Some thoughts on our assumptions

Well hello there. To get this party started, I thought I’d share a sermon I recently preached on Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus. Take a few minutes to read it over, and let me know what you think. Do you recognize these assumptions in your own life? Have you been on the receiving end of some harmful stereotyping?

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I started by reading the story of Zacchaeus from Desmond Tutu’s beautiful Children’s Storybook Bible (if you have any kids in your life, I would HIGHLY recommend this Bible for them–it’s easy to follow and the gorgeous artwork is from all over the world, showing God’s children in a variety of ages, races, nationalities, and styles. Seriously, get it here ASAP). You can see the story and accompanying artwork in the photo above (courtesy of Illustration from the Organisation’s blog) or read it below:

Zacchaeus Turns to Jesus

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. He stood on tip-toes and jumped up and down. He tried to squeeze through to the front, but no one would let him.

            Why doesn’t anyone like me? He wondered. But he knew the reason. Zacchaeus was a tax collector who had become rich by cheating the townspeople.

            Then Zacchaeus spied a tree. Aha! He thought to himself. I will climb that tree and have the best view of all.

            Then Jesus stopped under that very tree and looked up at him.

            “Zacchaeus,” Jesus called out. “climb down, for I am coming to your house today.” Zacchaues could not believe his ears. He jumped down and ran home to get ready.

            “That man is a liar and a cheat,” the townspeople said. “Why is Jesus going to his house?”

            Zacchaeas realized they were right and he was ashamed. When Jesus entered his house he said, “Lord, I will give away half of everything I won to the poor, and everyone I have cheated I will pay back four times the amount I stole.”

            Jesus smiled, “Dear Zacchaeus,” he said, “today you have become a new man. Now you can truly stand tall.”

This is a story we are probably familiar with—some of you may even have the little song about it stuck in your heads already. Zacchaeus, the corrupt and greedy tax collector, encounters Jesus and is so transformed by his very presence that he drastically alters his entire life. He repays all the money that he stole with interest and gives away half of his entire income to the poor. He becomes a disciple of Christ, a true son of Abraham, and demonstrates how the Lord can save even the most lost soul. It’s a wonderful story about the power of God and our capacity for change as human beings.

And Jesus has prepared us for this story. In the story we heard Pastor Mark preach on last week from the previous chapter in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives his listeners a hypothetical scenario: a Pharisee and a tax collector are praying in the Temple. The Pharisee is the one associated with the Temple—he’s the official, he knows all the rules and the do’s and don’ts, and he lists his impressive practices of fasting and tithing for God. He prays an arrogant prayer thanking God that he’s not like any of “those people”—the ones who don’t get it, who aren’t on the inside like him. One of “those people” is the tax collector praying nearby. Well, not too nearby—he’s standing off on his own, staring at the floor and beating his chest in repentance. He’s so broken-hearted that all he can manage to pray are a few words asking for God’s mercy on him, a sinner. But in the end, the humble tax collector’s prayer is more pleasing to God that the self-righteous musings of the arrogant Pharisee.

That’s a big deal, because to say “tax collector” is to tell a story in and of itself. It’s a loaded word. It carries with it a whole set of images and assumptions about who this person is, what they value, how they spend their time and money. It paints a picture. Today it might be sort of like saying someone’s a typical used car salesman—it immediately brings to mind dishonest business practiced, marked up prices on old clunkers, greased back hair and tacky plaid blazers. It’s the kind of thing you say with a little tilt of the head and nudge of the elbow.

            “Oh Zacchaeus? Yeah, he’s a tax collector…a rich one… You know            what I mean.”

            “Ooooh, I see, I see. I hear what you’re saying: He’s one of those.”

The title alone paints a picture. You know everything you need to know about this Zacchaeus character right there.

For Jesus to suggest that someone this skeazy, this sinful, could repent and be welcomed by God with open arms is a radical notion. It just seems to fall totally out of the realm of possibility—even if God would welcome someone like that (which, let’s face it, doesn’t really seem likely when there are so many others who are doing all the right things, right?), what tax collector would ever recognize that he even needed to repent? Those guys are living in the lap of luxury; they’re not worried about what God thinks, and their certainly not apologizing for their success. This just all seems like a little too much, Jesus. If we’re going to buy this, it’s going to take some getting used to.

So Jesus has to warm the people up to it with a hypothetical situation. He needs to begin by stretching out their imaginations. They need a little practice imagining that something this out there might even be possible. The story about the Pharisee and the tax collector is like a trial run to give them a frame of reference for this real-life tax collector, Zacchaeus. Jesus doesn’t just throw them in the deep end—he eases them in. He gives them a chance to consider the possibility of a tax collector giving up his greedy ways and becoming a humble servant before he has them consider the reality of Zacchaeus standing in front of them.

But what if Jesus is doing something even more radical than that? What if Zacchaeus isn’t just playing the role of the penitent tax collector from the last story, but he’s actually taking things a step further? What if Jesus is suggesting that Zacchaeus the tax collector has been a son of Abraham—a member of their community, one of his people— all along?

Let’s go back to the Scripture and read it again, this time from The Message translation. Listen carefully.

Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.

 When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”

 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”

Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”

Did you hear the twist? The verbs here are present tense when Zacchaeus speaks—“I give away half my income to the poor…” That means it’s possible to interpret this passage in a different way. It’s possible to read this and hear Zacchaeus talking about his generosity as a current activity. It’s his standing policy, not his resolution to change and do something different in the future. What if what we’re hearing here isn’t a corrupt tax collector being transformed into a generous man, but a generous man who is misunderstood? Tax collectors, especially wealthy ones, were just assumed to be corrupt cheaters who took advantage of the people they collected taxes from. It was common knowledge that they were all skimming some off the top to line their own pockets. But maybe that’s not the case with Zacchaeus. When he stands and responds to the people’s objections about Jesus eating in the home of a sinner, what he might be saying is, “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. You just think you do because you know what I do for a living. Well that’s just one part of who I am—I also give away half— a full half!— of everything I own to the poor. And if you can find one single person who I’ve cheated—which you won’t—then I will pay that person back four times whatever it is that I supposedly stole from them. But you won’t find anyone, because I’m not like that. I’m not who you think I am.”

And Jesus agrees, Zacchaeus isn’t who we think he is. He’s not an outsider. He too is a son of Abraham, just like Jesus and his Jewish followers. Zacchaeus is part of the “us” that Jesus is creating, an inclusive community that welcomes the Jews on the margins of their society (like the tax collectors who are thought to be in bed with the oppressive Roman Empire) and even Gentiles like you and me. Jesus has cast the net so wide that there’s no one who isn’t welcome to be part of this people. With Jesus, there is no “them” we can write-off.

So when Jesus rejoices that, “today salvation has come to this home…for the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost,” is he talking about a lost man, or lost relationships? Lost opportunities? Love lost over artificial barriers that we create within our community based on unfair assumptions about those who are supposed to be our brothers and sisters?

Jen Hatmaker, an author from Austin, TX, wrote a blog post recently about these divisions and how they’re perpetuated by what she calls “The Mythical ‘They’”. In it, she writes, 

“They…”

It can be such a terrible word.They are all like that. They don’t get us. They are always _____. They are never _____. They are not our people. They are all the same. They all feel _____. They would never _____. The book is already written and them, and we can close it.

Do you know how often this is not true? Not even remotely true? The Mythical They creates straw men to disparage, propping up stereotypes and strengthening our prejudices while eliminating the actual work of relationships. It is the easy way out to be sure. We are excused from personal contact entirely, imagining ourselves as their victim or their target or their adversary. We can actually invent an entire conflict without speaking a solitary word to a live human.

Ouch. I don’t know about you, but in reading those words, I saw myself. As she talked about the “mythical they,” people and groups that I thought I had all mapped out popped into my head. Authors I just don’t read because I think I already know what they’re going to say, and I don’t like it. Places I don’t visit because I can just tell I wouldn’t be comfortable or welcome. People I tend to avoid in real life because of the infuriating or irritating things they post on the Internet. And this isn’t just in the big, bad world—this is in the Christian community too. We do this to each other… Or, I should say, we do this to ourselves.

It’s nothing new. In the early 17th century, there was a brewing controversy in the Church in Holland about the concept of predestination. Two camps developed: Calvinists, people who believed that God predestined everything from the foundation of the earth, including who would be saved, and Arminians, people who believed God allowed for human free will to make choices about our lives, like whether or not to accept God’s gift of salvation. Although these views got their names from influential Christian leaders, John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, neither side really accurately reflected that person’s views exactly. They sort of used them as a starting point and the concepts evolved a bit from there, becoming more polarized to represent opposites of one another as they did so. Not everyone made the distinction between the people and the ideas, though, and pastors and theological professors in Holland started assuming that Arminianism was synonymous with Arminius. He had sort of become his brand. And the Calvinists among them didn’t like his brand at all.

After repeated attacks on his character and the increasing controversy about what people said he was supposedly teaching to his congregation and his students, Arminius finally got fed up. In exasperation he declared, “I earnestly requested of my colleagues that they not rush to give credence to every negative report about me as if it actually reflected my opinions.” In other words, “Don’t believe everything you hear. Give me the benefit of the doubt here, would ya?” He wound up in front of a court of officials defending his beliefs and teachings, but he said he really wished that the pastors and teachers who were so upset about what they had heard he was teaching would have just come to him directly to talk it out over a cup of coffee. “I have no doubt,” he says, “that if they had consented to the private conversation, one of two things would have been the result. We would have arrived at a mutually satisfactory conclusion [in other words, we’re not really so different as you think], or we would have concluded at the very least that our disagreement presented no immediate danger to the truth necessary for salvation and piety, or to Christian peace and unity [so, this is really not worth fighting over].”

All of this controversy could have been avoided by a direct, honest conversation. It was true 400 years ago, it was true 2000 years ago, and it’s still true today.  Relationships are the antidote to the division our assumptions can breed. Relationships with real people are what it takes to bread down the walls our preconceived notions of “them” and “they” build up.

As Jen Hatmaker reminds us,

There is no they.

[We can’t] know everything there is to know about someone before we know that someone. We don’t know their stories, their histories, their real live human feelings. We don’t know their favorite movies and best memories and what makes them afraid. It is unfair to take one fact, one thing they’ve said or we heard they said, or one thing they wrote, or someone else’s experience, or a group they identify with and make a character sketch. If people did that to us, the picture would be so woefully incomplete, we wouldn’t even recognize our own description.

There is no they. There is only us. Because of Jesus’ incredible hospitality in welcoming Jews and Gentiles, sinners and saints, all into this big, messy, beautiful community of his, we are all sons of Abraham and daughters of Sarah. We’re family, like it or not. And honestly, sometimes we don’t like it.

I remember watching a TV show once where one of the characters, Michel, had an intense and completely arbitrary grudge against another character, Tobin. Michel was trying to convince someone to do what he wanted, and Tobin chimed in and said he agreed with him. Michel turned on him and snapped, “Get off of my side, immediately!” Sometimes it’s hard to get over that gut level reaction we have to the assumptions we hold about people, even when we find common ground. We can think, No, no, no. I don’t want Them agreeing with me on this, because I don’t want to be associated with Them. I don’t want people thinking I’m one of Them.

But again we have to remind ourselves, there is no “them.” We can’t reduce people to a brand by picking one thing about them and assuming it is who they are—Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, transgender, uneducated, educated, convict, police officer, Catholic, evangelical, undocumented immigrant, citizen, rich, poor… Pharisee, tax collector.

Nobody is any one of these things. People are complex. We are a collection of diverse experiences and beliefs and associations.

I am a white, middle class Protestant woman from Mississippi. I went to private school, and I was a debutante my sophomore year in college, poofy white dress, gloves, debutante ball, the whole thing. What does that tell you about me?

 

I’m also a divinity and social work student. I’m intern at the North Carolina Justice Center, and I’m a certified LGBTQ Ally. I have three tattoos and a nose ring. What does that tell you about me?

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Who am I? Which picture is really me?

And of all the things that describe you, which one is the true you? I would imagine that we all have a variety of descriptors that are true, but none of them are the whole story. None of them alone are us, who we truly are at the root of it. Except maybe one—we are all honorary sons of Abraham and daughters of Sarah. We are all adopted into God’s family. Secure in that identity, we have room to be all the other things that we are too. Can we give each other some slack and recognize that we might not know what we think we know about our brothers and sisters who sit in the far pews, on the very opposite side of the Church from us? Can we be brave enough to table our assumptions in the name of family and take the risk of getting to know each other? I vote we give it a shot.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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