I don't normally write out my sermons - and didn't this week. But below is an after-the-fact version.
The Rev. David Ewart
I want to begin our reflection on the story of Zacchaeus by asking you a chicken-and-the-egg sort of question:
Which comes first: good behaviour or good relationships?
I think it is a chicken-and-egg sort of question because relationships are expressed through behaviours. You can’t have a relationship without behaviours, but my question is about good behaviours, and good relationships.
In my experience, when a relationship is in a good space, good behaviours tend to follow. But when the relationship is in a bad space, bad behaviours tend to result. When I am angry, or tired, or depressed, or needy, or anxious, I do not behave well, and my relationships are strained.
Why is that? Why is it that when we are stressed, we are not able to think about the good of our relationships and to act in ways that are good for them – even while we are angry or sad or anxious or whatever?
Turns out that thanks to evolution, all of us still have a key part of our brain that acts like a dinosaur. If you’ve ever felt dumb as dinosaur some days, it turns out you were not far off the mark. Even though we now have brains that have all kinds of extra smarts added on, our “gut instinct” reactions are still lodged in an ancient part of the brain we inherited from dinosaurs. And it is this ancient part of the brain that reacts to anxiety, stress, depression, anger, etc. before our newer, “thinking” brain can kick in. In other words, all of us are built to react first, and think about the relationship second.
You know, as a minister, I attend a lot of meetings and talk with a lot of people. Some of these are quite stressful. And I have to say that I am quite brilliant at how I respond – after the meeting is over; when I am by myself going home in the car after the meeting! That is when I think: Why didn’t I say that! (Or: why did I say that!)
Are you like that? Do you have the experience of saying or doing something (or not saying or doing something), and then afterwards asking yourself why you did? You knew that what you were saying or doing was the wrong thing, but you did it anyway. You acted first, and thought about the relationship second. We all do that. It is an avoidable part of being human. We behave first, and think about the relationship second.
I began by reflecting on behaviour and relationships because I think it helps us to see why Jesus was so interestingly different and caught the attention of his contemporaries.
Jesus was someone who always thought about the relationship first, and reacted second.
Consider the example of Zacchaeus. We often tell the story of Zacchaeus as an example for children because they too are short, they too (sometimes) like to climb trees, and we want them to (always) want to see Jesus just like Zacchaeus.
But Zacchaeus is actually a nasty piece of work. He is a wealthy Chief Tax Collector. Which means he uses the force of the Roman Army to extract punishing tolls and taxes from local merchants and residents. Taxes which make Zacchaeus rich and pay for the Roman occupation - an occupation that is also onerous, unwelcome, and unGodly. It is these same taxes that Zacchaeus collects that help pay for the Roman authorities that are about to falsely arrest, torture, and brutally execute Jesus. Jesus knows this about Zacchaeus and knows what awaits him in the week ahead.
The crowd knows what Zacchaeus does - they know his behaviour - and they react first and think about their relationship with Zacchaeus second.
But not Jesus. Jesus relates to Zacchaeus first. He says, "Hey Zacchaeus, let's do lunch together at your place." He calls Zacchaeus "one of us," "a son of Abraham." Nothing, not even Zacchaeus' treachery that will contribute to Jesus' painful death breaks Jesus' relationship with Zacchaeus. Jesus relates first and reacts second.
Personally, I find it to be enormous good news that Jesus - and God - always relate first and react second. Imagine what would await us if God reacted to us they way we react when others disappoint or hurt or frustrate or worry us. Thank God for the truth that nothing can separate us from God's loving us.
Now, another thing I find interesting about this story is that Jesus says salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house even though Zacchaeus will continue to be a Chief Tax Collector. We tend to fixate on the revelation that Zacchaeus gives half of his wealth to the poor and repays 4 times any fraud. This is good news indeed, and is not to be overlooked. The world would be a much finer place if everyone would follow Zacchaeus' example.
But nonetheless, Zacchaeus does NOT give up being a Chief Tax Collector. And yet Jesus still says that today salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house. Obviously salvation from Jesus' perspective must be about something different than purity and behaviour.
Salvation is not about behaviours; it is about relationships. That is, the three things Zacchaeus reveals about himself show how much he wants to see/know/be with Jesus; how he is relating to the poor - acts of kindness; and how he is relating morally - acts of restitution when someone is defrauded. The salvation that comes to Zacchaeus is not a condition or state of being: once you were "not saved," now you are "saved." No, the salvation that comes to Zacchaeus is a relationship: once you were "lost," now you are "found;" once you were a despised outcast, now you are one of us. (And indeed, from Jesus and God's perspective, you NEVER were "not saved," "lost," or an "outcast," since God NEVER breaks God's relationship with us. It is only we who feel that way sometimes.)
Salvation is not about behaviours; it is about relationships.
And because it is about relationships, salvation is not about perfection; it is about practicing. Practicing in all senses of that word:
- that we show our good relationships in good actions;
- that we make it a habit to consciously, daily repeat those good actions;
- that we make it a habit to consciously, daily improve, hone, deepen and enrich those good actions; and
- that when we screw up, we apologize, make amends, and actually change what is not working.
Think about all the ways key Biblical passages talk about Jesus and God as being about relationship:
- God is love
- For God so loved the world ...
- I am the vine, you are the branches
- Abide in me as I abide in you
- Love one another as I have loved you
- Nothing can separate us from the love of God
When I think of heaven, I imagine it as that state when we are finally freed from our dinosaur brains and our behaviours are totally and completely a reflection of God's relationship with us. Totally and completely about love, and the joy, praise, and thanksgiving that flow from finally being healed, whole, and totally at one with God, our neighbours, our enemies, and all of creation.
Thanks be to God for the gift of this story and for the good news of Jesus the Christ.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.