Rev. Martha Jacobs
Seeing and Being Seen
Psalm 32:1-7, Luke 19:1-10
Sunday, October 30, 2016
When I was little, my parents would take us to Philadelphia on New Year’s Day to see the Mummer’s Parade. I always looked forward to that because, as the youngest and the shortest, I would get to sit on my dad’s shoulders in order to see the parade. He was 6’ tall, so it felt like I was on top of a giant. Every once in a while, one of the mummers, who were dressed in sparkly clothes, with huge elaborate headdresses, would look up and wave at me. That was always extra thrilling! I was seen in addition to seeing them!
Zacchaeus, on the other hand, didn’t want to be seen. He chose to climb a Sycamore Tree which has large leaves and low branches. One can easily climb into them and just as easily hide among their thickly clustered broad leaves. Zacchaeus chose to climb a tree growing outside of Jericho. Perhaps he was hoping that the crowd would disperse by the time Jesus reached Jericho, because climbing a tree in public was considered highly undignified, and Zacchaeus was already considered an outcast because he was the chief tax collector.
Zacchaeus seems to be drawn by curiosity as he tried to get a glimpse of Jesus. We don’t know what he knows about Jesus, or what he’s heard, or maybe even seen Jesus do. He doesn’t seem to be drawn to Jesus out of faith or devotion. Luke doesn’t give us a back story on Zacchaeus or tell us why he so desperately wanted to see Jesus, but did not want to be seen by Jesus.
For some reason, I am intrigued by the picture of this man, rejected and scorned by all because of his position, hiding in a tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus. Perhaps the way that Luke sets him up to be called out by Jesus is what intrigues me. He certainly gets more than he bargains for when Jesus does call him out and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home for the night.
By the way, this is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus invites himself to someone’s home, which gives us a hint as to what Jesus already knows about Zacchaeus.
In my studies about today’s reading, I found another hint as to why Jesus might have decided to call Zacchaeus out. Many scholars think that translators of the Greek words in this story used the wrong verb tense. The verb tense in the original Greek is present tense, not future tense. So it’s not “I will give” and “I will pay back” but rather “I give half my possessions to the poor” and “I have more than repaid people who overpaid their taxes.” Zacchaeus is saying, “This is already what I do. I already take care of others.” This changes the way we look at Zacchaeus because he was already doing what Jesus was asking people to do. There also seems to be a certain joy in his claiming this as his current practice rather than him boasting about it.
I wonder if Jesus, knowing this, decided to see if there were those in the crowd who might step forward and affirm what Zacchaeus said in his own defense.
I also wonder if there were those in the crowd that Zacchaeus had helped, but were afraid to support him because he was unclean, because he was the chief tax collector. Did they worry that if they spoke out, the crowd would turn on them? Did they worry that if they supported him, they might face being ostracized or considered unclean as well because they were defending him? I wonder if Jesus was testing them. Or, maybe, he was trying to help Zacchaeus be more respected by the people because of what he did with his wealth, and not what he did for a living.
Not surprisingly, Jesus has seen Zacchaeus as a human being and not as a tax collector. Jesus feels it important to invite himself to Zacchaeus’ home for the night. No one seems more surprised than Zacchaeus himself that Jesus singles him out. In a way, Zacchaeus is like the tax collector we talked about last week who did not even think himself worthy of God’s love and acceptance and could barely pray. Most of us have done things in our lives about which we are not proud. But, we have also done things in our lives that no one knows about, that are good things, that are things that have made life better for someone else. We don’t brag about it, and it would appear that Zacchaeus didn’t brag either.
Jesus undermines the belief that wealth was inherently good and a sign of God’s blessing. He had already talked about it in relation to how difficult it was for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Lk 18:25). Yet in this story Jesus declares that Zacchaeus, this wealthy chief tax collector despised by his neighbors, is also a child of Abraham, beloved of God, and a recipient of God’s salvation. Jesus doesn’t seem to care so much about wealth but rather, about what we do with our wealth, and Zacchaeus does good things. He tries in his own way to help mend the world even though he is on the edge of his world.
As we know, Jesus cares about those who are on the edge. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he encounters those who society has declared unfit and try to ignore. Jesus sees them, recognizes them, seeks them out, spends time with them, and blesses them just as he does Zacchaeus. This is yet one more of those unexpected Jesus actions, because just when we think we have figured him out, Jesus surprises us! This time, it is by inviting himself to a despised person’s house!
God cares about seeing and seeking out all of us, especially in those moments when we are lost, when we are feeling left out or unseen or unheard. When we are made to feel invisible either because of our actions or the actions of others, whether because of illness or loss, whether because of our gender or race or age or sexuality or whatever. Whenever we feel on the outside, abandoned, invisible…that’s when we need a God who sees us, seeks after us, and promises to bring us home. God’s love overrides justice and God’s compassion overrides all of our sense of fairness. I have noticed that when we are feeling abandoned or invisible or unworthy, is often when someone unexpectedly enters our lives and helps us over those difficult times. And, most times, we don’t even realize that until later, when we look back. Those who come into our lives and help us are God’s hands and feet here on earth, mending a part of the world that is within our reach, as American poet, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, wrote. She observed that: “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
In a recent NY Times Op Ed piece by David Brooks, entitled “The Power of a Dinner Table”, Mr. Brooks writes a very potent piece about Kathy Fletcher and David Simpson. I commend this piece to you, especially during this difficult political season because this story helps to put life and what is important into perspective. Every Thursday night, Kathy and David welcome to their dinner table 15-20 teenagers who have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault, and most have witnessed death firsthand – to a sibling, friend or parent. In their own small way, or not so small way, this couple is mending their world – the world in which they live, and clearly they have also impacted Mr. Brooks because of his exposure to how others are seeking to mend our world.
Which leads me to how we are mending our world here at FCC. In addition to hosting the Youth Volunteer Opportunities Fair, when about 80 youth came to talk with organizations that were here about helping to mend our world, we have given over 575 lbs of food to the Community Center of Northern Westchester so far this year; we have provided over $11,000 in clothing and other items from our Barn Sale to those in need; we have distributed more than $5,000 to individuals in need in both our own church and in the wider community – not through our benevolences, but through the Deacon’s Assistance Fund and Minister’s Discretionary Fund.
And, what is deeply touching to me, is that our plate offerings have increased over and above what people pledge. Cash that has been added to our collection plate that is not designated for the Deacon’s Fund, so far this year exceeds $2,000. In 2014, we added $3,068, and in 2015, we collectively added $3,280. I hope that we will exceed last years’ collection in the nine Sundays left in this year, because it enables us to mend even more of our world. I truly believe we can accomplish that because I know how generous our congregation is.
In a week or so, we will begin our Stewardship Campaign, “An Abundance of Blessings – Helping to Build God’s Kingdom”. I am mentioning it now so that you can begin to prayerfully consider what you might be able to contribute to ensure that we can continue not only to mend our world, but to help those who are in need, to know, that they are seen, not only by God, but by us. That they matter, not only to God, but to us, and that they are loved and welcomed, not only by God, but by us.
This coming week, I invite you to find the time to climb your own Sycamore Tree; find the place that will make it possible for you to see Jesus and for Jesus to look up and see you, really see you as you are. I invite you to be open to Jesus inviting himself into your home, into your heart and into your life in a new and amazing way.