Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Children of Abraham

Jesus and Zacchaeus

Psalm 119: 137-144; Luke 19: 1-10
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 31, 2010 – Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday

One of the most publicized family feuds was in 1998. It was the controversy over whether or not Thomas Jefferson fathered one or perhaps all seven of Sally Hemings’ children. Thomas Jefferson was a Virginia landowner and owned hundreds of slaves, Sally Hemings being one of them. For over two hundred years questions have been raised about their relationship and whether or not it produced children.

Technology caught up with those questions in the person of Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired medical professor from the University of Virginia. He compared the blood from five descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas's paternal uncle, with the blood of the descendants of Sally Hemings, Thomas Woodson—whose family claims Jefferson as an ancestor, and the Carr brothers, Jefferson’s nephews—who were long thought to have fathered Sally Hemings’ children. Though the findings were not conclusive, they provided strong support to the supposition that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Sally Hemings’ children.

Thought it ranks high on the list, this quarrel is not entirely about racism, as we might assume. It also has to do with privilege: being buried at Monticello, not far from where Thomas Jefferson was laid to rest; open and accepted membership in a prestigious founding family. As a child, Shannon Lanier, a descendant of Madison Hemings, stood in front of his first grade class, stating that Thomas Jefferson was his great- great- great- great- great- great-grandfather. His teacher told him to sit down and stop telling lies. Ultimately this dispute is about inclusion, reconciliation and a sense of legitimate belonging in this nation’s history.


So you can imagine what a family reunion it must have been. Every year hundreds of Jefferson descendants, who comprise the Monticello Association, gather at the historical landmark after hours. And after an invite from one of the association members, dozens of Sally Hemings’ descendants began attending, not as family but as guests, and with them, hoards of reporters and photographers.

But as we in the church well know, an invitation can be a far cry from a warm and hospitable welcome. Many association members were in favor of the Hemings being in attendance but most were not. Eventually a vote was taken to deny them full membership and to restrict their numbers at the annual reunion. Attempting to form a human wall between the Hemings descendants and Thomas Jefferson, the association tried to deny them access to the Monticello cemetery. Since 2004 not one of the Hemings has attended the reunion; now they hold their own gathering at Monticello—at sunrise in a recently discovered slave cemetery. It’s not much of a stretch to say that, in order to get a clear glimpse of Jefferson, Hemings’ descendants may have to climb a tree, the family tree, limb by limb.

"Virginia Luxuries," by an unknown artist, around 1800. Courtesy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Zacchaeus knew what it was like to be excluded because of who he was. From the text we read that he was rich, he was short in stature and he was not only a tax collector but the chief of them all. These all look like many strikes against him.

And yet, according to the Jewish wisdom tradition, being rich was not an evil thing; in fact, it was a sign of God’s blessing and favor, that one must be wise and righteous in the eyes of God. Wealth was not an end in and of itself; it was vehicle for expressing one’s faithfulness to God and to neighbor. Are you generous or greedy, giving or withholding? And as for short of stature, the Greek words for this phrase translate as ‘small in maturity’, that is, the crowd was treating him like a child. They had formed a human wall between Zacchaeus and Jesus, deciding who had access to Jesus and who did not. A tax collector who worked for the Romans and the chief one at that? According to the crowd, Zacchaeus was definitely out.

In last week’s lectionary reading from Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee who when he prays, extols his own righteous behavior and thanks God that he is not like ‘that tax collector over there’. Jesus, though, lifts up the humble faith of the tax collector beating his chest, praying “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Jesus also said that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of heaven before the righteous. He was known to sit at table with sinners and tax collectors, even calling one to be part of his inner circle of disciples. And in today’s lectionary reading Jesus says he not only will but must come to Zacchaeus’ house.

This story has usually been read and interpreted as a man who once cheated folks but for having received Jesus into his home now repents and changes his ways. But according to biblical commentators wiser than I, there’s more to this story about Zacchaeus than meets the eye.

In verse 8 the Greek verb “to give”, didōmi, has been translated in the New Revised Standard Version in the future tense: “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.” But in the Greek and in other translations it is in the present active tense: “I give…”, “I repay…”, implying that Zacchaeus is already giving to the poor and repaying any fraudulent transactions. If citizens could produce the receipt given to them, tax collectors, by law, were required to repay the defrauded amount plus 20%. A faithful Jew was also required to give to the poor. Zacchaeus is not only faithful but goes beyond the law, giving half to the poor and repaying any debt plus four times as much. In fact, the name ‘Zacchaeus’ in Hebrew means “pure” or “innocent”.

Zacchaeus is a rich man in the classic Jewish tradition, in that he is more than faithful, but because he is the chief tax collector working for the treacherous Romans, the crowd grumbles and assumes Zacchaeus is a crook. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ household not because of anything Zacchaeus has done but because Jesus chose to lift up one who is humble and righteous, who is also a child of Abraham.

We human beings have a long-standing tradition of building walls between “us” and “them”, based on judgments, assumptions and half-truths. On Oct. 20 NPR political analyst Juan Williams was fired because of comments he made on the Fox network show “The O’Reilly Factor”. Here are his exact words: "I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." He also tempered that remark by saying that blaming all Muslims for the actions of extremists would be akin to blaming all Christians for the actions of Timothy McVeigh.

And yet Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all children of Abraham. He was the father of nations, promised by God who is the God of all nations. Abraham was not native to the land of Canaan but originally from Ur, a city-state in ancient Sumer that would later come under the control of the Babylonian empire, the empire that would one day destroy the temple in Jerusalem and send Israel into exile.

None of us can claim legitimacy for ourselves. Just as Jesus insisted on coming to the home of Zacchaeus, legitimacy is a gift we bestow on one another. It is when we reach out to ‘the other’ and say “You are my sister, my brother, I claim you as family, and this whole earth is our home.” When we are able to do this, then we will have reconciliation; then we will have peace.

Notice the Star of David and the blossom of light around Zacchaeus.

But peace and reconciliation require that we become small and pure in heart, like Zacchaeus. If salvation is to come to this house we call Earth, and it must come, it begins with each of us acknowledging our safe distance from the poor. It begins with taking inventory of ourselves and if we have cheated anyone of forgiveness, compassion, or justice, we restore to them not only what is due but even four times as much. We are to emulate Jesus’ accounting of grace, that we are to forgive not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven, that if someone takes our coat, we are to give our cloak as well, to go the second mile, to give to anyone who begs of us.

We cannot claim any greatness except that of God working through us, and even that is a dubious claim when one examines our track record with God. Yet God’s merciful cup overflows. God’s passion for us is a stubborn love and God remains steadfast. God claims all of us as children, as one family, that none would be lost, that all would be sought and found. Thanks be to God.


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