New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 3, 2013
Story of Zacchaeus, circa 1275,
Keldby Kirche, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
One of the most publicized family feuds was in 1998, that of the controversy over whether or not Thomas Jefferson fathered one or perhaps all seven of Sally Hemings’ children. For over two hundred years questions have been raised about their relationship and whether or not it produced children.
Long story short, DNA from Jefferson’s descendants and those of Sally Hemings were compared. 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. A lot of it 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. Some 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. 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.
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 have the appearance of 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. Was one 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.
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. Yes, he admits he sometimes cheats; essentially he’s admitting he’s human. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ household not because of anything Zacchaeus has done but because Jesus chose to lift up one who’s honest about his flaws but who doesn’t brag about his generous nature, who is also a child of Abraham.
Last week our Muslim brothers and sisters at the Islamic Society of Delaware suffered an act of vandalism on their property. Fenceposts and a sign were torn down and their electronic sign was pelted with rocks. What may have made this most hurtful of all was that the vandals fashioned a crude cross out of two of the fenceposts. Eventually it was discovered that three juveniles were behind this and it was chalked up to criminal mischief. But to our friends it was yet another hurtful wound in a family feud that has lasted, on and off, for more than a thousand years.
We know that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all descendants of Abraham. But there are those who, by their actions, try to deny that Abraham was the father of nations, promised by God who is the God of all nations. Abraham was an immigrant, an alien in the land of Canaan, 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.
And though we may not be the ones hurling rocks, 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’, even the vandal, 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.
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 this nation acknowledging our safe distance from the poor and others who live on the margin. 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. Ultimately, the story of Zacchaeus is about not only inclusiveness but about the expansive love of God.
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. And may God’s people say, Amen.
When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down.
Today is my day to be a guest in your home.”