Monday, October 31, 2022

God's Love for the Lacking


Luke 19:1-10

Proper 26 / Year C

Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Mystery and Manners”, observed when fiction writers write about the rich, they are more concerned with what the person lacks than with what the person has.  Although St. Luke’s gospel is not fiction, he takes the same approach when he writes about Zacchaeus.  Luke lets us know who Zacchaeus is (the what he ‘has’) with two very brief descriptions: he is a tax collector and he is rich.  But Luke does not dwell on the benefits of Zacchaeus’ status; although we can be sure they are many.  He lives in the most prestigious neighborhood in Jericho and enjoys the best methods of transportation, the finest clothes, the most sumptuous foods, and all the privileges associated with affluence.

But what Luke wants us to know about Zacchaeus is not all of that.  He tells us what Zacchaeus lacks, although he does not spell it out in black and white.  You have to read between the lines to get the specifics, but they are there for us to see.  We get the sense that Zacchaeus is isolated, that there is a hiddenness about him, that all his bravado is a mask for a deep-rooted sense of inferiority.  The local community rejects him because his occupation is little more than legalized extortion.  Luke is unable to identify a single important family member, friend, or acquaintance in Zacchaeus’ life.  And, perhaps most important, Zacchaeus is hiding from God.  While he may have been short in stature, we are given the impression Zacchaeus is even shorter in soul.  What does Zacchaeus lack?  He has everything the world offers, but nothing that comes from God. 

One critic of Flannery O’Conner observed “her characters are often crude, unkempt, and ill-educated.  Bereft of redeeming qualities and brimming with flaws, it is easy to be repelled by them and the path their lives are taking.”  Zacchaeus could easily be the subject of one of O’Conner’s short stories.  She observed, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”  She notes, “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”  Again, Zacchaeus fits this mold.

How does the “action of grace” work on Zacchaeus?

The best sermon I ever heard about him had two simple points.  First, Jesus tells Zacchaeus “I love you where you are.  Hiding in a Sycamore tree, cheating everyone in town out of their hard-earned money, alone and miserable and isolated, but nicely dressed! – Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “I love you where you are.  Then Jesus says to him, “I need your help.  I want you to do something for me.  I want to come to your house for lunch.  And there, at Zacchaeus’ home, surrounded by all his ill-gotten gain, Jesus is able to look past all that is wrong with him in order to see what he lacks. 

No one had ever told Zacchaeus “God loves you right here, right now… no conditions, no qualifications, no catches, and no hidden fees.  God loves you.”  Do you realize what a radical statement this is?  In Zacchaeus’ day it was believed God loved you because you were a part of the Chosen Nation and because you followed all the rules and regulations and because you kept yourself ritually clean for worship in the Temple and because you made the right sacrifices at the appointed time.  Basically, folks believed you deserved God’s love because you did all the things necessary to earn God’s love.

2000 years later I don’t know if things have changed all that much.  We still attach God’s love to conditions like attending church and quoting the bible and being a “good person” – however you might define ‘good.’  Now, as then, we tend to put qualifications on God’s love.  We are more comfortable with a Savior who says “Stop cheating people when you collect taxes, be a better parent, show more compassionate to people less fortunate than you, get to church more often, sing in the Choir, serve on Vestry and then maybe you will be worthy of my love.” 

The problem is, when we put these kinds of words on the lips of our Savior, then our Savior doesn’t really save us at all.  It all rests with us and with our ability to get our own act together.  When the Church says you need to live the right kind of life before God can love you, then we are saying in effect, “Sinner, save yourself.”  This is not the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, wrote this:

Christ is not concerned, himself, with being good.  He is concerned solely with love for the real person, and for that reason He is able to enter into fellowship with our guilt and to take the burden of our guilt upon Himself.  Jesus does not desire to look down on us as the only guiltless One while each one of us goes on to our ruin under the weight of our guilt.  He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which we die.  He wishes to assume it.  A love which left us alone in our guilt would not be love for the real us.  From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into our guilt and takes that guilt upon Himself in His body, on the cross.”

This is why we proclaim Jesus as the only Savior!

So Zacchaeus responds to this undeserved, unconditional love – to the action of grace in his life.  And then he responds to Jesus’ call to service.  Long-dormant gifts of hospitality resurface.  He makes a meal for Jesus and his disciples.  And at the meal, overjoyed with a new sense of love and purpose, and possessing a new sense of community and fellowship with God, Zacchaeus makes the kind of moral and ethical changes so many people would demand of him before they would allow God to love him.  But notice the process.  Notice love comes first, purpose follows, and finally repentance and amendment of life are possible.  This is what O’Conner describes as “the action of grace” in a person’s life. 

St. Augustine believed we are created with a need for God – a God-shaped void in our souls.  He observed people try to fill their God space with everything else but God.  This is surely true of Zacchaeus and it points directly to what he lacks.  But Jesus does not demand Zacchaeus divest himself of all the corrupt and worldly ways he has crammed into the space where God alone should be.  He loves him and he calls him.  And as this sense of love and calling grows and grows and grows in the place only God can be, then and only then, is Zacchaeus ready and able to get rid of the stuff that does not belong in his life.  Redemption happens.

This is how God works.  This is how grace works.  This is how salvation comes to us throughout our lives.  Sometimes it is dramatic, other times it is a small step forward in the process of sanctification – of becoming the saints God created us to be.  More than one person has described the characters in Flannery O’Conner’s writing as being “grotesque.”  She wants them to be shocking and she wants the redemption they find to be shocking.  She wants to use them to wake up her readers; to shock them back into life; to discern how the action of grace might be at work in their own lives. 

What do you lack?