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Posts tagged ‘tax collector’

Small? So You Say…

Luke 19:1-10

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 will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will 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.”

nelsonandcoHave you ever been bullied?
I bet most people would answer yes.

Bullies can find any little thing to pick on, am I right? You wear glasses. You’re too skinny. You’re too chubby. Your feet are big. Your clothes are weird. You talk funny. Apparently, in Jesus’ time–the 1st century–bullying was like it is now. People got picked on just like they do today.

Zacchaeus was short. Zacchaeus was a tax collector; Zacchaeus was rich.

Three strikes and you’re out!

Tax collectors for the Roman Empire—yeah, they were pretty much disliked by everyone. Think about it. People did not like to pay taxes to the Romans. And they especially didn’t like someone who was not Roman coming to their house to collect taxes. People like Zacchaeus most likely had Roman soldiers for bodyguards just so they wouldn’t get beaten up. Add to this that many tax collectors skimmed off the top. They collected taxes for Rome, but kept some of the money for themselves.

It’s like the Beatles sing:
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.

Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman

But in spite of this, the taxman Zacchaeus really wanted to see this Jesus of Nazareth character. But there were a lot of people surrounding Jesus. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see him, on account of the important detail that he was short in stature. Our perception of this story makes us think that he climbed a tree just because he was short. Maybe. But don’t forget: Zacchaeus was a tax collector and he was rich. He ran ahead of the crowds because he did not want to get beaten up. Maybe he climbed the tree so that no one in the crowds would see him.
zaqueoBeing “short in stature” does not necessarily mean that he was 3 feet tall. Perhaps he could not see Jesus because the crowds wouldn’t let him. You see, people already assumed that Zacchaeus was a bad person just because of his title.

But for some reason, Jesus did not.
He saw Zacchaeus in that sycamore tree and talked to him.

Come down. Hurry. I must stay at your house today.

Really? With all the crowds watching? Zaccheus was so excited, he forgot about all this and welcomed Jesus’ request with open arms.
But the crowds grumbled:
Jesus will be the guest of a sinner. Humph.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus is eager to tell Jesus about himself.
Look, half of my material possessions I give to the poor. If I’ve cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times what I owe them.

Let’s pause here for a moment because there is something interesting to explore. The verb form of give to the poor in the original Greek language is in the present tense. But most of our English translations render it as will give. This makes a huge difference. If Zacchaeus will give to the poor, as our version says, then this is a conversion story. He was a bad guy and now he’s not. But if it is the present tense, then we’ve misinterpreted the story.

What if Zacchaeus was already giving to the poor and making sure that he didn’t cheat people? What if he never really was a bad dude to begin with? Was he generous? What if his title of tax collector and sinner was the only thing that stained his reputation!?!

I’m going with the present tense, because I think our Bible translations have tried to turn the Zacchaeus story into a conversion story when it is actually a last-first, small-tall story. What I mean is that just earlier in Luke, Jesus said that another tax collector who called himself a sinner in his own prayers was on his way home to find God’s mercy and that he was justified more than any religious leader who supposedly knew how to pray elegantly in public. And here we have another tax collector in Zacchaeus who is called a sinner by the crowds who have judged him without a reason to, other than his marginalized status in society.

Zacchaeus was not the bully.

He was being bullied! He was a generous man who was already doing the right thing. But nobody cared. He was a tax collector and therefore, according to the people, he was an awful sinner. Even though the name Zacchaeus means pure and righteous one, he’s painted as a cruel, selfish, greedy, businessman who must undergo a miraculous conversion in order to be saved.

I just don’t think that this is the point of the story.

Jesus already knew about Zacchaeus. This is consistent with Jesus’ movements in many Gospel stories. He saw him up in that tree and called him down because he wanted to show the people just how judgmental they really were. I mean, come on. Jesus knew exactly which tree Zacchaeus would climb and when he would be there. This is all a setup for a major teaching moment. Jesus was once again flipping over the assumptions of the crowds and calling out their prejudice.

And so the story should be for us.

Two perspectives jump out at me:

One: the crowds are full of prejudice. They have become bullies, even though they think that Zacchaeus is the bully.

Two: Zacchaeus, in his suffering, doesn’t give up; Jesus knows where he is, looks at him, calls him down from the tree, and goes to his house.

The story is a warning to all of us that we can become bullies. We cannot assume that certain people are lesser or undeserving of God’s grace. We just cannot do that. Ever. We should never bully someone—even if others do it and it seems popular. No matter what label or category exists for a person—we should never judge them.

Each person deserves our empathy.

We ought to accept people as they are without assuming things about them. Oh, how that is needed in our world!

Friends, Jesus chooses to hold up characters like Zacchaeus as shining examples, even though they have been despised and bullied for a long time. Zacchaeus is another unlikely hero, but exactly the kind of hero that Jesus lifts up. So this is good news.

This encourages us to keep doing the right thing, to keep spreading love and compassion to others, in spite of all the bullies out there who will try to tell us that we’re not worth it. Somehow, Zacchaeus still had hope even before he met Jesus.

He did not despair, even though people tried to push him down. That is why he ran ahead and climbed the tree. That is why he jumped down from the tree and had Jesus over to his house.

Zacchaeus, a wee little man? So we say…but not so much. Zacchaeus was not small, but tall.

He was bullied but did not despair.
He didn’t hesitate to show compassion and generosity even when no one noticed.
And he found out—as we can—that God doesn’t ignore our suffering. God knows about all the bullying going on. God sees us as we are. God calls us out of the tree, down into the world, and God meets us at our homes.

So don’t let the bullies discourage you from being generous and compassionate. God sees and accepts you as you are.

Now do the same for others. Amen.

 

Humility: the Path Home

Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Gallen.TaxmanPeter Gallen, The Tax Collector and the Pharisee

The other day I was talking with someone about prayer. He told me:

I don’t really pray.

Okay, I thought, but why don’t you pray?

God has enough to worry about. There are kids who are dying of hunger. There are people who die of cancer. The world is full of problems and suffering and my problems seem too small to bother God with them.

I paused. He had a good point, after all. Sometimes our petty problems and situations are not really that urgent or dramatic—by comparison. And certainly, I remember many times in church worship services when the prayer concerns and celebrations seemed quite silly or insignificant.

God has enough to worry about. Why should I bother with prayer?

Right. Why should we bother with prayer? I mean, without question, prayer is confusing. Lots of churches think they know how we are supposed to pray. There are formulas and step-by-step prayer books sold to us. Some people pray the Lord’s Prayer in a pew where there is stained glass. Some just sing the Kyrie. Others cry their eyes out and jump up and down, hands extended in the air. Sometimes a choir sings with the prayers, creating an emotional response. Others kneel down. Some fold their hands and close their eyes and are silent. Others chant, whisper, roll over beads of a rosary, or burn incense.

Is God at all impressed with this prayer pageantry? Are God’s ears tired of hearing about our small problems?

Why pray at all?

And so, we find a story in Luke’s Gospel that seems to spell it out for us.
Aha! THIS is how we should pray!

In fact, our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox Church have taken this to heart.
jesusprayer
The Jesus Prayer [literally, The Wish], is a short, formulaic prayer:

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν            Greek

ܡܪܝ ܝܫܘܥ ܡܫܝܚܐ ܒܪܗ ܕܐܠܘܐ ܪܚܡ ܥܠܝ ܚܛܝܐ.       Syriac

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.            English

The prayer is based on the tax collector’s words in this Luke story. Many believe the prayer to have originated in the Egyptian desert in the 5th Century. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. It is a prayer method called Hesychasm, to keep stillness.[1]

Now to some, this prayer may seem to be a bit of self-loathing.
Woe is me, woe is me—
I’m such a bad dude—
God have mercy on me,
and I’ll be in a better mood.

Perhaps that is why any formulaic prayer has its limits.
And that is just what Jesus was trying to get across in this story.
Every formula, doctrine or dogma, church tradition or rite that tries to tell us that a particular prayer is putting us on the holy fast track is only holding us back.

Like I said–prayer can be confusing.

But prayer is supposed to be liberating.

Nowhere in scripture do we find limitations on prayer. Jesus does not hand out evangelism tracts with the “Jesus save me/sinners prayer” attached. Instead, Jesus holds up two people as an example of prayer: a Pharisee and a tax collector.

On paper, this story seems black and white, doesn’t it?
Pharisee=bad. Tax collector=good.
We’re done! Let’s go home!

But wait a minute—remember that whenever a parable of Jesus seems black and white, we’ve just been trapped. And this time it’s a prayer trap. We see ourselves just like the tax collector, or at least, we really, really want to.

I’m humble. I can beat my chest and say that I’m a sinner. Thank GOD I am not like the Pharisee. Thank HEAVENS that I don’t brag about how much money I give to my church or how often I go to worship or how many committees I have led. Thank the LORD that I would never stand up in front of people and say how religious I am…

Trapped.

By claiming that we’re not like the Pharisee, we become the Pharisee.

The thing is…we like to be exalted. We enjoy a pat on the back for a job well done or a duty fulfilled. We even go so far as to think that giving money to the church, doing religious things, having a good reputation in society, earning a respectable salary—we think that this justifies us. And in doing so, we distance ourselves from certain kinds of people who we see as lesser than us. How much empathy do we have for others when we pray? How often do we pray for those on the other side of society? Like the distance between the Pharisee and the tax collector, we create distance between ourselves.

Trapped.

You see, I think this story tell us that prayer is about so much more than we typically say and believe.
Prayer is not about checking something off of our to-do list for Christianity 101.
Prayer is not dumping a laundry list of anxiety, hang-ups, and annoyances.
Prayer is not selling something or buying something.
Prayer is not reminding God of how great we are and so reward us, please.

Prayer is about paying attention

to the world, to others, to the trees, to the animals.
Prayer is about paying attention to more than just ourselves.

Prayer escapes our sanctuaries, temples, books, rituals, and words.
Prayer moves through each day, hour, minute, second—each breath.

Prayer does not make us more holy or even better people. It is not some self-improvement program. Neither is prayer about crying our eyes out, feeling bad for ourselves, or focusing on our faults. We can do all these things, thinking that this will get us closer to God or somehow impress God with our humility, but just when we think we’re closer to God and that we’ve got prayer figured out—we are farther from God and our prayers are hollow.

Because in the end, God doesn’t give a flying fig about our accomplishments.
God doesn’t read our online bio or our Facebook profile and say:
Wow! You are really successful. Keep it up! Heaven awaits you!

Instead, God awaits our true humanity.

masksTake off the masks.

masks2

Shed the pompous clothes.
Get rid of the religious piety.

God sees us as we are.
We are tax collectors and we are all Pharisees—all of us.

But mercy and grace await humanity; and humanity is humility.
This is good news for you, me, and even for the guy who refuses to pray.

Humility is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. Humility is seeing other people as they are with open eyes, not judging them or creating distance between us or classifying them. Humility leads us to the most human and divine of all places—home.

Home is where addicts, the depressed, the lonely, the angry, the sad, the mentally and physically challenged, the lost, the sick, the hungry, the beaten, the forgotten, the abused, the mourners, the bullied, and the marginalized can all be themselves and can all be accepted and loved.

This is prayer’s home. It is by open invitation. All Pharisees and tax collectors welcome.

So friends, pray in whatever way you need to. Pray with eyes open to the world and the people, trees, and animals in it. Pray with hand and words and breath and beads and bowls and chants and songs and service and hugs and smiles and tears.

But pray as a human being. Recognize humility as the path home, and then your living will be driven less by your need to be applauded, recognized, and given high status; instead, may your living be driven by grace and mercy.

May you find your way home.
Amen.


[1] “Orthodox Christian Study on Unceasing Prayer Part I – John Kotsonis – Theandros – An Online journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy”. Theandros. Retrieved 2010-07-03.

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