Year C, Proper 26 October 30, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one to most of us. When it comes to the familiar stories, it is important that we occasionally look at them with new eyes. I am going to read this story again. Try to picture it in your mind, notice the details of the scene. Close your eyes if you need to, and see where the words take you.
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘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.’”
Do you have that picture in our mind?
Who here, in their image, assumed that Zacchaeus is the short one in the story? Well you would be in line with just about every commentary and interpretation that has ever been written on this passage. It might not be that cut and dry. It is verse 3 that matters. “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” Which he, was short in stature? “He was trying to see who Jesus was, (that he is clearly Z.) but on account of the crowd he could not (again, Z.), because he was short in stature.” (which he was short in stature? It is not clear.)
Let’s say it was Zacchaeus that was short. Yes, climbing a tree would be a way to see over the crowds. But the same would be true if Jesus was the shorter. He would have been covered by the crowds, so you could see over them from a higher vantage point. From the King James Version, verse 3 reads “And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was of little stature.” So by the numbers, “And he sought to see Jesus who he was (He, Z. sought, to see Jesus who he (Jesus) was – odd English but it is clear which he is whom, but it goes on); and could not for the press, because he was of little stature.” (He. That is even less clear than the NRSV. And as the text continues the he’s go back and forth). I don’t have the Greek, but I understand that the English translation accurately transmits the lack of specificity in who is the short one in this passage. Did anyone have Jesus as the short one in their mind’s eye? Hmmm…
This is not some ground breaking exegesis. In all likeliness St. Luke meant for Zacchaeus to be the “he” who was short in stature, and it really does not matter who is the short one at all, it doesn’t affect anything in this pericope or in the whole of the Gospel, but having this pointed out really gave me pause. We make a lot of assumptions, don’t we? We fill in a lot of blanks in every story we hear. What color was Jesus’ tunic as he entered Jericho? Was it sunny or partly cloudy? How loud was it? Who was the taller one? There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. If you imagined everyone in slickers, greeting Jesus in the midst of an Oregon Autumnal rain storm, that might not be what Luke was intending. But even there, we could add that to the story that if we approached it like midrash, saying, “Suppose this happened in the story…” Really, the sky is the limit
One of the gifts of literature, of which Holy Scripture is a form, is that we are part of the story because the image we have in our mind is ours. It is informed, overwhelmingly perhaps, by our culture, our personal experiences and predilections, and our imagination, but it is you engaged with the text, it is you with the Word of God itself. When we enter these stories, these stories studied and prayed upon by so many over so long a time, you have a chance to meet, well, God! This is awesome and this is very serious business, because what we imagine about God, what images and sounds and smells and sensations we encounter as we engage the Holy in scripture has deep impact on our knowledge and love of God. So it is very, very important that we be aware of what we bring when we encounter things like scripture, because our prejudices and presuppositions change the meaning we make of the stories. Sometimes it is small, like who is the short one, Jesus or Zacchaeus? Maybe not a big point, but as one commentator points out, “Why do we assume that Jesus looks something like Viggo Mortensen and not like Danny Devito?” Does Jesus look like we do? In our mind does He carry himself in ways we are familiar with? Comfortable with? Now those kind of questions begin to have much deeper implications, and those are just our images of Jesus Christ, human as much as Divine. What about God the Creator? That can get pretty dicey. Do we see a white dude with a beard? A burning bush? The gorgeous abstraction of the triune stained glass behind me here?
To confess, I don’t see Jesus as Viggo Mortensen-y, not always at least, the image of Jesus for me changes all the time, as much based on where I am as where Jesus is in the story. On Zacchaeus, though, I totally project the image of Vizzini, the funny little villan in The Princess Bride played by Wallace Shawn.
One of the “Questions from Lulu” that I received was asked from the perspective of a 6 year-old girl, it read, “Dear God, Please send me a picture of you and tell me what you like to eat so I can bring it to church for you next Sunday.” Now I don’t know about the food part, though if your brought bagels and lox next week I’ll make sure they won’t go to waste if God doesn’t like it. But when it comes to what God looks like, well, there we have something to dig into.
What does God look like?
At Diocesan Convention a five years ago, the keynote was on children’s religious formation. The speaker spoke on children’s imagination and images of the divine. He told a short story about some parents who had come to him, their priest, about a question their son had asked. The question was, “Does God have a bicycle?” Well, there is a millennia and a half of theology to reference to answer that very question, “Does God have a bicycle,” but none of that matters. Not to the life of a 6 year-old. Not in the developing faith life of a 6 year-old. What matters is how that 6 year-old is in relation to that God.
So the priest’s answer to the parents was, “I don’t know if God has a bicycle, you should ask your son.” So they did, they asked, “What do you think?” and he answered immediately, “Oh yes, and it’s blue.”
I took a class from the venerable Harvey Cox. You might remember him from his 1965 best-seller The Secular City, a best-seller on theology, good theology, even weird. Well he is still kicking around, and his class was called “Contemporary Interpretations of Jesus.” What stuck with me from that class was an hour long slideshow of images of Jesus spanning 1000 years and hailing from all over the world. And wouldn’t you know it, a 16th century Dutch vision of Jesus had pale skin, light hair and pantaloons, while a 20th century Nigerian image of Jesus looked rather Nigerian in complexion and garb. I remember Korean and Japanese watercolors that looked just like Buddhist iconography but were of Jesus, and that Jesus looked a lot like a Korean or Japanese vision of the South Asian man named Siddhartha Gautama.
The point of all that is obvious: we will project our experience and imagination onto what we understand to be God. Our image of God will invariably be of something familiar to ourselves. And most of the examples above are about Jesus, someone we can’t anthropomorphize Jesus because he is already human (So is that homopomorphizing when we see Him in our own image?) But God, we do anthropomorphize, make like a human, and we do that to the nth degree, most importantly and most dangerously in the idea that God is a he. I can’t say much for certain about God, but I am certain that God is not a he, or at least is not just a he. All the “God the Father” stuff is a relic of a bygone era that we have not matured out of, not yet, and that lack of maturity has caused untold damage across the ages, in particular to women and girls who don’t have institutionally supported images of themselves projected on the Godhead. Feminine images of and references to God are rather heretical in far too many circles, actually. If I could just change the words in the Mass I would, but that is not for me to do. The best I can do is remind us that God is not male any more than God has a blue bicycle or is a big white hand reaching down in the Sistine Chapel. Now the Rublev icon of the Trinity, that is an anthropomorphized image of God that is useful. It is the one with the three angels who visited Abraham and has been long taken for an image of the Trinity. Their eyes seem to follow each other in this amazing web of knowing. It is haunting. It is in the back of the room, check it out before you go. It is an mage of God the Trinity that is helpful.
The point of this sermon is that we need to be aware, conscious of what images we have for God and Christ with the Holy Spirit. The image we hold in our heart and mind and gut informs more about how we hear the still small voice of God and what we do with it and why we do it than anything else. It matters how we see and hear and feel God. Not that there is a wrong way necessarily, but it matters and it must be examined, and reexamined, and tested against other things we learn about the world and ourselves. There is research that says that for most of us, our religious development ceased at a 2nd grade level. That’s the old white guy with a beard image of God. Developmentally appropriate and useful in 2nd grade (the human part, not the old, the white, or the guy part), but it is insufficient in describing the way as we encounter God as full grown men and women trying to live our lives, trying to do what God wants us to do, trying to pass on a life of faith to our own children.
It does not matter if was Zacchaeus was the wee little man as the Sunday school song teaches. What matters is that you are conscious of what images you use or see when you encounter God in scripture or in the recesses of your heart.
I’ll end with a prayer that I have said here before. The author Robert Fulghum found this prayer written on a scrap of paper in a public bathroom.
God, I have a problem. I’m just a man and I’m feeling so alone. God, I know you have no name, but I need to call you something. God, I know you are not a man like me, but I need to think of you that way. God, I know you are everywhere, but I need to talk to you somewhere. God, I know you are eternal, but I need you now. God, forgive my limitations, and help me. Amen. (From Beginning to End, 1995)