In our story from the gospel, we meet Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in this region, a Jewish authority secured by Rome to collect taxes from the people (his own people). Roman occupation was a place of taxation without representation and apparently ripe with fraud and extortion. Zacchaeus was reviled (hated) as a sinner, as most of the tax collectors were.
Zacchaeus hears of Jesus’ plan to pass through the area and climbs a tree in order to get a better view. He can see over the crowd. In doing so, he literally broadens his horizons. Perhaps for the first time he is alerted to the amount of poverty that exists, and the role he has played in it. He vows to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back (four times over) his past fraudulent activity. He has a conversion experience that transforms him and his activity in the world.
Zacchaeus’ new vision and conversion brought Martin Luther King Jr. to mind: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” These are the sentiments of an 19th Century clergyman, Theodore Parker who was an abolitionist clergyman. He made this statement one hundred years before MLK Jr.
And we are still working on it. It seems we have a long way to go before the world really reflects a radical conversion to love.
This week our message from the prophet Habakkuk gives us a cathartic plea.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
When I read this in preparation for today I felt a great wave of consolation in the knowledge that I am not alone in my pain over current events and contentions; And the slow climb toward peace, justice and love.
I was also reminded of the passage from Romans: "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” It reminded me that even when I doubt my prayer is helping (which can feel like empty words) it is actually filled with the Spirit of Love and hope. Something is actually working inside of us for the good. Conversion is happening.
Bishop Tutu said, “We Christians are prisoners of hope.”That is what keeps us looking even when we can’t bear to see the “wrong doing” as Habakkuk says. That is what keeps us bearing witness to the violence in our world. As faithful people we continue to trace that arc of morality with hope. We scan toward the horizon. Love is what keeps us looking.
Generally we don’t speak of morality in terms of an arc, but rather a compass. “Do you have a moral compass?” Most of us would say we do… and we try to follow it. But morality is not personal, just as we don’t have a personal Jesus. As Christians we believe in a radical Kingdom of Salvation - and a Savior for the whole World.
Rev. Theodore Parker and MLK wisely told us morality is an arc that bends toward justice. In this regard we must acknowledge the necessity of our adaptability. We must have faith in our ability to change course. We must be willing to bend (try on a new perspective) to see the hope of others. In doing so we may discover new horizons like Zacchaeus.
The text says, when Jesus asked Zaccheaus to come down and take him to his home, “All who saw it began to grumble.” All: Everyone. There was not one person that believed in Zacchaeus. There was no hope for conversion. There was no faith in salvation. There was only hate. Yet, Jesus calls him into relationship. Jesus says, I need you too Zaccheaus.
Today, like yesterday, we find that our societies are in need of a massive conversion to love (locally and globally). Morality is not in one’s hand. The scope of the moral universe is something that is gleaned through forgiving dialogue at every level. MLK is also famous for following in Jesus’ way by telling us that “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Conversion is turning our hearts to others. It is a life-long journey. We may have had a moment we can point to like Zaccheaus, when the overwhelming love of God spoke clearly to us. But turning our hearts, is practicing that moment, by opening to others every day: to our children and families and to our neighbors and community and to strangers. Conversion is a life-long practice.
Jesus often changes minds through his skilled debate, and yet it is his radical love that stirs peoples’ hearts and leads to conversion. Great knowledge and wisdom is when the mind becomes attuned to the heart. And that opportunity happens moment by moment. I may not understand you, but I am going to climb down from whatever perspective I’ve held because we need each other to understand the greater picture.
We need one another to ease our family problems, our nations’ problems, and our world problems.
There is nothing that guarantees perfect outcomes with those we love or around the world. But we can work on our conversion to love that furthers, that arc of salvific justice.
Jesus says, I need you.
That is the saving power of the Kingdom.