Camouflaged by shame

Luke 19:1-10

To hear this sermon preached click here

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

I grew up in a culture that was peppered with prejudice about all sorts of people and people groups. A product of the height of Apartheid, and a white male South African, I was fed a steady dose of all the stereotypes that went into making up our society. It may surprise you that the stereotypes weren’t all about race! Many of them were about other physical features, like, “Never trust anyone whose eyes are too close together“. I do beg your clemency for this bigoted upbringing and would offer as mitigating circumstance that I grew up deprived of “Google”. If I’d had the Internet I could have verified all these misperceptions on Wikipedia. (Yes, that lump on my face is indeed my tongue in my cheek!)

Another of these cultural biases was located around persons of short stature. Short man syndrome or a Napoleon Complex, was used to judge people of less than average height who competed aggressively with those who were taller. Behind the bias lay an unspoken principle: short people should know their place. Interesting that there isn’t a short woman syndrome, are women just expected to be small?

Coming this week to the most famous short man of the gospels, Zacchaeus, I find myself wondering if the short man syndrome was a bias in the days of Jesus? If it was, poor Zaccheaus had to face a double whammy. Short of stature, and also a tribute collector, what a difficult incarnation to carry.

All this nostalgia for the prejudicial upbringing of my past also dredged up a song from my youth. It was written by another short man and performed by his short self and his tall partner. The opening lines were, “When you’re weary , feeling small…

Are you old enough to remember “Bridge over Troubled Water“(YouTube Link) by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? It was 1969, so you may not want to admit to that.

I think those opening lines would have got Zacchaeus’ attention if he had heard the song back in the day. Zacchaeus knew what it was to be weary and also what it was to feel small. In the shame based culture of his time (is there any other kind?) being a tribute collector was tantamount to being a spy and a traitor. The only difference was you were required to perform your treachery in public! Collecting the extorted tribute from the Jewish populace and then handing it over, sans your sizeable administration fee,  to the Roman oppressors would not have endeared this profession to your peers.

I can’t help wondering if the tree climbing that Luke tells us was to get a better view was not also an attempt at concealment and camouflage?

Zacchaeus knew who he was, he also knew what he had done. He saw the shame in the looks his fellow Jericho-ers, including some of his family, gave him as they looked down on him literally and in every way. Zacchaeus was quite happy to be concealed in the sycamore-fig tree that day. To catch a discreet glimpse of the travelling Rabbi, that so many were speaking of.

On the Internet there is a name for people who enter chat rooms and who never participate in the discussion. They are called “Lurkers“. Zacchaeus was a lurker. Drawn to the teacher Jesus, he didn’t believe he had anything to offer and certainly believed he was not worthy to receive anything, so he lurked in the sycamore-fig tree, the very tree that was ironically a symbol of the nation of Israel and of blessing. Knowing what we do now about the outcome of this narrative, the sycamore-fig tree was an inspired choice. Zacchaeus might not have dreamed about the blessing of Zechariah 3:10, “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.“, but somehow he knew he had to see Jesus

When I preach on a Sunday I sometimes find myself wondering how many Zacchaeuses are in church, or even reading this blog. People who are drawn by the promise of healing and wholeness from Jesus, but who have experienced too much shame and have been looked down upon just once to many, for them to risk disclosure of their need? They lurk in the back pews, or don’t even attend church, constantly reading blogs like this trying to find some redemption from the harsh judgement they see in the eyes of others. Sadly, the most despising and diminishing looks come from the disciples of Jesus.

Here is the good news. Jesus is drawn to shame. Shame and sadness are the pheromones that attract the amazing grace of Jesus.

Just one look up the tree of shame and concealment and Jesus encounters the one who is lurking there.

It took me a while before I grasped the irony of the tribute collector hiding in the iconic fig tree of Israel and of blessing. At the risk of totally mixing metaphors, and confusing everyone may I point out that Jesus “the vine of the New Israel” calls Zacchaeus Smallman, to leave the concealment of the laws of shame and blame and also to leave his false blessing of wealth and extortion. He is called to leave that which makes him live in concealment from everyone, and “come down” to take his place as a forgiven son of Abraham.

No longer will Zacchaeus have to lurk up the tree of shame and blame, he will now be able to sit under that tree in the blessing of God. How? Because, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

This is not merely a story for Zacchaeus. It is a call to each of us as Small-people.

Let us risk climbing from the perches of false guilt caused by prejudicial bias where we have been lurking, and leering at the world.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Wow! Zacchaeus, how you’ve grown! You are taller down here than when you were up the tree.

Hidden in plain sight

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I am fascinated by the human mind and its abilities. One such ability, that I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation for, is the one that alerts you to the fact that you are being watched. It has happened to you, I am sure. Standing in a busy street, you become aware of something, you look up and straight into the eyes of a person who is staring at you. I of course have great fun with this the other way around. Staring at people from my coffee shop table I see how long it takes them to realise they are being watched.

In this Sunday’s gospel, it seems Jesus was under multi-scrutiny. Yet the seer who was being watched was also capable of noticing what the watchers were blind to.

Last week I reflected on how Jesus in Luke 13:10ff was able to see in the following ways:

  • He saw the person and not the condition.
  • He saw the potential and not the present manifestation.
  • He saw without prejudice.

This week there is more watching going on, and the seeing contrasts with the characteristic seeing of Jesus from last week.

Here the looking is to judge, to assess and to catch Jesus possibly committing an error. Just the kind of observation we have become so accustomed to in the church. Like internal auditors constantly in search of fraud we scan the lives of others, and also our own for the least inconsistency so that we van pounce and cry, “Fraud!

How contrasting, once again, is the seeing of Jesus. Despite being aware of being scrutinised he does not become preoccupied with that. Instead, he is able to notice the man with dropsy, whom Luke describes as, “Just then, in front of him…“. This description reads like the directions for a stage play, “Just then, in front of him…” For me this cameo is a powerful glimpse into the mindfulness of Jesus who, despite all the drama and projections around him, is able to see what is, “Just then, in front of him…

I find myself desiring to be that focussed in my own day to day dramas.

Is it possible, in the midst of others projections, evaluations, and judgements of my every move, to still be focussed on that which is “Just then, in front of me?“. Jesus shows me it is possible.

The rest of the gospel passage would seem to flow from that moment of concentrated compassionate seeing.

Jesus uses the man’s need to teach the lesson that, in the compassionate Kingdom of the Heavenly Parent, love must always override legal observance. That segment of the story seems to have a logical connection to the mindful seeing of the dropsical man. How though does the teaching on the places of privilege have bearing on contemplative, compassionate seeing?

I would suggest that Jesus is teaching that our vision is refracted through our values.

If position, privilege and power are the values that we pursue, as the wedding guests who scan the seating plan for any sign that they may have been disadvantaged by the wedding planners; to that extent we will be disabled from seeing the humility and humanity of others needs that may “Just then, be in front of us

Once again Jesus’ teaching is a real eye-opener.

“It is not certain”

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

I am fascinated by Chaos Theory. A relatively new branch of physics that has been applied in many other fields such as biology and meteorology. Chaos theory stated at its most simple, suggests that systems evolve and are not static, that even orbits can become irregular over time due to irregular actions of “strange attractors”.

An early pioneer of the theory was Edward Lorenz whose interest in chaos came about accidentally through his work on weather prediction in 1961. Lorenz decided to cut time on running a very long computer programme, by inserting values, (which the first half of the programme would have calculated), at the halfway mark of the programme. To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. Lorenz tracked this down to the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have had practically no effect. However Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome. Lorenz’s discovery, which gave its name to Lorenz attractors, proved that meteorology could not reasonably predict weather beyond a weekly period (at most). Wikipedia: Chaos Theory

This has given rise to what is now called the Butterfly effect, and that in turn to the famous saying, “The flap of butterfly wing in Brazil may cause a hurricane in Hong Kong

All this is fascinating to the intellect but there is one significant challenge. Our minds crave order! It is this natural ordering drive in all humans that has made us such a diverse and successful species. We prefer to make order out of chaos (except for some teenage years) and not the other way around.

Our mechanistic universe, so eloquently described and mapped by the early Western scientists was the fruit of this ordering drive. The Newtonian world that ran like a machine made us feel safe and comfortable. When people like Darwin, Einstein and Bohr came along, we became insecure and twitchy once again.

We find it difficult to deal with randomness and chaos, because the ego, which you can translate as “Satan” wants’ to be in control.

The problem however comes when, what has now been scientifically proven to be a fairly chaotic and random world, will not allow us to control it as we desire.

Halley’s comet did not return where we said it should, we cannot predict the weather as accurately as we would like, and as to what we will find in the Large Hadron Collider when we really get those atomic particles colliding who knows?

So because the world is now revealed as being random and chaotic, and because we refuse to accept that not everything can be explained or controlled, as a final frontier of control and resistance we now still expect our religion to explain and control what we know from science that we cannot.

And Fundamentalist religion falls right into this trap laid by our fear and expectations. that of offering certainty where there is none. Pandering to humanity’s quest for blind certainty is a hallmark of unskilful religion. Trying to explain, and thereby control the mystery, instead of celebrating the limitations of our understanding and the mysterious and unfathomable nature of God is not helpful.

Skilful religion, points to the mystery that is God, with awe, instead of trying to explain everything with arrogance.

Luke tells of how people come to Jesus and tell him of a massacre of Galileans whilst they were offering sacrifices to God. The assumption is that they must have done something wrong to deserve that. The certainty principle at work, “Bad things happen to bad people” Jesus’ response is to deny that who the Galileans were, made them in some way the deserving of the massacre.

He then sites the tragedy of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam just outside Jerusalem as another case for consideration. Were the eighteen people who were killed in that tragedy worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem. Jesus is again denying the certainty principle.

You see in Jesus day, the certainty principle stated that bad things happened to bad people and good people only received blessing upon blessing. So tragic accidents, massacres and any other suffering had to have a cause that lay in the people who suffered in the event. They must have drawn it to themselves!

We have just recently seen the Christian Fundamentalist certainty principle, at work through the odious statement of televangelist Pat Roberston: on the earthquake in Haiti that destroyed the capital and killed tens of thousands of people, Jan. 13, 2010, “It may be a blessing in disguise. … Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Blame the victims is what this kind of thinking is. It is the same mentality that says women who get raped must have acted provocatively! It is a shocking line of argument but it feeds off the need to always explain what cannot usually be explained.

I love philosopher Sam Keen’s maxim, “Seek simplicity but respect complexity” The mysteries of life and death, tragedy and blessing, demand that respect.

Jesus, in both case studies, ends his exoneration of the victims from any culpability in the disaster, by calling his audience, to repent or else they will perish in the same way.

Now there is a mysterious statement if ever there was one!

The first phrase is relatively simple, “I tell you; but unless you repent” is a call to change direction. In this context it would seem to be a call to change the way people are thinking about disasters and accidents. I would paraphrase Jesus as saying, “Change the way you are over-simplifying these complex matters. You can’t blame the victims. They didn’t deserve what happened. Re-orient(repent) your thinking on these things

The second half of Jesus’ statement is a little more tricky, “you will all perish just as they did.”

This “dying as they did” seems to be the consequence of not re-orienting their thinking. “Repent, or die as they did”. At face value the saying seems to have the same causal problems the statement Jesus is refuting!

I must confess that I find no “simple” grasp of this passage. But the more I meditate on its mystery I seem to glimpse an insight that may be helpful.

The clue lies in the illustrative parable of the fig tree. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

This is a parable about a landowner expecting a causal and predictable result from his fig tree. The sequence is logical and simple, plant a fig tree, expect fruit, after three fruitless seasons get rid of the resource sapping barren tree.

But the gardener, pleads for clemency against the logical and causal decision of the landowner. Just another chance. “Maybe there is a mystery at work here you and I don’t understand. Let me feed and mulch the tree and if there is still no fruit next year. Go ahead and chop it down.

Of course the symbolism of the parable is clear. Landowner = God, Fig Tree = Israel, Gardener=Jesus, Fruit = Being a light to the nations. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

So here we have people in Jerusalem, steeped in the certainty of their doctrine and dogma about who God is and how God works. This doctrinaire exercise of their faith has over centuries, especially since the return from the exile, become exclusive, judgemental and xenophobic. Despite what they may think they know about God, Jesus is suggesting that their dogma is not bearing any fruit for God.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You can’t go around making pronouncements about the deeply mysterious tragedies of life, as if you somehow know how these things work!“. There are things only God understands. Take for example God’s patience with us as a nation and a religion. Despite our pathetic lack of fruiting, God has not cut us off yet. If God was as causal as you say, and if God’s ways ran on the narrow rails that your dogma has laid down for God, then we should have been destroyed just as certainly as the people you have been citing as examples of God’s judgement!

So please, re-orient your thinking, or else you are all going to die in your dogma and our nation will never have fulfilled its God given purpose.

Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is more going on in the mysteries of living and dying than of simplistic quest for certainty can couch in trite dogmatic pronouncements.

A dear Buddhist friend, who spent twelve years as a monk in Thailand, tells of his teacher Ajahn Chah, who had a favourite phrase whenever one of the other monks would make some great pronouncement about the meaning of the Universe, or merely about their plans for the next day. Ajahn Chah, would get a wry smile and murmur, “It is not certain”

I think Jesus has an invitation for us as the Church and as individuals.

As we face the barrage of opinion and doctrinaire drivel that spews with egotistical certainty from so many pulpits and podiums, we have an opportunity to pause a moment and consider the mystery of all around us and then respond, “It is not certain”

All that is certain is the mystery.

Does that negate the need for faith? No it does not.

True faith you see, is not belief, it is TRUST. Jesus called the people of his time to trust the God of the mystery and not try to play God themselves.

The call remains the same for us today.

Historic footnote: Many of the people Jesus spoke to in these dialogues did in fact die as the Galileans butchered by Pilate, and the Siloam tower victims, did. In AD 70 Jerusalem (including the temple) was destroyed by the Romans. I wonder who was responsible for that? … It is not certain!