This sermon was delivered to First Parish Church, Newbury Mass.
Texts: Habbakuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 Luke 19:1-10 p 78 (Zacchaeus)
Grace to you and peace, from God our creator and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues on his way to Jerusalem, to his confrontation with the temple authorities and the Roman regime, and from there to Golgotha and his cross. He’s gathering bigger and bigger crowds. The people turning out to see him hope a great hope: they hope he’ll defeat the Roman regime and bring change to the temple authorities. They hope he’ll be king in a new regime where hunger, suffering, and sorrow – and greedy tax collectors – are nothing but a bad memory.
The geography of today’s Gospel-era political rally was, and is, highly fraught. Jericho is the place of the tomb of Sarah and Abraham. It’s the place where an angel appeared to Joshua sword in hand. Joshua didn’t recognize the angel, and so challenged him “friend or foe?” (Joshua 5:13-15) He told Joshua to take off his shoes, because the place he stood was holy. The angel and Joshua then led the Israelites in the successful siege of Jericho.
It’s the place where, 21 years ago this coming week, an assassin went to a political rally to shoot and kill Yitzak Rabin, then the prime minister of the modern state of Israel. If your teenaged niece were traveling in Israel and she told you she was going to a political rally in Jericho, you could be forgiven for trying to talk her out of it. “It’s dangerous there!” you’d say, and you’d be right. It’s a place where evil can get a toehold. History lies heavily on this place Jericho, and people know it, in ancient times, in Gospel times, and today.
When we find ourselves in fraught places we sometimes have the same problem Joshua had. Under the heavy foot of history we don’t recognize angels sent to lead us, or even our neighbors sent to care for us, so we react with fear and anger. “Friend or foe?” we ask. It’s a shadow-of-the-cross sort of place, where violence is always a possibility.
At any rate, Jesus turns up in Jericho surrounded by a crowd. You and I can imagine being in that crowd. I suppose it was something like a parade on High Road. You and I might wait for a ball-player or politician pass by, just to say we saw him. That little glimpse, or even a touch, would turn into a story we can tell. That glimpse or touch can help us make some significance for our lives. How much more so if the person passing by were Jesus?
We hear of this fellow Zacchaeus. He’s a Jew. His name means “purity” in Hebrew. (Most parents have high hopes for their children’s lives. For him it shows up in this name.) He’s the chief tax collector. He’s the one routinely saying to his neighbors, “I must come to your house today,” then pushing his way in to make sure they’re not hiding anything from the tax collector. People don’t want him in their houses, but they don’t have any choice.
He yearns to get a glimpse of Jesus, but he doesn’t dare push into the crowd saying “excuse me” so he can get in front of the taller people. He knows he’s despised by the people in the crowd. So, he’s forced to climb a tree.
This incident is full of mysteries. How in heaven’s name did this Jewish child named “purity” grow up to find himself working as a tax collector for the Roman regime? What happened to him that he found himself serving an evil master? What impulse in his heart drew him to the side of the road that day to try to get a glimpse of Jesus of Nazareth passing by?
Does he think of Jesus as his friend or his foe? If Jesus does overthrow the Romans, his tax collector jig will soon be up. The appearance of our Lord means things will change for him whether he likes it or not. Friend or foe? Zacchaeus wasn’t sure himself.
Did he come out and climb that tree hoping his life would be transformed? Or was he just curious? Who knows? Luke the evangelist didn’t tell us much of Zacchaeus’s story.
But we know he did come out to see Jesus. His life was transformed that day.
It’s good Luke didn’t give us the details of Zacchaeus’s life. Why? Because each and every one of us has a bit of Zacchaeus in us. If we knew his story we might be able to say, “hey, he’s different from me.” But he isn’t. This story is about a tax collector in a dangerous town. But it’s also about you and me.
I don’t suppose Zacchaeus woke up each morning saying “this is great! Everybody in town hates me.” Nobody in a twelve-step program (Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and the others) ever says, “since I was little I wanted to grow up to become an addict.” No carpenter says, “it’s always been my dream to cut corners to get my jobs done faster, and now I’m doing it.” No sales person says, “Wow! I’ve finally made it. I’m cheating all my customers these days!”
But, you know what? Our daily lives lull us into serving ourselves instead of our neighbors. We all make some compromises with our dreams. And, we all spend some time in dangerous places like Jericho: places where evil can get a toehold.
You have likely heard about a psychology experiment done at Stanford University in 1971. The experimenters recruited one bunch of college students to take the part of prison guards, and another bunch to be their prisoners. These college kids were offered fifteen bucks a day to participate in a two-week experiment. They were told, “Your participation is voluntary. You can leave at any time.” The experimenters built a fake prison in a hallway of the psychology building.
The experiment went bad, fast. The students playing the guards’ roles arbitrarily mistreated their prisoners. They let lust for power and outrage control them and so they started doing things like putting their prisoners in solitary confinement for longer than the rules allowed, and revoking their bathroom privileges.
The kids playing prisoners ganged up on the guards and each other. Even the experimenters and consultants running the project got caught up in the mistreatment. Professional corrections people, a clergyman, and even the psychologists got drawn into the game. Evil got a toehold, and then a foothold, and then thoroughly took over that experiment.
One “prisoner” was ostracized by the others and suffered a breakdown a few days in. The experimenter pulled him out. He became angry, and demanded to be let back in.
It took the experimenter speaking words of truth to set that young man free, “Listen, you are not #819, you are Jack Smith and my name is Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let’s go.” Those words of truth set that young man free.
They cut short the experiment after six days when the students’ parents started to get drawn in to the fiction. That sort of experiment is now considered grossly unethical, and that’s a good thing. Evil is real, and evil is always looking for a toehold. The experimenter, Philip Zimbardo, wrote a book he titled “The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Can Turn Evil.” Even though his experiment cast an enduring shadow on the lives of some of his subject, we can be thankful he had the courage to recognize and name the evil it called forth. Lucifer.
We know, though, that Jesus’s interest – and our interest — is the opposite. “How Evil People Can Turn Good.” John the Evangelist tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t overcome it. What does that look like in practice? What happened that day in Jericho when evil Zacchaeus turned good? What did Jesus do?
He fearlessly entered dangerous Jericho. He looked Zacchaeus in the eye. He called him by the name his parents gave him – “purity”. He said “come down out of that tree.”
He then said “I must come to your house today.” He didn’t deny the evil. He didn’t look for the scraps of good around the edges of the evil and use that good to redeem Zacchaeus. Instead, he stared down the evil and defeated it. He embraced the tax collector’s own intrusive language: “I must come into your house to see what you’re hiding from me” and used it in the service of love rather than evil. And Zacchaeus responded to that love, by repenting, by standing to accept judgement, and by making generous reparations.
How can you and I serve Jesus to oppose evil? We can recognize that evil is always going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down in it, looking for chances to make mischief. We can be careful to avoid situations where that evil can get a toehold. When – not if, when — evil does gets a toehold we can do what that psychologist Philip Zimbardo did to that student: We can call our neighbors by their names and say “let’s go.”
We can remind ourselves and each other that the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. There’s no doubt that the darkness is real, and dangerous like Jericho. There’s also no doubt that the light is stronger than the darkness.
What does it take for you and me to let Jesus’s light shine into our own lives? It’s wise to be careful when we’re in Jericho situations where evil is looking for a toehold. It helps to have Zacchaeus’s little shred of hope to get a glimpse of Jesus. Then, with the ears of faith we hear Jesus call our names, enter our homes and hearts, and set us free to love our neighbors.