Zacchaeus comes to America

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He also collaborated with the occupying imperial forces to extort money from his own compatriots. He saw who had the guns — Roman legions, in his day — and he aligned himself with them to make an unjust profit. No wonder the people who saw Jesus invite himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner were disappointed and disgusted. Notorious man of the people consents to intimate meeting with noted counter-revolutionary and predatory little shit.

In Luke’s story, Zacchaeus tells Jesus, “if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19:8, CEB). I assume this was the case; otherwise, why bring it up? Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9).

And that concludes the story.

As with all the gospel stories, it is curt, and tidy. It evokes just enough of a character and a problem to launch a story. Then the main action is the character’s encounter with Jesus. Then the ending, a snapshot of restoration. Leper, Jesus, rejoicing. Woman caught in adultery, Jesus, go and sin no more. Mourning mother and dead boy, Jesus, rejoicing. Extortive tax collector, Jesus, salvation has come.

The intensity and simpleness of the stories gives them their power. They aren’t like modern novels, where the characters are convoluted and fissiparous and self-contradictory; where they go on and on through multiple sequential scenarios; where there is irresolution and gray. The stories in the gospels are silhouettes, light and darkness. They stick sharply in the memory and linger in the soul. For that reason, they’re more like a rock you can build your house on. But they also lack the give and complexity of real, sandy life, which does not usually consist in episodes of lightning encounter and radical transformation.

For example, the direction of the Zacchaeus story is clear enough. If you have stolen money from others, Jesus still welcomes you. Jesus reaches out to dine with the despised opportunist and collaborator. This is a word that warms my heart; it opens a hope of grace for those like me who stand with Zacchaeus on the benefitting side of imperial firepower. Furthermore, gratitude for Jesus’s gracious welcome moves its recipients to give back their unjust gains to the victims.

But what if it is not so simple? What if I personally did not make the theft like Zacchaeus — but a theft was made hundreds of years ago, and ever since, the stolen capital has grown and amassed, continuing to benefit the racial descendants of the original despoilers? What if the robbery is not an isolated case as with Zacchaeus, but a whole society, organized to protect the interests of the thieves and their progeny, and to ensure the plunder remains inaccessible to the plundered? What if the theft was not only an easily quantifiable asset like money, as with Zacchaeus —but included properties that cannot be commodified, like land and labor and freedom and tradition and credibility and basic human dignity? What if those robbed are not, as in the story of Zacchaeus, merely the passive objects of Zacchaeus’s actions, but their own irreducible and active subjects, who have striven for centuries to reestablish what was forcibly taken from their ancestors?

What does restitution look like in such a case, Lord?

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What does God pray?

In the Talmud, God prays only once.

“What does God pray?” It asks.

Rabbi Zutra ben Tobi gives the answer. He taught that when God prays, he says:

“May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Berakhot 7a)

Chaos

We all experience incursions of chaos: when raw disorder surges through the surface of our routine.

Sometimes this occurs in relatively small ways. Locking keys in the car turns a predictable morning into an unexpected, exasperating hassle. Bickering disrupts the easy-going enjoyment of an outing.

Sometimes forces of chaos interrupt life more profoundly. Unexpected bad news about family breaks in, clouding the normal order of life like ink falling in water. Chronic sickness makes customary routines a struggle, or impossible. Incarceration rips up the natural sequence of a life. Untimely death leaves a crater that memory must always ever after trace carefully through.

As I understand it, biblical authors, like their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, took individual instances of painful disorder such as these, and thought them out into a huge, terrifying concept. They made its dimensions as fathomless and unpredictable as the Sea. They pictured it as a many-headed Dragon, so vast as to blot out the stars. They imagined it back to the very start of the cosmos. Before the orderly world of our day-to-day experience with its regular rhythms of seasons and crops and meals and births and marriages – there was only the deep: an unrelieved, lightless, nightmare ocean.

Many societies near to Israel and Judah told of how their chief deity fought a titanic battle with the powers of chaos, and by defeating them, inaugurated the world order. But always the powers of chaos threatened to make a renewed assault, and remained a restless, demonic presence at the periphery of consciousness. For many of these societies, this story of the god wrestling chaos to submission functioned as a political myth. Just like modern western governments justify their massive authority by keeping terrorists at bay, so these ancient kingdoms justified their dominance by re-upping national security against the chaos monster.

Biblical authors likewise knew the fragility of our routines. That our day-to-day rhythms hang suspended over the protological Sea. A regular commute could suffer a car crash. A loved one could succumb quickly to terminal illness. In one conversation, a relationship could go out of joint and never recover.

Biblical writers point to God as the only one who sustains the very vulnerable order. Their sense of jeopardy – and the sheer gratuity of God’s preservation – caused them to feel an immense gratitude. Life in its established patterns is not guaranteed, nor owed to us: but handcrafted by God from the midst of a watery depth.

Of course, the Bible elsewhere knows the ways in which order calcifies: and far from representing a gift of God to humans, becomes itself a source of oppression and violence. The regime of security against chaos becomes an agent of the beast. At such a juncture, the prophets inveigh against the symbiosis of temple and nation. Job protests the thick fabric of coherence between sin and suffering.

It is a larger question for biblical theology whether, at the end of the day, God stands as sponsor to (any) systems of order, or represents their prime antagonist: the proud creator of Leviathan, per Job, and the one, per the gospels, who exalted the muckraking prophet, Jesus.

Most likely there is wisdom in in recognizing both: that God detonates the world order that strangles the poor, introducing a dynamic, free new world in the resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, at the micro-level, in the midst of our lives that hang precariously over the flood, God provides safety. God makes a refuge of regularity.

This latter, I take it, is at least some of the meaning of the psalm I read this morning. God’s gift of a dependable world evokes deep gratitude, and a sense of belonging.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,

the world and its inhabitants too.

Because God is the one who established it on the seas;

God set it firmly on the waters. (Ps 24:1, 2)