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.

The cost of values

If this was a soap opera script it would begin as follows…

“Last week on ‘Following Jesus‘”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

“…and now to this week’s episode of ‘Following Jesus'”

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Last week I was reflecting that there is a shift of mood in the gospel that we read from Luke 12:32-48. The passage begins with a beautiful theme of blessing for the crowd. The “little flock” are to be the recipients of the basilea, the reign of a parental God, (contrasted with the despotic turannis of Rome). [I have coloured that text green] I suggested that perhaps the latter half of the passage [which I have coloured red] reflected the mood of an abused and despondent church at the time Luke wrote: a church that was being abused by leaders that had lost their way and their focus.

To enter fully into this week’s passage (verses 49-56) we have to connect it to the preceding passage for it is the same dialogue, and I have coloured the text for this week to continue the mood from “last week”.

I can’t remember where it was that I first learnt of the two levels of Jesus’ teaching, so forgive me for not referencing my source. My memory is becoming a forgettery! It is however an interesting dimension to bear in mind when reading the teachings of Jesus. When he is with the crowd, strangers and foreigners, he proclaims the Good News of God’s unconditional acceptance and universal compassion. When Jesus is with the disciples, his teaching is far more demanding and often blunt. “How much longer do I have to put up with you?!“, kind of sayings. The point is that the Good News brings us to the place of commitment and discipleship, not the other way around. I am dumbfounded when I hear preaching that implies that only when we have done the “hard stuff” will we experience grace. “No! No! No!“, I want to scream, “We do the hard stuff because we have experienced grace!

Jesus is continuing, this week, to answer Peter’s question, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”. His initial response is to warn the douloi (slaves) of the Bridegroom not to become lax and abusive of their fellow servants whilst waiting for the return of the Bridegroom. (I asked last week if this was perhaps Luke’s editorialising of the narrative as he saw the abuses of the ninth century church?)

In the final part of that answer to Peter, Jesus speaks in graphic terms to the disciples about the division his proclamation will bring, and then he ends with a final challenge to the crowd.

Firstly Jesus speaks of bringing fire to the earth. Here is a possible allusion to Elijah, the conqueror of the false prophets in his day. In similar ways Jesus understands his mission to challenge and confront the lost and erroneous worship values of his day. An ironic insight comes from the Greek, where the word for fire is “Pur” could this be a etymological root in our word “purify”? None of the etymological dictionaries I consulted gave that but it’s a nice little hook for this discussion.

He goes on to talk about his baptism, his initiation. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Once again dipping into the Greek text discloses that Jesus is again using the word telesthei which is the same word he cries from the cross when “It is accomplished“, “Tetelestai” For more on this see (my blog from last week.)

The stress that Jesus says he is experiencing until his “baptism” is accomplished is the same word Paul uses when he writes “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” 2 Corinthians 5:14

From this point Jesus launches into a disturbing discourse about the divisions that his coming will bring about on earth. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” What does this all mean?

Firstly five is never going to divide equally. Odd numbers never do! Is this the origin of “being at odds with someone”?

Secondly, I must confess that the specific relationships Jesus points out are the ones which, in my experience, are most naturally conflicted! Think about it…

  • Father against son.
  • Mother against daughter
  • Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and vice versa

These are the classic conflict lines in families.

Note he doesn’t say :

  • Father against daughter
  • Mother against son
  • Brother against sister

These great primal and psychological bonds that are the subjects of a thousand human dramas, on and off the stage, are not part of the list. Why is this so? Why are the most common lines of conflict used by Jesus to illustrate the division he is going to bring?

Is Jesus, as reported by Luke, choosing these three examples of natural conflict very specifically to illustrate the crisis that following Jesus will bring? I think so.

Firstly in the reference to the “Father and Son” conflict Jesus is making the following clear. Conflict is natural, and the conflict between the followers of Jesus and the old order will be a natural consequence of his kingdom’s (basilea’s) reign against the turranis (despotic power) of the established political order and the cult of Emperor worship imposed by Rome. The Pariarchal power of old order dominance and oppression has no place in the kingdom of Jesus. We must never forget, especially in these perilous political times, that the first Christians were persecuted not for dogma, but for devotion. They refused to bow down to the image of the Emperor as was required of all Roman citizens and people in occupied territories.

Secondly, relating to the Mother against daughter, the conflict is not only going to be against the powers and principalities of Rome. The Jews of Jesus day had a similar opposition to Emperor worship yet they too came into conflict with the values of the Kingdom of the Heavens. That is because the kingdom crisis reaches into Matriarchal energies and strongholds. It is worth remembering that the Jews were and are, a Matrilineal culture in the time of Jesus. Matrilinearity had been developing in the Hellenistic world not from the Torah, but in the oral tradition which was codified in the Talmud by the 2nd century CE, which means it would have been active in the traditions and times of the Jesus and the early church. See Wikipedia . Having illustrated the crisis the Kingdom will be to Patriotism (you did see pater in Patriotism?) with regard to the Father- son conflict and Rome. I suggest that in the Mother-daughter conflict Jesus is now illustrating the conflict the kingdom crisis will bring for the established matrilinear religion of his day. The old evangelical adage, “God has no grandchildren” which was used to emphasize that each generation has to make their own decision for Christ, is helpful to illustrate the Mother-daughter conflict. Claiming religious lineage is not a kingdom value.

So finally the Mother-in-law / Daughter-in-law, reciprocal conflict; what can this mean? I must admit I was stumped with this one at first until I fired up ISA2 once more. [No it isn’t a NASA rocket, it is Interlinear Scripture Analyzer 2 a really useful program that makes my Greek look much better than it is.

What I discovered is that the literal words in the Greek text of Luke don’t say Mother-in-Law / Daughter-in-law. The literal words are “Matri penthera epi tein Numphein auteis”. Translating word by word, that reads “Mother mother-in-law on the BRIDE of her”. The big AHA for me was that what we translate as daughter-in-law is the word Numphein ie Nymph which literally means bride. Numphein is used only in the Gospels of Matthew Luke and John where it refers to “bride” and then in Revelation where it refers to the Bride of the Lamb, which is the church! I would suggest that in this third example of the conflict the kingdom will bring Jesus is acknowledging that his kingdom will not only bring conflict between Church and State; nor only between Church and the originating Mother of the Church, the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The mother-in-law will be in conflict with the bride. Law and grace, forever in tension.

Could it be that Jesus was teaching the disciples to be aware that within the church itself there would be division and discord caused by the crisis of the new values of the kingdom of God’s reign?

I believe he was. Simply supporting the church status quo is not a kingdom value. Self criticism and constant measurement against kingdom values is essential. As evidence of this need I would cite the following:

  • Within a few centuries the Church had acquiesced to the power of the state and the Pope was the Spiritual Emperor. The Father son conflict was papered over in a political truce that has never really worked.
  • The Patristic councils effectively expunged all Matriarchal forms of Christianity in its Gnostic formulations and with the hatchet job done on Mary Magdalene. This feminine energy has only recently been replaced by the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary promulgated in 1950 and celebrated by our Catholic friends this very Sunday. Subsequent strides in Feminist theology still strive to restore the balance within the church.
  • The Reformation and Counter-reformation were shifts and shakes in an organism that constantly has to be self-reflective and by implication self-critical.
  • In our own day the Emerging church is a form in which that self-critical assessment continues to strive for context relevance in tension with honesty and obedience to Jesus.

We would do well as church to not be afraid to constantly asses the state of the predicted Father-son, Mother-daughter and Mother-in-Law to Bride, conflicts of our day.

In conclusion Jesus turns to the crowd and accuses them of hypocrisy. He reminds them of their ability to read the weather and yet at the same time to avoid seeing the blatant truth of God’s values juxtaposed with political, religious and organizational power.

I wonder if he would say the same to us today? It seems that the values of the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate and which he accomplished in his life, death and resurrection, are still in tension with the values of our politics, our religions and our organizations.

Are we prepared to bear the cost of Christ’s Kingdom values?

Lifting our Mater from our Materialism

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Some months ago I was in conversation with a woman who works at the Trust Division of a large bank. I commented that her task was more complex than mine as a minister as she had to deal with both the dimensions of grief and money. Without skipping a beat she replied, “Oh no, when I have had conversations with surviving families in the almost twenty years I have been doing this work, not once have I encountered any signs of grief!

Her comment was for me a confirmation of Jesus’ teaching all those years ago, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Also recently, I learnt of a widow who was cheated out of her entire estate by a smooth talking financial advisor who was her personal banker and who through winning her confidence by taking her in his car to her doctor and by running errands for her, eventually had her sign a power of attorney which he then used to empty her investment accounts! At one level it is fortunate that she died just months before the small balance left in her one account was exhausted, for this dignified trusting woman faced penury. Yes, of course she was silly, even stupid, to sign the power of attorney in the first place but my attention keeps going to the man who committed this crime. A man whose profile you could find on Facebook if I gave you his name and who still walks around the city where this happened, with his wife and family. The resentment and impotent anger I feel even as I write this reminds me that Jesus is correct.

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

The founding father of Methodism, John Wesley, understood this when he wrote in his journal, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.

Of course money in itself is ethically neutral.

There is a power of good being done at this very minute that you are reading this by the skilful application of money to situations of need and suffering all over the planet. However, at the same time that you are reading this a whole heap of evil is accumulating around issues of money in every suburb of the global village.

I need to be very careful in understanding that Jesus is not warning about money, he is warning about greed.

The greed for money can destroy us as we live to” make a killing” instead of working to “make a living”, or a “giving.”

But greed can take many forms: the greed for attention, the greed for control,  the greed for security.

When I went off in search of the roots of the word I found this:

Old.English. grædig “voracious,” also “covetous,” from Proto.Germanic. *grædagaz (cf. Old.Saxon. gradag, Old.Norse. graðr “greed, hunger”), from base *græduz (cf. Gothic. gredus “hunger,” O.E. grædum “eagerly”), cognate with Sanskrit. grdh “to be greedy.” In Greek., the word was philargyros, lit. “money-loving.” A German word for it is habsüchtig, from haben “to have” + sucht “sickness, disease,” with sense tending toward “passion for.”

So greed seems to be a rather universal concept, from Norse and Saxon to Indian Sanskrit, the word seeks to describe the universal problem. A “sickness to have something”.

It is the root of our addictions.

In this connection I am reminded that Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was in correspondence and greatly helped by Carl Jung the Swiss Psychiatrist. In a very significant letter, that Bill W. treasured all his life, Jung writes about a patient whom he and Bill W had cared for:

Dear Mr. W.

(Note: Emphasis mine)

Your letter has been very welcome indeed.

I had no news from Rowland H. anymore and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he has adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason that I could not tell him everything was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Rowland H. But what I really thought about was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*

How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.

These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Rowland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.

You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Thanking you again for your kind letter

I remain

Yours sincerely

C. G. Jung*

“As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalms 42:1)

As an object of addiction, money can fuel greed in the same way that alcohol fuels alcoholism.

Spiritus contra Spiritum.

From another angle, have you noticed the Latin word for Mother [MATER] in the word MATERialism?

Could it be, that in this Male-energy dominated Patriarchal world (PATER = Father [Latin]) that has created its male dominated Patriarchal religion; there is a resultant craving for Mothering (MATERing), and just as the alcoholic confuses spirits for Spirit, we as materialists have confused the material for Mother?

If that is true, then thank God for the movement we are seeing in our day, away from the Sky God PATER to the Earth Goddess MATER!

Notice how for years we have unconsciously used the female reference, when we have spoken of RAPING
the Earth. Raping our Mother?

Jesus knew that materialism was a false god. What a mountaineer friend of mine describes as a path that leads to a false summit.

Materialism does not diminish the Patriarchal craving for power and possessing.

Our salvation lies not in the material but in the maternal. The nurturing, inclusive, enfolding of God is all that will still our raging consumptive addictions. We need to recognise that calling God our Mother is not a feminist whim, it is the key to our survival.

If we won’t allow the Spirit of our nurturing, inclusive, enfolding Mother to enrapture us, then the ruptured oil wells will continue to bleed death from the rapist’s wounds and the air will be choked from us all by his rapist foul breath.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

At the end of that alchemical work, Faust, by Goethe, the Mystical choir sings:

All that is transitory

shows us the way

is only a symbol;

What seems unachievable

here is seen done;

What’s indescribable

here becomes fact

Woman eternally,

shows us the way.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.