Sunday, October 31, 2010

Paying Attention to Jesus

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
October 31, 2010

Year C, Proper 26: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119: 137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Paying Attention to Jesus

Today’s gospel passage begins with the simple sentence, “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.”

What Luke doesn’t mention here is that Jesus is entering and passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, where he will face betrayal, arrest, torture and execution. So, although they probably didn’t realize it, time was running out to see Jesus. If they didn’t pay attention to Jesus now they might not get another chance.

We’re told that in Jericho a crowd had gathered around Jesus. And at least one member of the crowd ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.

The man in the sycamore tree who paid attention to Jesus was named Zacchaeus. Luke tells us that “he was a chief tax collector and he was rich.”

Before we go any further we need to stop and talk about what it meant in the First Century Mediterranean world to be rich and to be a tax collector.

According to the scholar John J. Pilch, people in the First Century believed in a zero-sum economy. In other words, all the world’s wealth already existed and had been divided among people. So, if someone gained wealth that had to come at the expense of another. And if someone lost wealth, it was because someone else had stolen it. As Pilch writes, in this world “There was no honorable way to increase one’s goods.”

That’s a very different way of thinking about the economy!

In this society, Pilch continues, the poor were a wide range of people who had temporarily lost their status and were trying to get their status back as quickly as possible. So, for example, a widow would be classified as poor, but could regain her status by remarrying. An orphan could regain his or her status simply by growing up.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Pilch writes that Zacchaeus would have been considered rich simply because he didn’t have to work. As chief tax collector he relied on other lower tax collectors to do the dirty work of actually collecting the taxes. But, Zacchaeus would be on the hook for paying the total amount to Rome. Pilch claims that very few of these tax collectors were able to make a profit.

Here’s how Pilch sums it up, “Zacchaeus was rich in that others, hired agents, did his work for him.”

That’s a different way of thinking about what it means to be rich!

Zacchaeus is often presented as a crook who is transformed by his encounter with Jesus. But, it seems that Luke is making a subtler point in telling us this story.

Zacchaeus is just another lost person living in a broken world – a world where it seemed that Caesar was in charge and not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Zacchaeus was just another person doing his best trying to get by in a corrupt system in which it seemed there was no new wealth to be created; a system in which people believed that if I win that means you lose.

In this harsh and cutthroat world Zacchaeus shouldn’t be wasting any time. He should be out on the streets keeping a very close eye on his agents. He should be back at the office adding up his sums. He should be trying to squeeze out every last coin so that Rome would be satisfied and he would have something left over for his household.

Yet, in this harsh and cutthroat world, Zacchaeaus goes to great lengths to pay attention to Jesus. Zacchaeus – whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “clean, pure, innocent” – pays attention to Jesus.

And this attention, this mindfulness, gives Jesus all the room he needs. Jesus immediately invites himself into Zacchaeus’s life. Jesus says to the short man in the sycamore tree, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Because he has already paid attention to Jesus, Zacchaeus responds joyfully to Jesus. Right on cue, others begin to grumble that Jesus “has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Then as now, the “crowd” is never willing to admit its own sinfulness but always quick to point the finger at another.

I’m sure the crowd was happy to judge Zacchaeus on the worst parts of his character – or their own distorted perceptions of his character. As always, the crowd was quick to judge Zacchaeus on the worst things he has ever done.

But, then Zacchaeus stops everyone in their tracks and says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.” Scholars are divided about whether this generosity is something new for Zacchaeus because of his encounter with Jesus or if this has been his ongoing practice. It seems like the majority tilt toward the idea that the “sinner” Zacchaeus has been practicing this kind of generosity for some time.

Then Zacchaeus says, “and IF I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus admits no fraud. Instead, he pledges to repay what he has accidentally stolen by 400 percent – far exceeding what was required by Jewish Law. Essentially Zacchaeus challenges the grumblers in the crowd to prove their accusations.

Of course, Jesus knows Zacchaeus far better than his whispering and grumbling neighbors. Luke gives Jesus the last word, “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.”

So, what does this story have to do with us?

Most of all, the story of Zacchaeus is a reminder to pay attention to Jesus.

This past Spring I read an interesting little book called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, written by a behavioral scientist named Winifred Gallagher. In her book Gallagher makes a seemingly obvious but frequently forgotten point. She writes,

“Your life is the creation of what you focus on – and what you don’t.”

But, focus is hard, isn’t it? We may have different ideas about economics and what it means to be rich and poor, but we live in a world not so different from the First Century world of Zacchaeus. Many of us often feel lost in a broken world in a which it seems Caesar’s successors are in charge and not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Like Zacchaeus, you and I are just trying to do our best to survive in a corrupt system in which it often feels like the deck is stacked against us.

There are so many tasks and things that demand our attention – paying our bills, studying for exams, trying to eat right and to exercise, keeping up with family and friends, following current events, making sense of a complicated ballot, the list goes on and on. Plus, unlike Zacchaeus, we have all sorts of noisy and tempting technology - the TV, the radio, the Internet, our cell phones, - all of which help us to lose focus.

And then there are all our internal distractions – our worries about the future and our regrets about the past, our anxiety about our kids and grandkids, our anger, our resentments, our hurts… All those and much more help us to lose focus.

Yet, as Gallagher writes in her book, “Your life is the creation of what you focus on – and what you don’t.”

So, do we want our life to be a fragmented creation made up of thousands of tasks, of innumerable worries, regrets and irritations?

Or do we want our life to be a beautiful creation formed by paying attention to Jesus – Jesus who has come to seek out and save the lost – Jesus who shows us what God is really like and who shows us what we are really like – Jesus who is always ready to invite himself into our lives, if, like Zacchaeus, we focus on him.

Unlike Zacchaeus, we can’t climb up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Instead, for us, focusing on Jesus means being right here as much as possible – to hear the old stories, to pray and sing together, and most of all, to take Christ into our hearts and bodies by receiving the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

For us, whether we’re really busy or have lots of time to kill, paying attention to Jesus means finding ways during the week to remind ourselves of who we are – that in baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Maybe we pay attention to Jesus during the week by setting aside even just a few minutes a day for quiet prayer, or some spiritual reading, or to offer service to those in need.

Paying attention to Jesus means doing our best to live out the words of the Prophet Micah that we sang at the start of today’s service: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.”

Unlike Zacchaeus, we can’t climb up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus. But, like Zacchaeus, we can make our lives a beautiful creation by paying attention to Jesus – Jesus who has come to seek out and to save the lost.