Gourock St. John’s
Not an Object (out on a limb 2.0)
Luke 18.31 - 19.10
21 March 2021, Lent 5, NL3-35
Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, and today’s story takes us on the road through Jericho, a city about 20 miles northeast of and 3400 feet lower elevation than Jerusalem.
In the verses that come just before today’s reading, a well-off man asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, and was instructed to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow Jesus. He was saddened by this teaching, and Jesus’ response was “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom.” When the disciples expressed their own shock, Jesus said: “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.” He continued to teach them as they traveled, which is where we pick up the story in the gospel according to Luke, chapter 18, beginning at verse 31 and continuing to chapter 19 verse 10. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.
Then Jesus took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’ But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
He wanted to see Jesus…so he packed up all his dignity, power, and prestige and climbed a tree, like a small child, hanging from the branches while the rabbi stood underneath and summoned him.
Zacchaeus was probably more used to summoning others than being summoned himself, more used to other people making a fool of themselves, creating a spectacle…but he wanted to see Jesus. It didn’t matter what people thought of him.
And it turns out that what people thought of him may not have been correct anyway—as he dropped down out of the tree and led Jesus to his home, he could hear them grumbling that he was a traitor to his people, taking the job collecting taxes for the Romans, that he was just like the rest of them, getting rich off the suffering of his neighbours. The way taxes worked at the time, Rome allotted each sector a certain amount they had to bring in…anything they collected over and above that amount was their salary. Given that Zacchaeus was rich, that must obviously mean that he was cheating people, extorting them and living high while the rest of them struggled to get by, right? He was probably used to hearing their rumours and gossip about him, he was well known in town.
And yet, in his business suit and shiny shoes, he climbed up the tree and went out on a limb, trying to see Jesus.
And when he came down, he went out on a limb to declare that he was giving away his wealth and that he was careful not to defraud people—in the Greek, Zacchaeus speaks in an ongoing present tense, not a future tense as it’s often translated. He is describing how he is now, already, what is current habits are…and Jesus too says “Today”—just like in his first sermon, when he declared that today, right now, in his presence, in his very being, the word of God was being fulfilled, coming to life. Zacchaeus doesn’t just say that Abraham is his ancestor, he lives like a son of Abraham. Despite the fact that to everyone else he was an object of scorn, Jesus saw him for who he was, a human being trying to be faithful. Jesus recognised him, and invited others to recognise him too, as an integral member of their community…though to recognise Zacchaeus would also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at their own hearts.
He wanted to see Jesus…but the people around him wanted him to be quiet. And yet the blind man shouted all the more. Even just the act of standing up on that crowded roadside meant laying aside propriety and expectations. His neighbours shushed and pushed, but still he went out on a limb, speaking up and refusing to be held back. He could hear, but he wanted to see Jesus.
When Jesus summoned him—a man used to being ignored, walked around, talked over—he came and stood face to face with the man he could not see, and heard the question: what do you want me to do for you?
Imagine how infrequently he had been asked this question. Most of the time, those who live on the streets or who navigate life with disabilities are told what they are getting, or what they should want. Their lives are defined by the people around them, and what we think they can and can’t do, marked by assumptions that most of us have codified as fact.
When the man shouted for Jesus, he took a risk—challenging the picture of those around him, knowing that most people would not see him for who he is (a beloved child of God, a son of Abraham) but rather as a problem to be solved. But Jesus saw him, and not only restored his sight but his dignity, his humanity, his place in the community as well. Despite the fact that to everyone else he was an object of pity, Jesus saw him for who he was, a human being with more vision than even his own disciples had. Jesus recognised him, and invited others to recognise him too, as an integral member of their community…though to recognise the blind man would also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at their own hearts.
They wanted to see Jesus…these friends who had followed him for so long. They’d seen miracles, and performed some themselves. They’d been healed and taught, they’d walked in his footsteps, basked in his glory, shared his dinners. But when it came to the idea that he could absorb violence without returning it, they could not see. When it came to the idea that he would lead them not to power and glory but to service and weakness, it sounded like foolishness. They wanted to see Jesus, but their eyes were clouded by the values of the world, their minds closed off by their assumptions about how things ought to be. To them he was the object of their political and spiritual desire, not a whole person inviting them into a new way of wholeness too.
The disciples walked the roads with Jesus, stirring up dust and controversy every step of the way, and yet for all their seeking, they weren’t yet able to lay aside those same constraints that had caused people to shush the blind man or to grumble about Zacchaeus.
It’s so easy to see other people as objects…of our desire, of our pity, of our scorn. Jesus sees us, though, and calls us to recognise that people are not the one dimensional objects or representatives we so often reduce them to. An example I like to give is that I am a woman, and a minister, and an immigrant, and a curly-girl. But I don’t speak for all curly-haired people, and “minister” is not the only thing I am, and my experience of being an immigrant is different than many others. I’m not only any one of those things, nor am I the spokesperson for any of them. That’s true for every single person we meet. A person sleeping rough is a person, with interests and experiences and family background and a story. They don’t represent all people without homes any more than I represent all people who have a home. A person with an addiction is a person, not an addiction. A person whose job I would personally never do is a person, not their job.
Jesus recognises them, and us, and invites us to recognise one another too, as integral members of our community…though to recognise each other will also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at our own hearts.
Zacchaeus and the blind man wanted to see Jesus — they had some measure of vision already, to recognise Christ in their midst. It was the people around Zacchaeus and the people around the blind man who could not see. They couldn’t see their neighbour fully, but that was at least partially because they could not see themselves. They thought of themselves as the normal ones, arbiters of what’s right and wrong, who’s in and who’s out. They were the measuring stick for who else belonged in their community. It was only when Jesus challenged their vision that the whole community could be healed.
The disciples were a more complicated situation. They couldn’t fully see Jesus, because they were still holding back part of themselves — and being held back by their reluctance to allow that God might work outside of their own frame, their own people, their own story. They kept their feet firmly on the ground, respectable and correct, well within the boundaries they had set up for themselves and God.
But if we want to see Jesus, we’ll need to be willing to recognise him in the faces of our neighbours — even the neighbours we have seen only as an object. We’ll need to be willing to go out on a limb, to broaden our vision and open our minds and hearts beyond what feels comfortable. And we’ll need to be willing to ask for help, however much we want to project an image of having it all figured out. When we ask Jesus to give us vision, he’ll summon us recognise the kingdom of God among us — a kingdom of love and grace and justice, where no one is an object, no one is simply a screen for our projected stereotypes, and everyone has the chance to both give and receive, because each and every one is a whole person made in God’s image and beloved.
May we recognise Jesus among us, and see his vision. Amen.