See Change

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
—Luke 19:1-10

Several years ago, I went on a medical mission trip to Honduras. The village where we would establish the medical clinic, Panina, was very remote. It would take a full day of traveling to arrive at Panina from our base in the capital, Tegucigalpa. On the day we left for Panina, we piled into our trucks and vans very early and headed out of the congested busyness of the city into the countryside. With each passing mile, the familiarity of my world rolled away, and I found myself farther and farther from normalcy.

To my surprise when we landed in Tegucigalpa two days earlier, the capital looked much like home . . . just a little less assembled and tidy. There were familiar restaurants, familiar stores and banks, familiar car dealerships, and many of the other accoutrements that defined my understanding, my perception of the world. In fact, I was a little disappointed when we first arrived that I perceived everything to feel so familiar. After all, I had just traveled thousands of miles from home and taken refresher introductory to Spanish courses to make this mission trip possible. If I had wanted to stroll past a KFC and a Pizza Hut, I did not need to get my passport stamped first! Nevertheless, there I was, walking down a major pedestrian thoroughfare, passing stores and signs that could easily be read not because I had boned-up on my Spanish but because the signs were frustratingly printed in English.

Well, my frustration with the familiar was soon to be left behind just like the capital. The farther we drove into the countryside the more quickly I was convinced I was definitely in a new country. Fast food chains were replaced by roadside fruit stands. Paved roads gave way to rutted-out river beds come side roads. After nearly 12 hours bouncing over rocks and ruts, we arrived at an empty, grassy clearing. The only sign of human life in the clearing was the small, unoccupied primary school standing in the clearing’s middle.

After a few minutes, that single sign of human life was joined by others. In that odd hour when day slides past night, villagers slipped from the forest, assembling around our vans and trucks to help unload and carry our supplies and gear to their village still over an hour hike up a mountain . . . in the dark. And, so, following our new friends as closely as decorum allowed, we trailed behind trying to keep up and to avoid losing our way. That night hike was seemingly uneventful but only understood to be impressive when we hiked back out four days later.

Retracing our steps as we returned to Tegucigalpa at the end of our week’s clinic, we hiked back down the mountain the same way we had hiked in. Only this time, the hike was in the daylight. What we had not known on our hike in were magnificent views accompanying the steep ridgelines we had marched over in the dark. On the return trip, we were struck by both the majesty of vantage gained by both light and elevation and the incredible audacity we had accomplished through our ignorance while walking in the dark near such unforgiving precipices.

It is amazing how a little light and a new elevation will grant a new perspective. Not only did I come to appreciate how lucky we had been on our hike in, but I had also come to appreciate how drastic the disparity in life experienced between those in the city and those in the countryside. Those in the capital might choose between McDonald’s and Subway while those in the countryside might choose between risking a deadly night hike and risking a deadly disease undiagnosed if the clinic were not setup. It took a trip of thousands of miles and traveling it in both day and night for me to gain that new perspective.

A new perspective can do wonders in changing how we see and are seen by the world. The familiar story from Luke’s gospel about Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus offers just such an example.

Zacchaeus is a despised tax collector exploited by the Romans to tax his fellow Jews. His fellow Jews despised him for several reasons: (1) he collected more tax than was required and (2) by collecting taxes he collaborated with their Roman occupiers. As the story is typically told, when Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is on his way to Jericho, he wants to see the man about whom everyone is talking. Being short in stature, he climbs a nearby tree. While in the tree, Jesus spots him and has a direct, possibly transformative conversation with Zacchaeus, culminating in Zacchaeus’ hosting the righteous man in his impious home to the stock of the crowd. In this telling of the story, Jesus confronts Zacchaeus; Zacchaeus promises to change his ways; and a new life is begun through encounter with the Christ.

However, the actual Greek text offers an additional, alternative reading of the text. According to Joel B. Green, this text may be translated using the traditional reading—“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much”—or it may be translated not to tell what Zacchaeus is planning to do in response to Jesus’ encounter but what he was already doing. That alternative translation reads “my habit is to give half of my possessions to the poor; and my habit is to pay back anyone I have defrauded anything, my habit is to pay back four times as much.” This alternative reading radically alters our understanding of the story and our perspective on Zacchaeus.

If Zacchaeus does not start living differently as a result of his conversation with Jesus, then what is the purpose of this story’s inclusion in the text? What if the story is not about Zacchaeus’ climbing a tree to be change but about Jesus’ elevating the social status of an already changed man, reincorporating him into his community and convicting the judgmental crowd and community that reflexively rejected one of their own! In this alternative reading, the social establishment unfairly judges Zacchaeus’ character, ignoring his generosity in favor of their own preferred and presumed accurate perspective. That presumed perspective does not demand that the social establishment truly assess a person and his/her practices but resort to stereotypes, rely on uncritical expectations, and draw convenient yet inaccurate conclusions.

Interestingly, the only phrase that comes from Zacchaeus’ lips begins with the Greek word Ἰδοὺ , meaning “behold” or “look.” It is telling that the first word from his mouth plays on his location in the story as he stands elevated in a tree . . . looking! Is he saying, because I am up here, I see things different, or is he saying because I am up here, see me differently? Either way, the very substance of the narrative around Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus is a call to see differently and to be seen differently. We cannot be complacent about our assumptions. We cannot be complacent about our living. We cannot continue living the way we are living if our faith is to matter to us. Our faith demands continual renewal and recreation, including how and what we see.

It is this new perspective on the world that our faith purports to give us, must give us. Moreover, sometimes, like Zacchaeus, we need to change our position to see and be seen differently. This week’s chapel service is a preparation for our trip to Charleston, SC over fall break to share with the First Year Experience program and the Bonner Leaders in an analysis of homelessness and poverty following our having read the book written by Adam Shepard, Scratch Beginnings. While in Charleston, we will experience, firsthand, several of the ministries the supported Adam’s effort to move from poverty to stability. We will contrast the disparity between the Charleston of the poor and the Charleston of the tourist. We will engage history and contemporary reality. We will see how going somewhere new grants us a new perspective, possibly demanding our resistance of easy stereotyping of the poor and homeless, our abandoning of uncritical expectations of ourselves not to change and to enact change, and our avoidance of drawing convenient for us yet inaccurate conclusions of others and the reality around us. We might discover that we are simultaneously “Zacchaeus” and “the crowd”, one requiring a new position to see the world differently and the other requiring the abandoning of conventional opinions in order to confront the reality that is standing before us.

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