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Do We Have Grace Enough to Allow People to Change?: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

November 1, 2019:
Isaiah 1:10-18
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

A few years ago I was doing some research online. I’m not sure what it was about, but I was going through newspaper archives, I suspect looking up information on a theologian. And while that person and project has gone blank in my memory, a completely unrelated article I stumbled upon in the process has stuck with me to this day.

It was about the New York Yankees.

The New York Times, May 14, 1973:

“Some people may find it hard to believe,” [commented new Yankees owner George Steinbrenner,] “but [I] don’t intend to project myself into [the team]. They’ll see no interference from me.”

What made this snippet so memorable is that, well, I don’t know what happened, but that’s not what actually happened. Steinbrenner, it would seem, fully intended to project himself into the team, and regularly interfered with them. History worked out exactly the opposite from what he was quoted as saying. I mean, this is a guy that made 20 changes in managers in a span of 23 years. (And five of those changes were for the same person that he kept firing and then hiring again!)

An early episode of The Simpsons made fun of how he strictly enforced a hair policy: moustaches are OK, but beards are not. And no hair below the collar.

In the early ‘90s the team (…the team that he owned!) banned him from interfering with day-to-day baseball operations after it was revealed that, as if out of a mobster movie, he had hired a guy to dig up dirty secrets on his player Dave Winfield, someone he’d publicly criticized and had had a falling out. (Winfield would eventually win the World Series for our team up here.)

“They’ll see no interference from me.” Well, that’s not how history worked out.

Sometimes it would appear that people change. Radically. This is one example. But it’s ultimately a bad news story. Can people actually change for the better? And not just through rules, or restrictions, or laws, or punishment… but actually change, in their hearts?

And then, I wonder, if we allow for that possibility… is that something that we would actually want? I mean, really. With the crowds in that gospel story, might we grumble under our breath: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Because having a sinner in our sights, as frustrating as they can be, they do make a good target, especially if we’re in the business of throwing stones (even if they’re figurative, verbal ones). They can bring a group of people together. They can give us someone nice and low down against which we can compare ourselves. (You know, even the worst of us will never be as megalomaniacal as George Steinbrenner.)

Or, to look at things from another way, how does God — the God of justice that says ‘your sacrifices and festivals are worthless to me, so long as you trample on those in need’ — how does this God cleanse us from our wrongdoing? Well, if we look back to that gospel story, we might note how Jesus doesn’t throw stones up into the tree, nor does he launch accusations or begin name-calling. What Jesus does, as he goes about his work of inaugurating God’s Reign on earth, is invite the sinner into relationship. If sitting down at table to eat together is a sign of the Kingdom, then what Jesus does is remind the grumbling crowd, and remind Zacchaeus, that he’s called to be a part of this Kingdom.

I suspect that Zacchaeus was taken aback by this invitation. Zacchaeus, we’re told, was a tax collector — the chief tax collector of the area — and he was doing well for himself because of that. And he wasn’t just a pencil-pusher, filing reports and doing math; being a tax collector meant that he was a Jew, compromising and collaborating with the Roman (Gentile) occupying forces. He was facilitating the continued presence of these outsiders, and making a living at it, all at the expense of his fellow Jewish citizens of Jericho. Through this betrayal he secured for himself a smooth existence, though it didn’t make him friends. It made him the enemy.

So here he is, unliked — deservedly — but he’s been caught up in some of this excitement about the Messiah. Jesus, we heard, was just passing through the town. Zacchaeus, being short, climbs a tree, to get a look at this celebrity, or revolutionary, or miracle worker, or figure of royalty. Is he just trying to get a better view, or is he also more at ease with some distance between himself and Jesus? And himself and the crowd? (We might ask ourselves what things, maybe inside ourselves, that we put between ourselves and God, and ourselves and others.)

And the narrator doesn’t remark on his motivation, but Jesus gets to that place, and looks up. That distance between Zacchaeus and Jesus and everyone else disappears. And Jesus surprises him — in an act of scandalous, extravagant, undeserved grace — by inviting him to lunch. And what’s interesting here is that Jesus doesn’t say ‘you’re bad and I’m here to fix you.’ Jesus does something far more daring and risky. He says ‘I’m coming to your house.’

So to those earlier questions of ‘can people actually change’ and ‘do we want people, actually, to change’ I will add a third: ‘do we think that these ‘others’ in our lives at whom we wag our fingers — do we think that they have something to offer?’ It would seem that Jesus saw potential in Zacchaeus, this morally compromised, unpopular figure. Potential enough to join the table with people who were travelling from town to town remaking the world.

For those who feel burdened by guilt or despair, Jesus says: ‘there is grace enough for you — there is room at the table — because there was grace enough for Zacchaeus.’

For those grumbling with the crowd, because they’ve been stronger than collaborators like Zacchaeus, Jesus says: ‘You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we must celebrate and rejoice, because the dead has come to life; the lost has been found. Today salvation has come to this house. For I have come to seek out and to save the lost.’

So, how does change happen? How does the God of justice call people back to faithfulness? By eliminating the distance (and whatever else) that separates us, and by calling us to sit down and make a meal together.

‘Cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; get down from that tree you got yourself in; it’s time to eat.’

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter