Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
October 30, 2016
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 26C
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Over the last two years, our political discourse in this country has focused much attention—and, some might say, far too much attention—on the questions of identity and belonging. It’s not an exaggeration to observe that this nation of immigrants seems very conflicted about the matter, the Statue of Liberty with its moving inscription about welcoming the “tired,” “poor” and “huddled masses” notwithstanding. As the grandson of Italian–American grandparents who entered this country one hundred years ago at Ellis Island and the port of Boston, I have found this discourse about immigration, frankly, insulting. Such vicious talk about national identity becomes even uglier, however, when it concerns matters of religious faith. For fifteen years, I taught a fall semester, religious-studies course called “The Heirs of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, & Islam,” and I did this with the certain knowledge that all three of these monotheistic religions claim Abraham as their ancestor in faith, albeit with very different interpretations of that relationship, as Harvard University’s Professor Jon Levenson has demonstrated in his recent, magisterial book “Inheriting Abraham.” So, on the eve of this contentious presidential election, it seems only “right and just” that we should use the occasion of this morning’s Gospel, which ends with the words, “he too is a son of Abraham,” to reflect on Jesus’ criteria for judgement on these highly contested issues.
These questions of identity and religious faith were definitely NOT settled matters in either Jesus’ life-time or in the centuries that preceded and followed his death and reported resurrection. Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of east Asia and the arrival of Greek language and culture there in the fourth century BCE, the Jewish people were divided between those who embraced the new language and culture of their conquerors and those who opposed it. When the Syrian Greek satrap Antiochus IV sought to mandate Jewish assimilation into Greek identity and culture by forbidding circumcision and desecrating the Jerusalem Temple, the priestly family of the Maccabees rose up in successful rebellion against the Greeks and their Hellenistic Jewish sympathizers, a victory celebrated to this very day with the annual Jewish festival of Hanukkah. When the Romans occupied the Levant in 66 BCE at the invitation of rival, Hellenized Jewish claimants to the High Priesthood and the rule of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, Jesus’ Jewish world became an occupied province of pagan Rome with its deified emperors. So, by the time Jesus entered world history’s rather crowded stage, there were at least six distinct and, sometimes, overlapping ways to be an observant Jew: you might be a Sadducee, a Pharisee, a Zealot, an Essene, a Samaritan—or none of the above. Each one of these multiple identities claimed to be the true “heirs of Abraham” with its own unique understanding of the reality and role, if any, of a future Jewish “messiah.” Finally, following the death of Jesus, yet another very small cadre of Jews, now referred to as the “Jesus Movement,” was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth had been that promised Messiah whom God had vindicated through his “resurrection from the dead,” “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” inaugurating the long-expected “kingdom of God.”
These intra-Jewish squabbles about the true inheritors of the Abrahamic covenant were further exacerbated by the Jewish understanding that there were only two sorts of people in the world: Jews and “gentiles,” the “nations.” When some of these “goyim” expressed an abiding interest in first, Judaism itself, and later, in so-called Jewish Christianity, the picture became even murkier. Saint Paul in his Letters and Saint Luke in his Gospel spoke especially and very pointedly to this group of gentile “God-Fearers,” as they were known at the time, and the question of Jewish identity and Abrahamic relationship became even more contested, especially following the two, unsuccessful Jewish revolts against the Romans and the exile and dispersion of the Jewish people among those same “nations.”
And so, we arrive at this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke who, together with Saint Paul, strongly advocated for the inclusion of both the “gentiles” and the Jewish followers of Jesus as “co-heirs” of the Abrahamic identity and covenant through Jesus Christ, who “had broken down the dividing wall” between them through his death and resurrection. According to Saint Paul’s bold and adamant teaching, without ever annulling God’s unique, eternal, and unbroken covenant with the Jewish people, God in God’s mercy had “grafted” the gentile followers of Jesus “into” the Abrahamic inheritance, with all of its promises and its obligations for justice and mercy, making them “co-partners in the promise.” In the words of the holy prophet Simeon in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of his people Israel.”
In today’s reading from Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus directly addresses all of what we might characterize now as these “hot-button” issues of identity and religious inheritance. The protagonist’s name tells us that Zacchaeus is a Hellenized Jew and is, therefore, probably not very worried over Torah observance. Worse, however, he is a notorious “sinner” by virtue of his occupation: in the colonial Roman enterprise of “tax-farming,” by which Jewish stooges collected taxes from their fellow Jews for a commission on their collection, Zacchaeus is nothing short of a collaborator with the hated, gentile Roman occupiers of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. And he is a “chief” tax collector who, in a region marked by extreme rural poverty, has become very “rich” as a result of his nefarious labors. But something, unspecified by Saint Luke, impels this Jewish collaborator, who is both literally and figuratively “short in stature,” to climb a tree for a glimpse of the famous rabbi from Nazareth as Jesus passes through the city of Jericho on his flinty way to Jerusalem for his almost certain execution. Jesus, with his eagle eye for the outsider and the notorious sinner, bids Zacchaeus to “hurry” down from his perch because, “I must stay at your house today.” And, with that call, the always fickle, volatile, and self-righteous crowd characteristically “began to grumble and said ‘he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” Zacchaeus, however, is so overwhelmed by Jesus’ gratuitous disregard for the rich collaborator’s notoriety and outcast status among his fellow Jews, that he repents on the spot: he promises to give one-half of his possessions to “the poor,” and “If I have defrauded anyone of anything” (which he undoubtedly has as a rich tax-farmer) “I will pay back four times as much.” And with this self-imposed pledge, this Hellenized Jew repents and demonstrates a deep knowledge of the Torah’s law regarding “four-fold restitution” for theft. Following Levitical law and the example of God’s judgement—spoken by the prophet Nathan—against the adulterous King David, who stole his friend Uriah’s wife Bathsheba while her husband bravely fought against David’s enemies at the front, Zacchaeus resolves to compensate his clients in the same way for the lesser offense of fraud. Jesus then instantly acknowledges Zacchaeus’ act of contrition and his status as an heir of the Abrahamic tradition of justice and mercy. Jesus tells the affronted crowd, “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.” With these clear and direct words, Jesus cuts through the murky and complex identity politics of his time and place and expresses his criteria for membership in the “household of God”: repentance, restitution, forgiveness, and fidelity to the Abrahamic covenant of justice and mercy. And unless I have seriously misread the larger “story,” this signals that God in Christ will NOT be checking membership cards at the final judgement.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, over these last two years in particular, we have heard contentious and—dare I say it—vile and disgusting discourse around immigration and American citizens who practice the religion of Islam, another of the three “Abrahamic” faiths. And yet, God’s mandate in the Hebrew Bible to welcome those whom Holy Scripture refers to as “strangers” and “resident aliens,” together with God’s special love and concern for the “forsaken” and the unprotected “widows and orphans,” is clear, consistent, and unequivocal. Today’s reading from the holy prophet Isaiah expresses the certain judgement of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic tradition as well: even ritual concerns and commands are secondary to God’s commandment for justice and mercy, which the psalmist describes as “the foundations of God’s throne.” And, of course, as Christians, we have the unambiguous teaching of Jesus to love God and our neighbor unconditionally. “On these two ‘mitzvot’ or ‘commandments,’” according to Jesus, “hang all of the Torah and the Prophets.” And just in case there is any lingering ambiguity about the identity of “the neighbor,” Christians need only recall Jesus’ response to a direct inquiry about the identity of the “neighbor” in his parable of the “Good Samaritan,” the hated and maligned “other” who succeeds in mercy where the priest and the Levite fail, together with Jesus’ direct command at the parable’s conclusion to “Go and do likewise.” Jesus doesn’t encourage suspicion or disregard for strangers of any religion or ethnicity or social location, and he would be very unlikely to require “extreme vetting” for people fleeing terror and the ravages of war today.
Our obligations as Christians and as world citizens under international law toward refugees from religious or political persecution, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—without any regard for religion or ethnicity—brook no exceptions. And it’s worth remembering that during the 1930s, even after the enactment of the infamous Nazi Nuremberg laws and the heinous pogrom known as Kristallnacht, America turned its back on Jews fleeing genocide because a majority of Americans feared admitting “German spies” as world war inevitably approached. We have beaten our breasts for the last seventy years and declared, “Never Again!” and yet, it has been happening again and again, and on a daily basis, for at least the last five years in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name but a few places. The world has permitted and witnessed four documented and acknowledged genocides since the obscenity of the Holocaust. So Shoah survivor and author Elie Wiesel rightly observed in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1986:
“We [survivors] thought it would be enough to relate a single night in Auschwitz, to tell of the senseless murder, and the outrage borne of apathy; that it would be enough to find the right word and the propitious moment to say it, to shake humanity out of its indifference and to keep the torturer from ever torturing again. We thought that it would be enough to read the world a poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt ghetto to insure that no child anywhere would ever again have to endure hunger or the fear of solitude. It would be enough, we thought, to describe a death-camp’s so-called selection to prevent the human right to dignity from ever being violated again. We thought it would be enough to tell of the tidal wave of hatred that broke over the Jewish people for people everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is regarded as ‘different’—whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim—anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually. A naïve undertaking? Of course. But not without a certain logic.”
My friends, the nations of the world are obligated by the United Nations Charter to undertake humanitarian interventions—including military action as a last resort—in pursuance of our “obligation to protect” against genocide and crimes against humanity. We Americans are required by US law to accept refugees from war-torn places and peoples fleeing political persecution. But most importantly, we Christians are mandated by our status as heirs of Abraham and by our Baptismal Covenant to “persevere in resisting evil”; “to seek and to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves”; to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.” (BCP) By my reading, that requires every one eligible—at a minimum—to vote in this consequential and momentous American election in a few days and, following that election—whatever its outcome—to press in concrete and tangible ways for an end to identity politics and any religious test of loyalty or for admission to this country by respecting the dignity of ALL of the heirs of the Abrahamic covenant of justice and mercy, especially refugees and prisoners of conscience. Then, one day, we will invoke the word “Shalom—Salaam—Peace” not as a faint aspiration, but as a concrete reality in our nation and our world. And, once again in the words of Elie Wiesel, we must affirm by word and by deed that “the only conceivable answer” to the mystery of human suffering “is a moral answer,” because “peace is not God’s gift to his creatures. Peace is a very special gift—it is our gift to each other.”