Sermon for High Mass – Fourth before Advent Sunday 30 October 2016
SERMON PREACHED BY FR MICHAEL BOWIE, 4TH SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT
I think Zacchaeus is an Anglican. Better yet he is an Anglican who, in the course of this story, becomes a Catholic Anglican.
Born into his faith, he has made money by legitimate means. Like most of us he is comfortable and respectable but not regarded highly by the fundamentalist religion police, the Jewish Gafcon, because his life is not sufficiently squeakily clean. He has done nothing the world considers wrong; he knows in his heart the nature of his responsibilities to anyone he has treated unjustly.
His religion, thus far, has been of the Cathedral Evensong variety, beautiful ideas presented in a pleasant environment to an agreeable soundtrack. Henry James, the greatest ever Englishman manqué, described himself as ‘the incorrigible observer’: no doubt Evensong was his idea of heaven, and Zachhaeus, whose good intentions are not in doubt, is there, in the back pew, behind the pillar, just by the font.
But surely, he senses, there must be more to it than this. Jesus, the religious stirrer, is guaranteed to disturb the equilibrium of Evensong (that’s why we have to add Benediction to the end of it); Zachaeus is perhaps worried that this new brand of religious enthusiasts who adore Jesus may not find him congenial: all his accommodations and compromises, the dearly won details of his life which have made him comfortable and safe, will seem to them craven and contemptible. So, he fears, will Jesus. But he is fascinated by the depth, conviction and piercing truthfulness of the itinerant preacher. And he is in for a surprise.
Now, in my imagination, he’s become Danny de Vito as he scrambles inelegantly up that tree. I once saw Danny de Vito on stage, in Neil Simon’s the Sunshine Boys, with the sadly now-deceased Richard Griffiths. He is a tiny powerhouse of energy and humour. I think Zachaeus was like that, not just small but powerfully funny; I hope so because he is about to have a great story on which to dine out for the rest of his life. He was surely a strong character, because he was not afraid to be there, public disapproval and uncomfortable religious leader notwithstanding.
And Jesus notices him. This is where Evensong religion is truly left behind, where it gets potentially scary. Think of that transition in our evening worship from the anthem via a rousing hymn before Benediction, the transition from a gentle Sunday evening sermon to our confrontation with the Lord himself. Henry James would have run the three and half miles back to Chelsea.
This is a movement from death to life, a resurrection. Last Sunday evening, at the beginning of the very liturgical space I have just described, Fr Julian spoke to us of the difference between dead truths and living truths. I understood him to mean the sort of movement I am describing, the difference between a beautiful theory and an active participation in the things of God. What we do here this morning is a yet better parable of it because here we all participate, we ‘commune‘: we offer Mass together and share and receive the Lord’s gracious presence among us in community; we enact our lives of faith as present, engaged and hopeful; and we are sent out to put flesh on the bones of forgiveness and good intentions.
The full breadth of Jesus’ inclusivity is expressed in this encounter. For here he includes the rich. But an irony remains. Zachaeus is rich but he is also marginal, an outcast among his co-religionists. If you’ve ever been to a Reform church service you’d know the feeling. Then remember that your neighbour there would feel the same here. One of the necessary outcomes of Jesus’ unflinching gaze is that only those who are clear-sightedly self-critical can bear it.
Think of last Sunday’s gospel about the focus of prayer, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, from Luke’s previous chapter. Zacchaeus is also a tax collector. Yet,
He is presented in this episode as an exemplary rich person who has understood something of Jesus’ ministry and message and concern for the poor and the cheated.
This encounter, in Jericho, near the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, follows the episode of the blind man who sought compassion from Jesus that he might ‘see again’ (18.41), [it] presents a wealthy inhabitant from Jerusalem taking unwonted steps ‘to catch sight of Jesus’ as he passes. The two episodes are fitting scenes at the end of [Luke’s] lengthy … travel account, for they prepare the reader for Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem as ‘the Son of David’ and the one who brings salvation to the ‘lost’.
(Fitzmyer The Gospel According to Luke 1222)
Jesus enacts his welcome of this erstwhile onlooker not by inviting him to church but by publicly requiring Zacchaeus’ hospitality (a much more powerful statement). Zachhaeus, definitely Danny de Vito now, scurries down from the tree and gets his slaves to throw dinner together.
And then we have the conversion moment. The judgemental Gafcon bystanders tut as they see Jesus going to eat with him; not the sort of person they’d break bread with. And Zacchaeus could have crowed at this moment: after all he’s richer, smarter and better at tree-climbing than they are; now he has the Son of God coming to dinner. Instead he makes his public choice for the Kingdom of God. As publicly as Jesus has associated with him, Zacchaeus proclaims that he will sort out the bits of his life that have been less than regular; it is as if he goes to confession in public and makes ready to receive the Lord (‘Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only…’). We notice that his confession is not about sex, as it always is for the Gafcon Taliban, but about money, or more accurately about honesty with wealth, and, implicitly, everything else.
Notice the tenses at this point:
“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
For centuries an argument has rumbled on about that present tense. Does it mean Zacchaeus is boasting about current behaviour (which would surely undermine Jesus’ commendation of him) or is it effectively a statement of future intent? Anyone who is used to telling or listening to stories can be in no doubt: this is a vivid present tense to spotlight the vigour of Zacchaeus’ conversion. He moves, before our eyes, from dead truth to living truth, from onlooker to participant, from Evensong to Benediction – or even better to High Mass, via the confessional, including some restorative justice.
Zacchaeus is every one of us, if we accept Jesus’ invitation, not only to feast with him here but also to welcome him into our household and respond honestly to his piercing and loving gaze.