Sought Me When A Stranger

Scrolling through social media a few months ago, I came across a request from an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years who was visiting New York. She was looking for a hand-me-down baby carrier or a computer charging cord or something, I don’t remember exactly, but it was something I had, and could pass along without too much inconvenience. Just when I was about to send her a message though, I hesitated. Because it would be easy enough to help her out, but I realized all of a sudden that I didn’t really want to, because she was a Scientologist. (Okay, she is not a Scientologist, that detail is fictionalized because I don’t want her to recognize herself when this sermon is posted on the internet. Suffice it to say that she and I disagree strongly and profoundly on some of the basic convictions around which we’ve shaped our respective lives; we’ll say she’s a Scientologist.) And I just was not especially inclined to do favors for a Scientologist. 

As I was studying the Gospel text for this week, with its image of the diminutive Zaccheus climbing the sycamore tree, I remembered that moment. The text this week finds Jesus passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. He’s become more renowned, and crowds are gathering to see him, to seek healing from him, to hear him teach, and to find out what the big deal is with this wandering rabbi. Among those crowds is a man named Zaccheus, a chief tax collector. As Pastor Campbell discussed last week when we delved into the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, tax collectors were despised because they colluded with the Roman imperial government to extort money from their neighbors. The way the Roman authorities collected taxes was to authorize local subjects to collect taxes on the Romans’ behalf, permitting them to overcharge and keep the difference. Zaccheus was not just a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector, which is to say that he oversaw other tax collectors, who collected way more than necessary, so they could skim from what they collected, pass the rest to Zaccheus, who would skim off yet more before passing the required amount on to the Roman authorities. And the text tells us that business was good for Zaccheus: “he was a chief tax collector and was rich,” it says. So when Jesus came to town, and the crowds gathered to see him, I imagine the spectators taking a kind of guilty pleasure in edging Zaccheus out, closing ranks, leaving him at the back of the crowd, standing on tip-toes, trying to peer through the sea of shoulders so he could get a good look at this traveling rabbi who had created such a hubbub. When someone is a chief tax collector, or a Scientologist, people often aren’t inclined to do them any favors.

You might think Jesus would be fine with Zaccheus being relegated to the back row; after all, he wasn’t exactly friendly with the Roman imperial authorities, who would nail him to a cross just a few short weeks later, and he hadn’t said too many favorable things about wealthy folks, either: “Blessed are the poor,” and “Woe to you who are rich,” being some of his most famous quotations. But Jesus is nothing if not full of surprises.

Zaccheus is so determined to see Jesus that he clambers up a sycamore tree to get a better view; Jesus, looking over the crowds to the tree behind them, spots a man up in the branches and, although they’ve never met, calls him by name. “Zaccheus,” he says, “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Zaccheus welcomes Jesus into his home, but the crowd is displeased: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,” they grumble. Zaccheus doesn’t respond directly to them, but clearly something has changed for him. He promises Jesus that he will give half of his possessions to the poor, and to repay four-fold anyone he has defrauded. Jesus declares, to Zaccheus but I think also to the crowd, that salvation has come to Zaccheus, because Jesus came to seek out and save the lost.

Commentator Robert Leach notes that perhaps one reason the text highlights Zaccheus’s short stature is to point out the crowd’s failure to treat him with civility. We who live in this crowded city know that there are common courtesies, ways that we generally try to give some help to people who are elderly, or pregnant, or carrying a heavy or unwieldy burden, or wearing a cast or walking with a cane, or, perhaps, very short. Many crowds would let a particularly short person make their way toward the front so he could have a good view – after all, it doesn’t hurt your view, you can just look over his head. But maybe not if that person were widely despised for the way his livelihood harmed his community. If we are hesitant to do favors for a Scientologist, we can certainly understand why ancient Israelites would’ve been unfriendly to a tax collector.

But not Jesus. When Zaccheus climbs the tree, Jesus sees a man who is desperate to encounter him, and he also sees a man estranged from his community. He is powerful, yes — he has power to oppress and extort. He has privilege. He lives a materially comfortable life. But the very status that gives him authority also isolates him, making him a despised outsider to the very community over which he has so much power. Jesus’ harsh judgments, when we look at them carefully, are almost always aimed at the systems that pit people against one another, rather than the people themselves. Jesus’ ministry offers healing and reconciliation and a new way forward, out of the systems that bind and oppress, and into right relationship with one another. And that’s what happens with Zaccheus: Jesus singles him out and calls on him to offer generosity and hospitality, and in so doing, he opens the way for Zaccheus to repent and set out on a new path. As Jesus ministers to Zaccheus, the judgmental crowd, I imagine, starts to see some of the ways they have fallen short as well. Who needed Jesus’s ministry of repentance and renewal more than the chief tax collector? Yet they closed ranks, trying to keep him from Jesus, and became indignant when Jesus sought him out anyway.

This is a troubling time for our society. Perhaps more than ever before, we are beset by division and misunderstanding, we are polarized, pitted against one another. All too often, strong convictions go hand-in-hand with mean-spiritedness and close-mindedness. It’s not just that we disagree with Scientologists; it’s that we won’t loan them baby gear. It’s not just that we don’t like tax collectors; it’s that we shoulder them out of the way. It’s not just that we’re voting for our preferred candidate; it’s that we scornfully pass around anecdotes of how stupid the other candidate’s supporters are.

But the way of Jesus is to seek the outcast and the stranger, to knit together jagged divisions, to transform gridlock and grudges into green pastures. When we are pushing our neighbors aside to gather around Jesus, Jesus is trying to see who we’ve pushed to the back of the crowd. And when, like Zaccheus we’ve become estranged from one another by the things we’ve done or the things we’ve failed to do, Jesus sees in us the beloved child of God that we were created to be, and invites us to be renewed in the way of generosity, hospitality, and community.

The challenge of this story for Christians everywhere is to join with Jesus in looking for the ones who are left out, excluded, pushed to the back – not just the ones marginalized from society because of low status and lack of privilege, but also the ones who are despised because of what they have done or left undone, what they believe or say.

A few years ago, an episode of the radio show This American Life told the story of the redemption of someone known as an “internet troll.” If you’re not familiar with that jargon (lucky you), an internet troll is someone whose hobby is to be purposely offensive or hurtful or abusive on the internet. This particular person made it his life’s work to harass a feminist writer named Lindy West, a woman who, among other things, writes unapologetically about being fat (that’s the language she uses), about accepting herself as she is, and about the discrimination she encounters because of her size. This harasser created an account under the name of Lindy West’s deceased father, and started using it to send her messages that he was ashamed of her and so on. Lindy West wrote an article, talking about how this troll had gotten under her skin, what it had been like to care for her dying father, how much it hurt to see daily hateful messages attached to her father’s name and picture. And shockingly, her article changed things. An email arrived with an apology. But she didn’t quite believe it was real until another email arrived informing her that a donation had been made in her father’s memory to the hospital that cared for him in his final days. Some years later, she was able to interview this man who had made it his hobby to harass her online, and she found that he’d turned his life around, reflected on the pain and insecurity that had motivated his hurtful actions, stopped trolling on the internet, gone to graduate school, changed careers. He was ashamed of what he’d done; he was sorry; he had changed.

There is nothing we can do that can separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing can separate a tax collector, or an internet troll, or a petty judgmental member of the crowd, from the love of God in Christ Jesus. So the challenge for us is to join with Christ in empathy, and courage, and inclusion of the people it’s easy to exclude or hate or laugh at. Jesus seeks out the stranger - those who are excluded through no fault of their own, and those who are despised because of the choices they’ve made - and Jesus gathers them and us into community. That is very good news for all of us. May we have the strength, and the compassion, to do the same.