The police dropped her off. She got soaked in the rain and so did all her bags. Around 3 am, we can’t really remember the time, there was a knock at the door and they asked us to take her. She hadn’t had a shower in days. Her bags were soaked and she had little more than the clothes on her back.
“Can one of us go down and get her some things to wear? The free store isn’t open.”
“And what about getter her a shower?”
“We’ll have to work on that too.”
Class is going to start in two minutes and he shuffles in as I hurry around trying to get started. “I’m illiterate. I can’t read. What are you going to do for me?” I didn’t know the answer to that question. Life Skill classes involve listening, review, and planning for the immediate future. The other staff and I quickly make the decision to involve this man anyway. After the class I ask him his story. He’s been living outside here in downtown for years. I start to ask him about who else knows him, like other ministry’s outreach workers, and other places he frequents. And I get a picture of how often he’s engaged by other outreach workers. He’s been resistant to serious involvement since the State released him from prison years ago. I remind him again of what many others do every day. Where to go to start his journey back to housing as soon as he’s ready. When called on to speak during a church service the following night I can’t keep from mentioning his name and asking for intercessory prayer for him.
This year I was deeply offended by an otherwise very funny film that dedicated two scenes to mocking street homeless men. I was offended not so much by the typical caricature of people as bums, but by the very comfortable notion that human beings become like fixtures on city streets and there’s really nothing we can do about it. It reinforces the stereotype that homeless people are pursuing their own little carefree life on the streets, and they’re having fun doing it, so just leave them alone. That they have rights as people to be left alone and when you have unfortunate encounters with them, just laugh it off. They’ll sleep off their drink down at the local mission that night and repent for this episode right before dinner and a shower.
I’m offended that people of all races, sex and body type get fit into social expectations because of their income. What movies and TV take for granted is that its normal to have enough money to live to excess. Enough money to waste food and time and space in the self centered quest for something very much the same and new at the same time.
The gospel of Luke reveals a whole new world where all different kinds of people come down to the River Jordan and ask “What then should we do?” They’d gone to see a man who by all accounts looked creepy. His clothing was made of camel’s hair, he wore a leather belt, and his diet was locusts and wild honey. He was preaching a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. And people were coming out to him from Jerusalem, Judea, and everywhere along the river.
The people wanted to return to true faith. They looked around at the morally and spiritually bankrupt practices of their religious and political leadership and they were ashamed and knew there had to be a better way. They could tell that the Word of the Lord had come to this man John son of the priest Zechariah. It hadn’t come in the temple in Jerusalem. They had to leave there to find it.
So they come out and John calls them a brood of vipers. He says that showing up out there is not enough but they’ve got to live different lives.
Luke 3:10-14 tells us a bit about what they change would look like. John preached that repentance involved an economic redistribution. He didn’t have some kind of new political policy map for that he just told them how to start. “If you have two coats you must share with those who have none. And if you have food do likewise.”(NRSV) Simple enough right? Okay, can we get dunked in the water and go home now?
Think about what he was saying. Imagine that your family spends a considerable part of your year making and repairing the clothes you wear. Imagine that you only have so much material and that you know how far you’ve got to walk, what sort of work you’ve got to do. Add to this the little money you scrape by with to feed your family after having to pay an exorbitant tax to a foreign power who could care less about your way of life and your family. Yes, you’re oppressed and just making it. But share what you’ve got. What sort of repentance is this?
But then it says “Even tax collectors came to be baptized.” Tax collectors were the sort of people in every town that the locals hated. The practice was called tax farming. Essentially rich men put up their own money in order to bid on how much more they can collect from their neighbors than the State could otherwise collect by force. They were in everybody’s business and they kept watch on who had what and where they got it from. The people saw them as the worst sort of sinners, because not only were they in league with the heathen Roman State, they were folks with a seared conscience, blood suckers making extra money off their neighbors. And here they show up to get baptized too.
What did John tell them? “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” He didn’t tell them to leave their jobs. He just told them to stop cheating people. He believed in essence, that this repentance was for people who were known cheats. People despised for their livelihoods. People considered no better than the filthy pagan gentiles they served. This baptism was for them too.
What’s happening here? Instead of viewing people according to their usual place in society Luke tells stories of unapproachable people having their lives turned upside down by an encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus, a certain chief tax collector, is one such person. He made the profit off the collectors! If there was corruption Zacchaeus was at the heart of it. To the people he represented everything that was wicked about the system. If there was a hand getting into their pockets for the pagans, it was his. In Luke 19:1-10 we learn that Zacchaeus was not only rich and corrupt, he was also vertically challenged.
I can imagine that the running joke about Zacchaeus was that he had a Napoleon complex before there was a Napoleon. His money and power made up for everything lacking in his stature. He didn’t care what people thought about him because he got their money anyway. But Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Jesus is the man John the Baptist called “the Lamb of God,” the Messiah, the man the people were expecting John to be. John introduced a new way of life for all and Jesus was the center of that new life. It was a new kingdom in process and Zacchaeus wanted to see what that looked like.
Trouble was, he couldn’t see. Jesus is passing by and he’s going to miss him so he scrambles up a tree. That tree happens to be a sycamore, the fruit of which is unclean for Jews. So here’s an unclean man up in an unclean tree and Jesus stops to call him by name. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Suddenly the Messiah, the center of attention, stops the camera and points to the corruption in the tree and asks to be its guest. If there had been a director on the scene he would have pulled Jesus aside to point out this doesn’t make for good PR. Blind people, fine, lepers OK, lame folks, good. But corrupt rich people? Somebody yell, “Cut!”
Zacchaeus hurried down out of that tree, happy to welcome him. Something was different in Zacchaeus. He wanted to see Jesus because he wanted the new kingdom. Yeah, he was rich, but he was repentant. Can rich people really repent? Jesus said of another rich man in the previous chapter of Luke, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24-25) These were hard words for folks to hear back then. In reply they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus said back to them, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” So here with Zacchaeus we see the impossible happening. The local heart of corruption, the economic blood sucker gets to host Jesus in his home.
But when a rich power broker has an epiphany the people always get uneasy. They think they can see this for what it is. Jesus is gonna get duped. He can’t turn the world upside down and include the local heart of corruption. There’s no place in God’s kingdom for such people.
In the midst of the people grumbling, Zacchaeus announces, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” That’s a lot more than John the Baptist had been asking for. John just said in essence to stop cheating. Zacchaeus, fully aware of his part in the economic destruction of his people, demonstrates his repentance with restitution! The offer to pay back four times is an action straight out of the law for the theft in Exodus 22:1-15. Where the nation of Israel had no power to require Zacchaeus to do this, he took it on himself to obey the law out of his belief in this new Kingdom Jesus represented.
Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
There are many people today who consider themselves religious but are still lost. The words of John the Baptist are for us today, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9)
The true sons and daughters of Abraham are sick of the social pressure to get warm and well fed and fattened for no reason other than to oil the wheels of a corrupt State where greed is God. Our money says “In God we trust” but it really should say “In Greed we trust.” And that greed is found not just among the rich and powerful, but also among the poor and vulnerable. The greedy rich are only too happy to let some crumbs fall on the poor for a while if it causes them to get enough money to want to become part of the greedy system again!
A big part of repentance and following Jesus in our North American context involves reestablishing our values based on hearts of servant-hood rather than hearts of collection. Religion in America has been the maidservant of the gospel of wealth for too long. We’ve preached, “Money is not wrong, it’s all in how you use it” for too long. We’ve lost the practice of repentance through economic redistribution and the radical restitution obedience of Zacchaeus. Within churches all across America there are rich Christians regularly defrauding people by setting “market prices” on houses, apartments, cars and goods without any thought to the injustice of the system. There are Christians working for banks only too happy to help people with bad credit get further into debt. They’re part of a corrupt system but they’re just happy to have a job in this economy.
So what on earth can be done? How can any of this change? I believe Zacchaeus can speak to us today. It is possible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. And let’s face it, by someone’s standards on this planet all of us in this room are rich. We may not be able to afford bus tickets every day but we’re all rich. Someone is huddled in an abandoned building in this city right now and we’re pretty rich sitting in this warm room right now.
Zacchaeus shows us that obedience to Jesus is possible for any of us. Zacchaeus did three things. 1) He got to where he could see Jesus. 2) He demonstrated his repentance. 3) He took Jesus into his home.
Our hope for change comes not from adopting some new political ideology but from the love of Jesus Christ. It is this grace of Jesus that leads us to repentance and obedience. It is in the midst of this very dark corrupt hopeless world that John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God emptied himself on our behalf in Christ because we need a new place to live. We’ve screwed this world up so bad that nothing less than becoming new people will change things.
Jesus promises us in John 14:23 than “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we’ll come to him and make our home with him.” He also said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places (homes). If it were not so, I would have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you.”(John 14:2, Amplified) We all need a home. Even if you’ve never known homelessness, the dread of getting soaked head to toe in a cold rain, you can still relate to residing somewhere but not knowing it as home.
Having somewhere to stow your stuff so you can cruise around and buy more stuff and then come crash on a couch and escape in front of a computer or a digital TV is not the same as inhabiting a home. And God knows this about us. He knows that far from having real comfort and warmth in our lives, our greed has made us all homeless.
But Jesus says we can have a real dwelling in Him! He says there is a love, a habitation possible through obedience and discipleship. A home made of hard work, and a sense of Place born of fellowship in the Kingdom of God. It’s true we’re waiting for our true habitation to be revealed with Christ’s appearing. Rev. 21:3 says, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” This is what God’s plan has been all along, and He is doing it in the world right now. By his Holy Spirit he has called and is calling a people to Himself, out of the wicked corruption of this world into the Kingdom of His dear Son.
Maybe you know that you need to be saved from the greed in your heart. Maybe like Zacchaeus you’ve had enough of yourself and you know that Jesus represents a fresh break, a new world. Hurry down out of that tree and take Jesus into your home!