‘forgiving can be hard work…
accepting others can be even harder’
October 31, 2022
Scriptures: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Luke 19:1-10
I have heard our gospel story today many times as I am sure many of you have as well. It is a story that has a lot of color and even perhaps humor in its depiction of a small little man climbing up in a tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus passing by. The story peaks our interest as we see the little man being found out and singled out by Jesus to be received and welcomed by him in spite of his occupation as a Chief Tax Collector. And then of course the usual ending that finds Jesus using this situation to teach those there that their thinking and attitudes needed to be revisited in light of his command to ‘love one another’.
But I must confess that this was the first time that I saw the crowd gathered there as one fully united in opposition to what Jesus was doing and saying. In some of the other stories we see in the gospels, where Jesus is trying to correct the perceptions of others or to point out that either the religious establishment or the Roman State was at fault, we see that there were a few who were off to one side, grumbling or plotting against Jesus, while others rejoiced in what seemed like good news for them.
In today’s parable however, there seems to be only one contingent, that of those who profoundly disagreed with what Jesus did in accepting Zacchaeus into the circle of his fellowship, agreeing as he did even to break bread in his house later that day. This was the first instance I have seen, perhaps there are others, but this is the first I have noticed where the word, ‘all’ was used to refer to those who opposed Jesus’ words and actions. And while we do not know for sure, I am not even convinced that the disciples themselves could refrain from expressing their anger towards this fellow Hebrew whom all saw as a traitor due to his cozy relationship with the Roman State, and his past dealings with each of them, which were seen as dishonorable if not flat out dishonest. But that is what our passage reads…‘All who saw it began to grumble’…every one of them felt they knew Zacchaeus, and all of them resented that Jesus was not holding to the company line of ‘who should be looked down upon’, and ‘who was ‘acceptable’.
And I guess the question I have up front is, did they really change their minds after Jesus scolded them? Or did they continue to hate Zaccheaus and all he represented? Did it change their minds, did they come anywhere near being willing to reach out to and welcome in Zacchaeus themselves? Like the woman caught in the act of adultery who was brought before Jesus to be stoned by the gathered crowd…after Jesus said, ‘let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone’ causing them to turn and to walk away…did they drop their stones…or did they clench them even more tightly…now angered as much towards Jesus as towards the woman herself?
Oh, it can be so hard to forgive…and even harder to accept those we may have previously rejected. For, we so carefully manage our own circles of ‘who is in’ and ‘who is not’. And seldom is that listing negotiable at all, absent strong evidence to the contrary. But if we are being honest with ourselves, we do not like correction, or to admit that we may have been wrong. Which I believe is probably why Jesus chose such strong examples to prove his point. There was no question that everyone hated Zaccheaus…so Jesus chose him to lift up.
Which brings us back to last week, where we saw that true humility, truly knowing who you are in the eyes of God, and, knowing that God still loves and forgives you nonetheless, makes it very hard to go to a place of standing in judgment of another, regardless of who they are, or whatever they may have said or done.
Unfortunately, it seems that truly learning to accept another just as they are, can be very difficult if they do not look or sound like you, or if they hold different beliefs, or if they act in ways you feel are not acceptable. And ‘accepting’ is only the lowest of bars when it comes to what Jesus asks of us. I have always struggled with the word ‘tolerate’ or ‘tolerant’, for it seems to fall far short of loving or caring for. If we ‘tolerate’ someone, it only means we will put up with them if we have to, and then, for only as long as we have to. ‘Accepting another’ is surely a far distance from loving and caring for the welfare of another as a brother or sister in the family of God…a family of which we all are members. Jesus did not just ‘accept’ Zacchaeus that day, but rather called him to himself, welcomed him, and lifted him up literally as one of the family. And that very action of welcoming in one who for so long had only experienced rejection, caused a profound change in the life of the tax collector…caused him to make promises that surprised everyone there, even himself…but not Jesus.
For several weeks now I have felt compelled to share what I feel is the absolute shower of blessings this little church has received of late. In every aspect of our ministry…to one another, to those in need, and to the wider community as a whole, it seems that everytime I turn around something else falls into place, and the opening to extend grace and goodness expands more and more. And along with that has been the cautionary note not to take the credit for this goodness from our God, but rather to accept the increase in responsibility that comes with those blessings. As with Abram at the beginning of our faith story, we are being blessed, so that we can be a blessing to others.
Which brings us to this moment…and the question of how we are responding to what I see as a ‘crisis of neighborliness’ that is coursing throughout our society…and yes even here in our own town, and among those who just a short time ago called each other friends. I do not remember a time when so many were so divided, and felt that only certain people understood or accepted them. We have lost the ‘weave’ of the fabric of our social life together, and now are just a bunch of threads in two fully different fabrics, neither of which is worth its salt for anything. Yes we live in the same community, yes we see each other…but no, we do not know so many of our neighbors…we truly are more like strangers in a strange and uncomfortable land. Which is not the way it must be.
Jesus knew that ‘all’ were opposed to what he did there that day, he knew that no one agreed with the grace and compassion he extended towards that little man up in the tree, but he extended it nonetheless. And we, here in this place of ‘showered blessing’ simply must find a way to do the same.
This past Monday morning I heard some comments on a cable news show that dealt with this crisis of social division and polarization in our country. Especially as we draw near to the midterm elections in a couple of weeks, we seem to be bombarded on the airwaves, by a raft of roadside signs at every corner, and by the daily load of political mail that is so filled with hatred, vitriol, and who knows what the real truth is. And as a result people seem to harden their positions, convinced that if someone does not agree with them one hundred percent…then they are one hundred percent opposed to them in all other aspects of life.
Which truly is just not the case…or at least does not have to be at all. Choosing to stake our willingness to be friends with, or caring neighbors with another simply because of some viewpoint they may hold that is different than ours is simply no way to witness the love and grace of our God…and it is ungrateful as well for all the Lord continues to do for us.
If we insist on being in ‘one camp’ or the ‘other’, then we are not really all that different from the united ‘camp’ of those who stood there that day and fully rejected the love Jesus extended to Zaccheaus…and only because it was extended to another with whom they profoundly disagreed. The guest speaker on the show on Monday went on to note that we must find a way to get back to a place of being neighbors first, even if it is a place of being neighbors who may not, and in fact, really do not have to agree with one another on everything…but can still live together in the same community and still perhaps…even be friends.
For if we are going to keep moving forward and to draw anywhere near to the amazing promises offered by our God, then we need friends and acquaintances upon whom we can rely. Everyone has to, or is able to make their own choices as to whom they believe has the truth, or the right answers. But no one should insist that the only acceptable companions for them are those who adhere to every belief or understanding they hold. As followers of the One who called Zacchaeus and broke bread with him, we simply are not allowed to resent or to reject anyone just because we are not currently of one mind. Which is not to say at all that ‘becoming of one mind’ is the goal. For truly, insisting that someone else must believe as you do, be it in any realm of life, is a recipe for continued and even greater polarization. Not even in matters of faith should we insist that others believe or practice whatever faith they adhere to exactly as we do. In fact, this is perhaps the greatest area where distrust and even hatred are currently growing most rapidly.
Rather, we all must take a step back, and insist on making room once again for neighborliness. We must set aside what really do not need to be major differences in belief or understanding, leaving room for friendship and care for one another to move to the front once again. We cannot lose that, for it is the underlying fabric and sustainer of civil society. Friendship, trust, and neighborliness are that which allow us to function in a caring, compassionate, and even Christ-like manner.
So…do not stand with one side or the other to the extent that you lose sight of what is really important. Jesus’ command to ‘love one another’ takes no sides and is meant to cover every one another the Spirit places on our path. Instead, do as our Lord did that day…look around…find those who are your neighbors and friends…and make time to break bread together with them…for in doing so, you will be taking part in healing not only personal relationships, but the health of our community and our nation as well.
We are so greatly blessed…let us hasten to share those blessings with our neighbors and friends…