Isaiah 1:10-18, Luke 19:1-10
Over the past year, it has been an enormous privilege and blessing for me to study in Minnesota, travel with the Youth Peace Travel Team, and explore policy work here in DC. Since the middle of March, I have slept in 29 different beds. I like to say that I have made homes all across the country. However, no matter how fast I develop connections with a place, I am faced with the reality that for now I am just passing through.
As I began to reread this week’s scripture, the well-known story of Zacchaeus, I didn’t get very far. In fact I got hung up on the very first line. It reads, “He entered Jericho and was passing through it.” Immediately I began to imagine Jesus hauling his duffle bag through the Chicago train system. He is not quite sure where he is going except that the address he is looking for is on the other side of the city.
This Chicago train schlep is something I have done a couple of times this year in varying stages of disorientation and exhaustion. Perhaps you have your own schlepping routes. Maybe it’s through the metro at rush hour or to the home of family for the holidays. There always seem to be good reasons to make these trips and yet I sometimes find myself asking, “Why am I doing this again?”
At times in his life, Jesus traveled a lot. Many passages, particularly in Matthew, begin by placing Jesus’s teachings within the context of his travels. It was after Jesus left Nazareth and made his home by the sea that he encountered the fishermen Simon and Andrew (Matthew 4:13). It was when he had come from the other side to the country of Gadarenes that Jesus cast out demons into a large herd of swine (Matthew 8:28). Matthew 9:35 says “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” Jesus was always headed to the next train station, or rather onto the deck of the next fishing boat and up the next mountain. And, it was as Jesus entered Chicago and was passing between Union Station and Clinton St. Station that he met Zacchaeus.
As you probably know if you have ever heard a sermon this passage, Zacchaeus was a tax collector and not just any tax collector, the chief. Tax collectors were known to take more money from people than they were required to, keeping the extra for themselves. They actively reinforced oppressive systems in their communities. Growing up when I pictured a tax collector I pictured someone who was pretty gleefully doing what they knew to be wrong. Now I wonder to what extent tax collectors were aware that their acts were unjust. Taking a little extra for themselves was a common practice in their society after all. As I personally begin my journey to racial awareness within our unjust societal structures today, it doesn’t see too farfetched that many tax collectors were blind to the wrongs they were inflicting.
As Jesus is passing through Jericho, he looked up in a tree, called Zacchaeus by name to come down, offers a blessing of salvation, and goes to stay at his house. Those acts in and of themselves are complicated, confusing, inspiring. They offer an image of Jesus that challenges us followers to reconsider how we seek Jesus (Are we climbing the tree?), how we respond to Jesus’s call (Are we giving out of our abundance?), and how we interact with those we consider less just than ourselves (Are we calling the name of the tax collector?). However, Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus coming as he was passing through makes it all the more incredible.
In identifying and choosing to stay with the chief tax collector, Jesus demonstrated an incredible knowledge of cultural expectations and local politics. He at once sized up the existing order of things and turned it on its head. And all the while he was making his trek to the next train station, he was passing through.
Growing up I never payed to much attention to the saying “you have to learn the rules before you can break them.” One striking example was my refusal to pay attention to rhythm when playing the piano. My mom still cringes when she thinks about it. More recently I have come to realize that in social justice work, a thorough understanding of how the current system is structured and how it is causing harm is needed in order to effectively work for change. If we want to reduce military spending we are going to need to understand the impact of the arms manufacturing industry. If I hope to decrease racial oppression we are going to need to come to an awareness of my own whiteness. These are enormous tasks that take many a lifetime.
Well Jesus expertly messed up the established order of things and he did this all while traveling. Mmmmm… Even with all of my recent travels, I question modeling my life after a traveling Jesus. My hesitancy come first from the exhausting nature of such a life and second from the recognition that without a Jesus level of expertise this could be quite unproductive.
The Church of the Brethren tag line begins “Continuing the work of Jesus” calls me to seek the example of the historical, political, radical Jesus as a model for my own life. This has often led me to consider the somewhat clique question “What would Jesus do?” and then its corollary “How do I do that?” However, these questions often leave me with a conundrum. What should I do when the example of the historical Jesus does not neatly translate into my modern, human life? I do the best I can. The life of Jesus becomes a hypothetical destination, an ideal with which to direct my life.
Is that all Jesus is to me? An ideal and perhaps now and then a very distant teacher? As I hauled my bags through Chicago I am alone on some mission trying to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus was my very dead, but very important example. It has been my own journey of passing through which has challenged me to take another look at what it means to “Continue the work of Jesus.”
I have been living under the assumption that best way to follow Jesus is to focus primarily on living like Jesus. One thing that I think and speak about less is how Jesus lives with me. I forget that I am Zacchaeus and that Jesus passes by.
Like Zacchaeus, I live in an oppressive society and am trying to figure out how I should best live my life. Often I don’t even realize that I need to be doing better. Zacchaeus knew that Jesus was coming through and so he climbing up into a tree. Then there was the actually encounter with Jesus which was probably overwhelming and went by quite quickly. Zacchaeus probably spent the next many years trying to understand that interaction. If he did end up following through on his promised life-style changes those probably also took time were an ongoing process. Jesus’s physical presence with Zacchaeus was brief but it was essential.
Over this past year I have been changed by so many passing moments it is impossible to consider them all. Some moments have been filled with joy as the beauty of the earth is revealed in a new way. Some moments have been full of pain as I come to realize the devastating impacts of my words and actions on another. I would say in these moment’s God’s grace passing through my life, possibly salvation, maybe even the living Christ.
So those 29 beds. Passing through so many different places I have been forced to adapt, to take on a different way of being, a different way of loving others, a different way of being loved. When I move around so much, very little is certain and pointing myself towards the ideal of Jesus gets more and more confusing. I have come to depend on the passing moments, the nudges along the way. Perhaps this is the living Christ in my life. I still seek the way of the historic, political, radical Jesus but just as importantly I seek the living nudges directing me along the way. I need Jesus to keep passing through.