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14th August 2022

Jubilee Justice

Passage: Luke 19;1-10


SO- what do you think DID happen next?
I mean, it sounds from the story as though everything in the garden is lovely. Zacchaeus has been able to wipe the slate clean. He is going to pay back double the money he has stolen; everyone will forgive him. “Salvation has come to this house,” says Jesus.
I am not arguing with Jesus; I am, though, not sure that life is quite so straightforward when it comes to radical change.
On an individual level, yes, many people have had their lives totally turned around by faith in Jesus Christ. It is awesome. But all will admit that they still carry baggage from their past. The most dramatic conversion in the Bible is that of St Paul. From hunting down Christians to kill them, he became a totally committed follower of Jesus Christ. But you can read for yourself how, although he never turned back from following Jesus, neither did he ever stop struggling with himself.
And, on a social level, yes, dramatic changes do take place, like the abolition of slavery in the UK in 1833. Great, but (a) it took a very long time to clear up the debris and (b) despite all the protests and apologies and good intentions happening right now, nothing, nothing will ever truly make amends for what slavery did to millions of people.

So, you wonder: would Zacchaeus continue to struggle with the greed deep within himself? Some of the people in his town might not have forgiven him and would have sneered and snubbed him. This might have made him resentful and if the Romans at that point had tried to get him back on their side, the temptation would have been very strong.
And, on a social level, nothing really changed. The Romans were still in power. Another tax collector would soon be in Zacchaeus’ place and the people still being bled by Rome. No-one seemed to be able to turn Rome around.
Is this then, a nice but unrealistic story?

I don’t think anyone could accuse Jesus of being unrealistic in his view of life and of human nature. Look at the stories, the parables he told:
A servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, then went and demanded money with menaces from a fellow servant who owed him a few pounds. Having a forgiving God does not necessarily make for a forgiving people.
The loving father who welcomed back his wayward younger son with a great party, then found himself having to deal with a resentful elder son who had been consistently good, but no party had been thrown for him. Relationships, whether with God or each other, can become complicated.
The Good Samaritan helping the wounded Jew when two of that man’s professionally religious fellow citizens had passed him by. Religion does not always make people kind.
The farmer sowing his seeds, and some grew but some did not. It all seemed to depend on what kind of ground the seeds were sown in. Where a person is in their life will have a profound effect on how they receive the gifts of God and how fruitfully these gifts will develop.

So yes, Jesus was fully aware of the complexities both of human nature and of human society. He must have known that Zacchaeus and the people in his town had a long and rocky path ahead of them as Zacchaeus tried to fulfil his promise and keep his life heading in the right direction. Yet Jesus proclaimed that “Salvation has come to this house.”

In our party booklets this week we were reminded of how, in the Old Testament, a Jubilee year was a year of putting things right: cancelling debts, releasing slaves and prisoners, restoring land to its original owners, resting the earth from growing crops. I have said before that I have no idea how they could have made this work in practice. But perhaps the point is that these people were given an Ideal: a picture of what society might look like if they followed the laws of God. Debts should not be allowed to get out of hand, with greedy people getting rich at the expense of their vulnerable fellows. Prisons should not be filled with people whom no-one wants to be bothered with. Human beings should not be kept as slaves. Fertile land should not be exhausted by over-production and careless treatment. Homeless foreigners should not be expelled from the land.

All of this sounds good. If we were asked what our “ideal” society might look like, I guess it would be very similar to this.
It is just that when you look at the vastness of greed and irresponsibility; of corruption and power-hunger; of ancient prejudices and current violence; of ordinary people who do not understand the bigger issues and just want to be left alone to live their own lives, you feel totally overwhelmed and cannot even ask “where do we begin?” We get that we simply do not want to know, yet we do know, deep down, that the longer social evils are ignored, the greater they become.

What was God saying to his people in the Old Testament? Four things: One- celebrate what you have got. Your land is not perfect, but you still have things to celebrate. In the same way we celebrate seventy years of our Queen and fifty years of the URC and no-one would say that either the seventy or the fifty years have been all good. Two- as you celebrate, with a smile on your own face, notice who is not smiling. Three- dare to dream. Ask what you can do to put a smile on a few more faces. Dream of what a truly good life and a truly good nation might look like. Four- remember that you are people of God, which means that you can make this happen. Not easily. Not overnight. Not without set-backs. But you are God’s people and, just as God has given you the dream so God will supply the power. When the task looks overwhelming, do not give up on God. Do not give up on his kingdom. Do not give up on you. This is where Jubilee Justice begins.

So, back to Zacchaeus. What was Jesus saying to him and about him? “Salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Zacchaeus has been brought back into the community of God’s people. Zacchaeus has something to celebrate and is making sure that others who are not smiling, will have something to celebrate too, as he makes recompense to them. Zacchaeus has seen the vision of what the kingdom of God will look like. Yes, his own efforts to make this kingdom come about may well be fraught with difficulties and disappointments because the odds stacked against him are high, but salvation, that daily, hourly saving grace of God will be poured into his heart and into his house.

Previously, living in a bad world had made him resentful and insecure, so he took the way of greed and corruption. “If you can’t beat them, join them.” It seemed like the only option. But Jesus is holding out his hand saying “this is about you and me together, Zacchaeus. You are going to see things differently from now on. “

And that is what it takes, isn’t it? People like us who look at the world and, rather than being overwhelmed by the misery, danger and injustice we see, turn to Jesus, celebrate with him our destiny as children of God and ask where do we go from here? And there will always be an answer. And there will always be a first step to that answer. And there will always be power for the first step and the next and the rest.

So, to finish, try to picture Jesus holding out his hand to you, and saying “Salvation has come to this life.”
What would you most want to see wiped out of the world? Ask him what one thing you can do together to make a start.
What would you most want to see happen in this Church? Ask him, what one thing you can do together to make a start.
And what would you most like to come to pass in YOU. Ask Jesus what one thing you can do together to make a start?
Jesus said, “Faith as grain of mustard seed can move mountains.” And even Rome itself did turn to Christ in the end.