Continuity of Faith and Action (Isaiah 1:10-17; Luke 19:1-10)
As I’ve said, today is All Saints Sunday. According to the New Testament, saints are followers of Jesus. They don’t have to qualify in special ways, but are garden variety followers of the Carpenter of Nazareth. Today’s lessons speak of how spiritual life, or following Jesus, is supposed to work out. There is to be a continuity between the worship we do “in here,” and the work we do “out there.” Many people think that it’s, sometimes, easier to see this in the Gospels and the New Testament than it is in the Old. After a lifetime of teaching the Old Testament in churches and classrooms, in Hebrew and in English, I still find that it has an infinite capacity to puzzle, comfort, challenge, inspire, and infuriate people. Today’s passage is no exception.
The language, both here and in many other places, is difficult for most of us for one thing because it speaks about God as a deity that judges people. Even the people of God. That makes some of us uncomfortable and may make us want to ignore or disregard such a text, or maybe even the Old Testament as a whole. I hope we won’t. I hope we’ll be like Jacob in the text we had a number of weeks ago who wrestled with that “stranger” all night and would not let that stranger go until he received a blessing. In reality, even the blessing was not the one on which he had planned, and it left him with a limp. How can we possibly meet the God of the universe and not be changed in unpredictable ways? Want predictability, get a dog! Nonetheless, I hope we can take a clue from that story and wrestle with texts until they bless us some way. I still remember what Forrest Gump said in that classic 1994 movie: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” Reading the Bible (maybe, especially the Old Testament) is like that, too. Don’t give up on our tradition because it’s hard and comes to us in hard language. We need to penetrate the language and culture to come to the nub. By the way that’s also true of the New Testament. The Old Testament is not the part of the Bible that got it wrong, about the people of God that got it wrong.
Enough of that! To put it in a nutshell, the Isaiah text says that, in God’s sight, God’s people had become no better than Sodom and Gomorrah, which were the Old Testament poster children for self-destructive behaviour. Few Israelites would have agreed with Isaiah’s assessment, especially those in Jerusalem, who were convinced that, because God was their God, and they did all the right things in worship, they were guaranteed divine protection, and their political and economic lives would be blessed. Phooey! God will not be made the property of one group, when God is the God of the universe of peoples.
The text in Isaiah said that worship (standing for what God’s people do inside the community of faith) must be connected with what happens outside in public values that honour and care for neighbours, especially the “fragile” ones like the poor, the widow, and the orphan that could not care for themselves (the category of “the fragile” has not decreased in our day). This text passed God’s sentence that, because there was no continuity between Israel’s worship and their work in the world, they were headed in the direction of Sodom and Gomorrah – to an untimely end. Destructive means bring about destructive ends. It may surprise us, therefore, when verses 16-17 present God’s people (including us) with a way to reverse things.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove your harmful actions – stop your harmful actions!
Those words are words taken from the sacrificial system, and they could simply be taken to mean more attention to the correct worship stuff inside the four walls of the community. But the text itself goes on to speak for God and say how to do these things:
Learn to do what is helpful; seek justice, advance the cause of the oppressed, defend the orphan, argue the case for the widow.
This sentence is filled with terms drawn from Israel’s legal tradition, terms that indicate public, open advocacy for those who find themselves defenseless in society. Justice is the public outworking of righteousness (conforming to what God requires). Advancing the cause of the oppressed is, again, a public square word, that means advocacy “out loud.” Defending orphans, arguing cases for widows, are, again, not just feeling badly about them, or even having a prayer meeting, but, undergirded by prayer, taking up their cause in an open and public way. What God’s people needed was not new worship methods or songs, not doctrinal conformity to ancient creeds and standards, but a continuity between all these things and the paths of justice. Israel’s mistake was to try to disconnect their private religion, their private values, from their public lives – and that’s what made them just like Sodom and Gomorrah, who used religion as a means to control people and keep the “right” people in power. This all pointed straight at destruction. At least that’s what Isaiah said a long time ago, and the text still says it.
If we can boil down a take-away lesson for all this that’s applicable to us: when religious conviction in what we do in worship and other inner church life is disconnected from and inconsistent with our public witness to use power in positive ways to lift up justice and the cause of the powerless, then it is no longer anything but counter-productive, even though it may still may make us feel better in the short term. The Old Testament hardly ever minces words about this. That’s one reason it’s hard.
So, what does the Gospel story tell us? Most of us have liked it since we were kids. Most of us know the little song that we learned in Sunday School.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And, as the saviour passed that way, he looked up in the tree.
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down,”
For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.
This story, unique to Luke, is told near the close of the journey to Jerusalem that Jesus began for his teaching, preaching, healing ministry toward the end of chapter 9. “The road” is a great way of thinking about life. Throughout Luke’s journey with Jesus we are reminded that the goal of the journey is still Jerusalem with its tragedy and pain, victory and new life.
Anyway, as I said, the story of Zacchaeus is found on the very last leg of the journey. Jesus reaches Jerusalem toward the end of this very chapter. Luke’s last journey-section combines the story of Zacchaeus with the story of the healing of a blind man just before it, and the parable of the money (or pounds) immediately after. All three of these go together, although we’ve only read one piece of it today.
The stories all took place around Jericho, one of the most ancient sites in the middle east, inhabited pretty much continuously now for over 11,000 years. Of course, Jericho was the storied place where the entrance to the Promised Land had taken place under Joshua, and the walls had all come down. Jericho is still a town of about 20,000 today where the Palestinian struggle is a reality that still challenges our values. Anyway, Jesus and his disciples were approaching this site.
In the La Crosse-Onalaska area, we’ve become rather accustomed to folks sitting at intersections with signs that say things like, “Will work for food,” “Help! Anything is Appreciated!” Sometimes I feel uncomfortable when I see these folk and don’t know what the appropriate things to do is. Maybe you feel that way, too. I wonder if, as Jesus and his disciples came into Jericho, this blind man was sitting on one of the very stones that had fallen out of the wall in Joshua’s day. He didn’t have a sign. He bellowed, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” The chamber of commerce tried to shut him up. They couldn’t. Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?” Well, duh, I’m blind. I want to see. And it happened.
The Zacchaeus story is about another guy – a short Jewish tax collector whose Hebrew name means “innocent,” but, who because of his profession, didn’t have that reputation. Like the blind man, Zacchaeus wanted to see, but needed help because of his height. You know the song, he was entrepreneurial and climbed a sycamore fig tree. But the way Luke tells the story, it wasn’t Zacchaeus that saw Jesus, but the other way around. Jesus called him by name, invited him to come down and invited himself to stay with Zacchaeus for the night. Now Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector (where the temptation to be dishonest would have been almost overwhelming), but the chief tax collector (the head crook, or so the suspicion would go). The crowd, that was probably made up of disciples of Jesus and others, including some from Jericho itself, were scandalized. It was kind of like the embarrassment of those folk who wanted to shut up the blind man, or those who wish the folk at the intersections would go away. But they weren’t only scandalized by Zacchaeus, but by Jesus. It’s amazing how easily some religious people are willing to believe the worst about people, even those they have known and admired. “How could you stay with a sinner like Zacchaeus instead of with me?” And, yet, what we find out, in the end of the day, it is not the crowd – not even the disciples in it – who come out with a public statement of social commitment right out of the Jewish Torah. It’s old Zacchaeus, who says he would give half his income to the poor, and repay any dodgy deals he’s been connected with four times over (which, by the way, meets the strictest law of restitution in the Old Testament, not the most common one). So, in essence, what Jesus says, at the end is “Leave him alone because his confessed public values show that he is a true child of Abraham, which means a true practicing Jew, a spiritual person, one who at least is pointed in the right direction, in spite of what his profession might suggest, and what the crowd thought. Don’t judge a book by its cover is the old saying. Preachers usually apply Jesus’ statement, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” to Zacchaeus, but I really wonder whether it doesn’t apply to the crowd who, in the end of the day, were the ones in the story who couldn’t see. Zacchaeus’s actions were finally in continuity with what he said he believed. He saw!
An interesting meaning is given to these two stories by the last piece of Luke’s travel narrative, which is a parable. A parable is a little story that makes a main spiritual point and gives us a hard time with a little twist. This parable is about money. The coins are usually called “pounds,” but that’s British money. The actual name of the coin is mina which was a coin worth about three or four months wages for a worker. Each person in the story is given a mina and expected to do something with what they have been given, as the master went away for a long time. When he returned, he expected each to have done something with it, besides burying the gift in the ground to protect it unused and intact. Perhaps Jesus’ last lesson for the road is that different people see Jesus in different ways, and are expected to do something creative with their vision not just preserve the original unsullied, unreduced, and pure.
I might suggest that these stories may encourage us to be careful about thinking of people as those in whom there is no potential and to be more inclusive in our love. Perhaps they can also encourage us to be more patient and creative with people who don’t “come along” or “make progress” toward what we think they ought to be as quickly as we think they should. Perhaps we all respond to Jesus’ call to follow him in different ways, and that’s OK. What he’s looking for is caring for those that need care and loving the world as creatively he does. Jesus is looking for continuity between faith and action, between what we say and what we do.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.