faith in Jesus can achieve, and the hope that our society will become a place where justice and equality reign. We may not be in the same class as Zacchaeus when it comes to self-serving behaviour, but we can take our chances to change as he did. And in our everyday lives we can work on ourselves as Jesus’ encourages us to do, by being aware of judgements as they form in our minds, then allowing them to drop away without being spoken. We can also reach out and love our neighbours by supporting those who have taken the risk to change.
It is only through radical change, the real impact of Jesus in our lives, that we can bring the Kingdom into being. Zacchaeus took that risk and Jesus challenges us to let go of our judgements and do the same.
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