October 31, 2010
There is More
Beloved comedian George Carlin once wrote:”The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less. We buy more, but enjoy less. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life, not life to years.
Maybe that’s what Zacchaeus was thinking about when he climbed that tree. “I have everything I’ve ever wanted, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Maybe this guy Jesus has some answers for me.”
From all outward appearances, Zacchaeus had it made. Tax collectors contracted with the Romans to collect taxes in a particular town or region. Jericho was a large and wealthy city—a resort town with loads of beautiful summer homes. It would have been a plum franchise for a tax collector. His profit was the amount of taxes collected less the franchise fee. The system was prone to abuse, rewarding tax collectors for excessive collections. If citizens rebelled, Roman soldiers stood ready to back the tax collector.
The Jews despised tax collectors as mercenaries and thieves. But the tax collectors were nonetheless rich and important and powerful. They were not the sort of people who climbed trees in the center of town. That was a bold gesture.
This whole story is told in bold and exaggerated terms. Zacchaeus is extremely rich, extremely short and apparently lacked impulse control as he climbed that tree! Jesus is pretty bold himself as he invites himself over for dinner– to the home of a notorious sinner. But then Jesus was always brazen when it came to eating and drinking with sinners. It was the main charge leveled against him by the Pharisees.
Look how Jesus goes about his business. “Zacchaeus! Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” He seeks out the lost and doesn’t care what the crowd thinks. As soon as he called out to Zacchaeus the grumbling in the crowd began. All who saw it, friends and foe of Jesus alike, said “he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner. There he goes again with no idea of all the rules he is breaking. No idea of how he is turning our world upside down. Can’t he see from our viewpoint that what he is doing is wrong?”
This intriguing little story is all about seeing better, but not from our own viewpoint. Sometimes we all need a little help to see better. Movies can be a great way to help us take the long view, to climb a tree in order to see way past ourselves.
It seems like a very long time ago that our society was shocked by the Sidney Poitier movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” For those of you too young to remember, this 1967 movie was one of the first film depictions of inter-racial marriage. A young white woman and a black doctor have a whirlwind romance and nine days later decide to marry and move to Switzerland. First they have to tell their families, though, and a dinner is arranged at the home of the young woman’s liberal, upper class parents (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn). The plot unfolds in the home and around the dinner table with all the action taking place in one tumultuous day. All struggle to maintain their balance in a situation that has profoundly altered their lives, and disturbed their sense of the way things should be.
In a sense, that film allowed us all to climb a sycamore tree and look down upon ourselves and our society from a longer viewpoint. We were seeing the beginning of something new, winds of change, and seeing our own attitudes reflected back to us in the reactions of the characters. Like it or not, something new was coming and we needed some help to see past the status quo.
Jesus was the great disturber of the peace—he didn’t care for keeping things orderly. He didn’t color within the lines or obey the rules of men. He challenged his hearers to see the real world, the one envisioned and commanded by God. Bruce Epperly puts it this way: “Zacchaeus, as the hated tax collector, imagined that the real world was no larger than his bank account until the day Jesus called him down from the tree. Small in stature and vision, Zacchaeus discovered that his life mission embraced the whole community and not just his own personal security; when he chose seeking justice, rather than accumulating wealth, as his life adventure from that day forth.” 
I suppose that we could say that until he came down from that tree, Zacchaeus was more short-sighted than short-heighted! The issue was that on his own, Zacchaeus would never have seen God. And on our own, we cannot see God. Time and again we must be reminded that Jesus Christ is the fullest expression of God on earth. If we want to see God, we must see Jesus. And if we would like to live lives full of God, then we must live like Jesus, love like Jesus, and embrace others as did Jesus.
I’m starting a book written by one of my professors at LTS: Holy Adventure-41 days of Audacious Living. I would like to become a partner in God’s holy adventure. I would like to join in the work of making a new creation out of the messy stuff all around us. I do believe that new paths will emerge if we could only enlarge our vision, take the longer view. God calls to us through Jesus, to experience the fullness of life. God does not abandon us, nor does God leave us as God finds us. If we come down from the tree and follow Jesus, we will be changed.
Jesus always refused to side with the prejudice, and short-sightedness of those who said that people can never change. The crowds always murmured their disagreement with the grace offered by Jesus. To the crowds, a tax collector is always a tax collector. An adulterer is always an adulterer. A woman who has had five husbands is always just a woman who’s had five husbands. But time and time again Jesus makes a new creation out of sinners just like us. He affirms us for who we really are–a child of God.
Jesus wants our commitment to seeing the world from his viewpoint, the viewpoint of the Kingdom. But, like the crowd in today’s story, we like the view from right where we are. Short-sighted suits us, because it allows us to be in control of how we see the world around us.
The Lord is passing by. If we want to see the world as Jesus sees it, we will need to climb a sycamore tree. Are you ready for an adventure and ready to risk looking mighty foolish? Don’t you want to see more than you see right now?
In Holy Adventure, Bruce Epperly points out that before the voyages of Columbus and other explorers, European mapmakers inscribed the words “plus ultra”, “there is more,” at the far edges of their maps. They didn’t know what “more” looked like, or how long it would take to get there. But they were sure that “more” was there, and that they wanted to see it.
Maybe Zacchaeus wasn’t so short sighted after all. He knew that there was more, and he was willing to risk the holy adventure. Save us a seat, Zacchaeus, out there on that limb. We want to be where we can see Jesus, and where Jesus can see us.
(I am indebted to the insights shared in the Feasting on the Word resource (Year C, vol 4), especially the essay by Marjorie Proctor-Smith 261-265.)
 Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living by Bruce Epperly, Upper Room Books, p 12-13.