From the Lydia’s House Community, co-authored by Marykate Glenn and Mary Ellen Mitchell
Leading up to and following the election, we’ve been unsettled by the story of Zacchaeus from the Bible; unsettled recognizing in the character of Zacchaeus his modern day equivalents around us. As a tax collector Zacchaeus was notorious for extorting money from the poor on behalf of the Roman Empire. In Zacchaeus we see those who today believe they can profit from ever growing militarization, mass incarceration, destruction of natural resources, and on and on. Zacchaeus was also a Jewish man who turned against his own people for a taste of Roman power and influence. Today, we see those who would turn against their own neighbors for the sake of hoped for personal gain or inclusion in our modern empire. While we’re troubled by Zacchaeus as tax collector, admittedly we’re even more unsettled by how quickly and completely his conversion happens, from self-serving greed to joyful self-giving. Like those grumbling in the crowd around Jesus and Zacchaeus, we question – do we believe this kind of change can happen?
When Jesus walks by and notices Zacchaues, a short man who has climbed a tree for a glimpse of this mysterious prophet and healer, Jesus says “Zacchaeus, come down and have me over for dinner tonight.” And right there beneath the tree, Zacchaeus starts giving away his money and says to Jesus “Look lord, I’m repaying back four times the amount I’ve taken from others.”
Dinner seems like an appropriate follow up for a life turnaround. At Lydia’s House it is the center of community. Indeed, it’s at dinner where small and large conversion and conversation happen. In the wake of our nation’s uprising of anti-woman, anti-immigrant and white nationalist sentiment, we’ve wondered together over beans and rice or meatballs, “Can we be a table of conversion for not only poor women in need of a better path, but also for ourselves and those around us who resemble Zacchaeus?” In effect, do we at Lydia’s House believe in change, even as we’ve preached it to women in crisis for almost 3 years now?
The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 immediately follows the stories of the rich young ruler and of the blind beggar who receives his sight. In the first story, the rich young ruler is clearly drawn to what he sees in Jesus, but goes away sad. To follow Jesus and enter the kingdom of God he would have to give away his wealth, and he is not willing. In the next story, the man who is blind and begging on the road to Jericho is the one who “sees” Jesus for what he is, and is persistent in asking for healing. Jesus tells the man his faith has healed him, restoring his physical sight. The man immediately and joyfully follows and enters the kingdom.
Wealthy Zacchaeus, like the beggar, wanted to see. He wanted to get a look at Jesus- the One proclaiming good news to the poor, sight for the blind, freedom for the captives and oppressed. And Jesus meets Zacchaeus’ desire to see with an invitation to relationship in the kingdom- to sit and eat together. At this, all the people who know this wealthy man and can’t stand him are scandalized that Jesus would eat with such a sinner. Perhaps they can’t fathom that Zacchaeus would ever truly change. But he does- Jesus hasn’t even come under his roof yet and Zacchaeus is ready to follow the One who came to be with the poor and the outcast. He intuitively knows that it’s his money accumulated at the expense of others keeping him from relationship with others in the kingdom. Therefore, giving it away and making restitution allows him to enter into Jesus’ kingdom where the first are last and last are first.
Somehow, this narrative of conversion is more scandalous to our ears than the story of a blind man’s sight restored. Especially in this time following the election of Donald Trump, hearing of the appointment of Steve Bannon and others to power. We are inundated with messages from these bombastic figures with political power- messages so counter to the kingdom message Jesus preached and lived. These messages tell us
“Blessed are the rich, for they can do whatever they want to others and the earth”.
But the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings to life in the world says “Blessed are the poor, theirs is the kingdom of God.”
A culture of war and violence says “Blessed are the powerful who show no mercy and use torture against their brothers. No mercy to the poor, to women and children, the homeless, victims, outcasts, enemies, refugees, the hungry, the undocumented, those on death row, those who are different, those we don’t like.”
But we are called to let the Kingdom of God become incarnate in our lives together. We believe blessed are the lowly and the merciful, they will inherit the earth, they will be shown God’s mercy.
The first Sunday after the election Marykate was blessed to hear this message at a Norwood neighborhood church: (paraphrased) We will not see the Kingdom of God brought about or imposed through our governments, rather we as Christians are to collectively display the kingdom as God’s people, so that we testify to the way of Christ.
Especially right now, we all must be the incarnate kingdom of God in the world that “Zacchaeus” will want to get a better view of. And so we live in expectation knowing that despite the worst efforts of Trumps and Bannons, God’s reign is among us. And we live in active expectation, knowing that our calling here at Lydia’s House is to pray, work for the betterment of poor women and children, get on the phone and on the streets, showing the Zacchaeus’ in our midst that’s there’s a Kingdom down here and it’s a beautiful place to be.