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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 31, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
November 3, 2019

Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Luke 19:1-10

‘Zacchaeus was a wee little man’

“You love everything that exists
And you don’t hate anything you have created …”
“You save all things because they are yours, O God …”

Words from the book of Wisdom, a book, as Protestants, we don’t often open and read – a book we call apocryphal, or hidden away, texts of uncertain authenticity in the eyes of 16th-century Reformers.

And yet, texts making something of a comeback in ecumenical, postmodern and feminist circles – Wisdom reclaimed as the feminine figure of divine life animating all that is good in the world and in human histories and cultures. God be with you …

We might say, both affirming and overturning the apocryphal status of such texts, that Wisdom is indeed hidden away – we might say, as did the early Christians, Paul included, that Wisdom is hidden away in the very life of Christ – in the manger, upon the cross, within a small group of believers in a Christ crucified – in a small group of resisters, pacifists, dreamers, evangelists, egalitarian/communitarian poets, prophets and martyrs in a distant corner of the Empire.

My interest in Wisdom has led me, via a search of the worldwide web, to another corner, to a little-known tradition in Jewish folk-lore, dating to the Babylonian Talmud (the first half of the third century BCE).

The traditional story is this: The entire world rests on the merits of 36 anonymous righteous persons living in each generation. These hidden saints, called in Yiddish, lamed vov-niks, go unnoticed by other people due to their self-effacing, humble nature. In times of peril, however, the lamed vov-niks make a dramatic appearance, using reserves of faith and strength. The number 36, renowned in the Midrash, kabbalah and folkloric legends, is symbolic. It is twice the number 18, or chai, meaning “life”.

In a time of peril – oppressive patriarchy, imperialism, environmental catastrophe – 36 hidden saints make a dramatic appearance in the name of life, and for life’s sake.

What do we make of such a story? Is it a hopeful story for us? Would you dare hope for 36 righteous persons in our world right now (about the number of SSH volunteer contributors; the number of SSH volunteer distributors; the number of people attending a recent opening at the Orchard Gallery; or here on a Sunday morning)? A greater number? Fewer than 36? How might such persons, hidden saints, reveal themselves? What might they say or do?

And what has this to do with the gospel?

Our gospel for today is the story of a person called Zacchaeus, a maligned and marginalised person in Luke’s gospel. Zacchaeus is a tax collector and so a Roman sympathiser and enemy of his own people.

Zacchaeus, moreover, is a chief tax collector and so a very wealthy person and very much on the outer when it comes to the reign of God – Luke’s Jesus has been quite clear: “…woe to you rich” (6:24); “You can’t be my disciple if you don’t say goodbye to all of your possessions” (14:33); “You can’t worship both God and Money” (16:13c); “The rich person said, ‘I beg you, then, to send Lazarus to my own house where I have five siblings. Let Lazarus be a warning to them, so that they may not end in this place of torment” (16:27-28).

I’m not sure whether there’s a Hebrew number for death, but Zacchaeus would symbolise twice the number – he is doubly dead.

And yet, this may well be one of the most subversive texts of Luke’s gospel, for the name Zacchaeus means “innocent or righteous one”. Could this wealthy Roman sympathiser be a righteous one? A hidden saint? One of the 36 lamed vov-niks?

Is righteousness, is Wisdom, so thoroughly hidden away – even within Luke’s gospel? If so, might we not be called to reconsider, at every turn, our judgement on the one we regard beyond the reign of God? The one (without or within) for whom we make no room at the table? The one (without or within) to whom we secretly refer when we pray: “I give you thanks, O God, that I’m not like her/him – greedy, crooked, adulterous …” (18:11b).

Does this mean that the gospel, at every turn, eludes us? That the gospel is irreducible to ideology? Bigger than our best politics?

Yes. That’s what Luke is saying to us.

What if there were a person we regarded doubly dead, beyond righteousness, a person at the very door of life – perhaps even having climbed a tree of life? How might such a person, such a hidden saint, be recognised?

“Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, but he couldn’t do so because of the crowd, since he was short … In order to see Jesus, Zacchaeus ran on ahead, then climbed a sycamore tree that was along the route.”

There’s something vulnerable about Zacchaeus. He is short. He is short on innocence and righteousness – lacking or short on self. He is crowded out, pushed aside. And yet, whatever it is in him that wants to see Jesus, to see who Jesus is, is willing to call attention to himself, is willing to appear foolish, weak.

A wealthy enemy of the people, then as now, is not given to climbing trees, let alone seeking, in full view of the crowd, a poor preacher-healer from out of town.

The dramatic appearance of this hidden saint, then, is marked by a willingness to appear foolish, weak. A force greater than his sense of self-importance is at work in him. That’s how this saint appears – it would seem in a way surprising even to himself.

And Jesus is quick to discern it – to discern the vulnerable person, the humble person. Jesus is first to discern the vulnerable and humble person. “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come on down. I’m going to stay at your house today.”

Jesus, in other words, joins Zacchaeus in willing to appear foolish, weak. Their mutual welcome is an offense to others present.

Can we imagine it? Jesus and Zacchaeus discussing the dinner menu? Laughing? A force greater than their sense of self-importance is at work in them. Grace, we say, makes for transformation – by way of tears, laughter … the overcoming or undermining of identity as project. The beginning of identity as gift, a new self in relationship.

I remember, as a young theological candidate, a comment from one of the Synod Selection Panellists, who observed my impenetrable nervousness, my hard-shell earnestness, before saying: “Thank goodness you lightened up when the conversation turned to football – once you started laughing, we could have a conversation.”

Jesus joins Zacchaeus in willing to appear foolish, weak. Their mutual welcome is an offense to others present.

Not to be too naïve about this. But not to be blind to the vulnerable, the good and the human, either. Not to be so confident in our political or ideological wisdom that we miss the revelations of divine Wisdom right before our eyes.

Luke goes on to tell us that Zacchaeus, made safe in his vulnerability, given opportunity to welcome the God who comes “to search out and save what [is] lost”, is a new person. He won’t go on oppressing others. He begins to make amends – to rebuild relationships of trust.

That’s the meaning of salvation, Luke tells us. It comes by way of a vulnerable human heart. It comes to a house, to a place of welcome. And it comes to extend a story whose origins lie with Sarah and Abraham – in other words, it comes to extend a community whose origins lie in vulnerable trust and hope in God’s future.

The story of Zacchaeus is one story of salvation. There are, drawing on Jewish folklore, at any given time and place, another 35 – at least another 35.

What is it about Jesus and the gospel that compels you to “climb a tree of life”?

Zacchaeus was a wee little man/ A 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” … Amen.