(You can read mor about how I got on in this friendly local congregation in French here)
Text: Luke 19
When I was young I liked to climb a particular tree in my parents’ garden. I could hide there and be quiet.
The gospel tells us that that Zaccheus was a small person. He couldn’t see over the heads of the holy and pure religious people. They seemed all to be taller than him. These other people also all seem to judge him. Despite one meaning of his name being “pure”, for them he is a sinner: he collects taxes, makes money dishonestly for himself, collaborates with the occupying Roman power.
When Jesus comes to town Zaccheus can’t see what’s happening, so he climbs a sycamore tree. He climbs the tree not because he wants to be quiet but because he wants somehow to be part of the community. 2,000 years ago in the towns and villages of Palestine a synagogue was not necessarily a building but simply a gathering, an Assembly. Often a tree, a sycamore tree, would be the place where the gathering would take place. So by climbing the tree Zaccheus shows he wants to be part of the community, of the assembly. He wants to at least see Jesus, even though he knows others call him a sinner, even though he knows his own life is not all it could and should be.
And then the story changes, Jesus looks up at Zaccheus in the tree and responds to his desire to be fully part of community by saying “come down I’m going to stay at your place today”. Zaccheus would never have dared to invite Jesus because of how other people would criticize Jesus. But Jesus brings this criticism on himself with his surprise self-invitation.
By calling Zaccheus down from the tree and inviting himself to his house, Jesus transforms relationships within that community, obliging those religious people who think faith is all about judging other people as sinners to think again. Their smallness of thinking needs to be transformed, Zacheus’ money oriented way of thinking also needs to be transformed.
In the midst of a crowd which does not seem to be completely sympathetic, Jesus shows courage and great generosity of spirit. Zaccheus is a son of Abraham, God’s coming kingdom is open to all, not only to those we may think of as pure.
If we are still trying to categorize people into who is sinner and who is saved then God’s generous and challenging kingdom may still be a long way off.
Zaccheus responds to Jesus’ visit and call by being prepared to face the future with less personal wealth, seeking reconciliation and restorative justice with his community. Although he is still small in stature, Jesus’ call makes Zaccheus see that he too has an important part to play in the big story of the kingdom of God. He can walk tall rather than hide up a tree.
I read this story and I wonder whether bankers and money lenders in our own time who have cheated people and countries out of money in the world financial crisis will one day have the humility to recognise the need for transformation in the way the world does business.
I have come to Busan for a gathering, an Assembly. Christians from all over the world, several thousand of us including many young people, from more than 320 Christian churches have come together, to pray, discuss and study together as members of the World Council of Churches. Our meeting is not taking place underneath a sycamore tree but in the Bexco convention centre. But the worship space where we gather does have a tree – though not a sycamore - representing the tree of life from the book of Revelation, it is a symbol of hope for the justice and peace we pray that God is leading us towards.
At the World Council Assembly we have listened together to stories of great pain and suffering from around the world – fears about climate change in the Pacific, stories of women repeatedly raped in war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sufferings of the peoples in the Middle East and of the Christians there, the deep desire for unity and just peace here in Korea, the call to consume less if our fragile green planet is to survive … the list is long, the sufferings and questions are many
Sometimes we have felt like the one speaking in the book of Habakuk
“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?”
Yet there have also been stories of hope and transformation: of men and women acting together to put an end to the culture of rape and violence, of emerging new grassroots ways of tackling disease; of entrusting young people with leadership; of people finding the language to speak to one another across religious and cultural divides; of small people finding that they can see and do things, and that their contribution is important.
We also listen to greetings from Christian leaders of different families, from his all holiness Bartolomeo, Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, from Pope Francis and on Friday morning from Archbishop Justin Welby who (amongst other things) said this:
“I am enjoying a sense of wonder at my small, my tiny place among God’s great Church, which draws together women and men, young and not so young, lay and ordained, from different continents and cultures and different church traditions.”
I was very moved to hear an important church leader speak about his small, tiny place in God’s church. In our world so obsessed with celebrities and people who are rich and famous and big, it is so refreshing to hear a leader talk about having a small place. Recognising that we are small yet important to God and loved by God, is part of the process of allowing ourselves to be transformed by the kingdom values of repentance, justice, peace and generosity.
Jesus is waiting for our desire to become part of those he is gathering, he invites himself into our lives transforming our suffering relationships, our difficulties about how to put things right in our own lives and in the world. Through his courage we too find courage. He is not a famous world brand trying to sell us something, he is the way, the truth and the life. Christ opens the doors of God’s generous kingdom of grace and acceptance for us and for all humanity, and he bids us to become people of the way, following his example of forgiveness and transformation.
God of life lead us to justice and peace.