Tonight we celebrate Halloween and before you know it we’ll be inundated with wee costumed ghosts and goblins and ghoulies and angels and superheroes, all come begging at our door for treats while threatening harmless tricks.
Perhaps that’s why I found that this gospel reminded me of a game I used to play with the kids who were preparing for Confirmation in the congregations I was called to serve. We called it “Angels and Devils”.
I’ll tell you more about that game in a minute, but first I want us to spend some time with this gospel story of Zacchaeus and Jesus, because it has a “trick” and a “treat” built inside the story.
Whether you are aware of it or not, the gospel lesson for today brings us near the end of Luke’s long section detailing the journey of Jesus from Galilee into Jerusalem where, within the span of a few short days, he will be greeted as King and then crucified as a common thief.
Jesus still has a few things to teach us about our expectations and assumptions about him as well as our expectations and assumptions about others and ourselves.
He and his disciples have just entered Jericho – a city near the West Bank of Jerusalem, known as “The City of Palms”. It was the place of the Israelites return from bondage in Egypt, led by Joshua, the successor of Moses. The city functioned not only as an agricultural center and as a crossroad, but also as a winter resort for Jerusalem's aristocracy.
As he approached Jericho, Jesus healed a blind man who then followed him, loudly glorifying God. All the people who had witnessed the miracle joined them as together they praised God. One can only imagine the sight and commotion caused by this little parade of joyful, noisy people who were following Jesus as he entered Jericho.
A tax collector, a rich man named Zacchaeus, was trying to see this man who was causing such a ruckus, but because the crowd was so large and he was a man short in stature he could not. So, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree so he could have a look at this Jesus – the Miracle Man who gave sight to the blind – as he passed by.
Now, Zacchaeus is an abbreviation of Zechariah, meaning "the righteous one" – a pretty big name to live up to. Perhaps his parents hoped this child would succeed in life by being good. Zacchaeus became a wealthy man, but – we are led to believe – not necessarily by doing good.
The name “the righteous one” seems incongruous for Zacchaeus, since he is the chief tax collector in Jericho and tax collectors were notorious for cheating the general public to fatten their pockets. They would assess a tax, and if the person refused to pay or called it unfair, Herod's soldiers would threaten him. Whatever he collected over the amount required was his to keep.
As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was probably responsible for collecting tolls on goods coming into Judea from Perea, a main trade route. This business has, no doubt, made him rich. There was also no doubt that all this made him hated by the people.
So, in sum, what we know about Zacchaeus is that he is short, rich, hated and curious.
However, I imagine that even he was surprised beyond belief when Jesus spotted him in the tree and called to him. I imagine he was even more thunderstruck when Jesus invited himself to his home.
Imagine how the crowd must have felt when they heard it. Remember, this is Jericho – the winter resort of Jewish aristocracy. This is Zacchaeus, the hated chief tax collector who may have sent more than a few of Herod’s soldiers to collect more than a few unfairly assessed taxes on more than a few who were present in that crowd.
Was Jesus betraying them – the poor and the outcast whom he called “his beloved”? Why would he have invited himself into the home of Zacchaeus? Was he trying to win favor with the chief tax collector? Was he blind to the truth about Zacchaeus? Might he be looking for a large donation to tide them over while in Jerusalem during the High Holy Days? Or, was it a matter of pragmatics: were he and his disciples that hungry right now?
I suspect that Jesus was neither trying to impress anyone nor dealing with his own hunger or that of his disciples. Neither was he blind to the truth about Zacchaeus.
Instead, I imagine that when Jesus looked up into that sycamore tree and saw Zacchaeus, he saw the longing and desire in his heart. Jesus can see by the way Zacchaeus dresses that the man is rich. But Jesus, as always, looks beyond the mere external. He looks deeper and sees the poverty and hunger in this man’s soul. He can see the dejection and rejection and judgment this man has endured – along with the sadness that must have been in his heart.
I believe that’s where Jesus begins with each of us – looking beyond the externals and judgments of others and looking, instead, deep into our souls. And, in the process, we are healed of the spiritual blindness – in ourselves and about others.
Which brings me back to the story of “Angels and Devils”
Tim, my Youth Missioner and I, used to gather the Confirmands in the church where we would ask everyone to take off their socks and shoes and go barefoot. Then we’d cover their eyes with blindfolds and lead them from the church into the parish hall. Once we arrived, we would silently remove the blindfolds of some of the kids, some of whom became the angels and the others of whom became the devils. Their job was to lead the blindfolded kids through an obstacle course of sorts, which we called “The Trust Walk.”
We had set out things like a pillow or a warm blanket, but we also had set out some ice cubes, chocolate pudding, soggy bread, Jell-O, cold spaghetti, and so forth. Each barefooted, blindfolded kid was assigned an angel and a devil and they had to decide which one to listen to and take direction from as they made their way through The Trust Walk – the devil who would lead them through something yucky and gross or the angel who would put them on the path to comfort and goodness.
Now, all of the kids knew each other. They either lived in the same town or went to school together and played sports together, so it didn’t take long for them to recognize the person by the sound of his or her voice.
It was interesting to pair up a kid with an angel who was not liked by the blindfolded kid and a devil who was that kid’s friend. Nine times out of ten, the blindfolded kid did not follow the voice of the kid who was an angel because s/he automatically assumed the kid would lead her to step into something gross. Eventually, s/he learned to trust the voice of the angel, even though s/he hadn’t ever thought of this kid as his friend.
Amazingly for some, it did take a while for that trust to develop – all because of the expectations and assumptions that had been made which then became “the truth” about that person. I can tell you that there were lots of cold, soggy, icky toes and feet in that group – and lots of changed hearts and relationships.
We make assumptions about people all the time, don’t we? We base it on the way they dress, the way they talk, where they grew up, where they went to school, what kind of employment they have, where they live, what car they drive. We put people in categories and classifications and then either embrace or dismiss them – trust them or ignore them – all based on superficial assumptions.
Which brings me back to this morning’s “trick or treat” gospel.
The interesting thing about Zacchaeus is that our translation this morning has him saying, “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.”
That’s fine, but when you dig a bit deeper and check the translation more thoroughly, you will note that the verbs used are not in the future tense. No, they are in the present tense.*
We’ve been tricked!
Turns out Zacchaeus is not a cheat, nor does he hoard his wealth. That’s just a costume we’ve put him in over the years to trick ourselves into believing something about Jesus.
Zacchaeus says, "I give half of my wealth to the poor, and if I find I have defrauded anyone, I pay back four times as much."
Present – not future tense.
These are things he is already doing, even before meeting Jesus. This chief tax collector, who receives only disdain from his neighbors, is actually far more generous and intentional about doing justice than just about everyone else in Jericho! I suspect Jesus knew that all along and THAT's why he called to him up in that sycamore tree.
The funny thing is that this translation tricks us into committing the very sin that the story condemns. It presents Zacchaeus not as a righteous and generous man who is wrongly scorned by his prejudiced neighbors, but as the story of a penitent sinner.
Turns out, Zacchaeus does live up to his name. He is, in fact, “the righteous one”.
Turns out, Jesus knew that all along!
Trick or treat!
Jesus is once again turning our world upside down, confronting us with our assumptions about who is good and who is evil and demonstrating for us the tricks we play in our minds before we treat one another – one way or another.
Zacchaeus and the people of Jericho are not costumed characters come to scare or trick us into being good for Jesus. Like the crowd murmuring about Zacchaeus, it is easy to be blinded by our prejudice of “those people” and find ourselves accusing the very person or people we should be emulating.
Indeed, we may discover that the very things we find disgusting or fearful about others – or resent in others – are the very things that we find disgusting and fear most about ourselves.
Tonight, on this All Hallow’s Eve, we’ll have witches and ghoulies and all sort and manner of beasties come knocking on our door, chanting, “Trick or Treat.” Little angels will come dressed as dangerous monsters and some of those little neighborhood devils will come dressed as superheroes come to save us from all Evil.
On Tuesday, we’ll have another sort of horror show – or, actually, an end to one as the political campaign comes to an end and we’ll be asked to vote. This has been one of the ugliest, angriest negative political midterm elections in my memory, at least. I’m betting some of the candidates don’t even recognize themselves in their own ads – and if they do, they wouldn’t vote for that person. Talk about angels and devils!
The real trick will be to see past the costumes and the campaign slogans and rhetoric and recognize each of them as children of God – part of God’s delight, a treat to the very heart of God – no matter how they dress or behave or live. No matter how we are expected to vote.
The ancient Rabbis used to teach that before every human being go 100,000 angels all shouting, “Make way! Make way! Make way for the Image of God.”
The real treat will be if we can act that way every day – not just on Halloween. Amen.
* I am grateful to my Sister in Christ, Sarah Dylan Breuer, for this understanding of the translation.