A story of Affirmation, Inclusion and Reconciliation
These three readings (Isaiah 1: 10 – 18; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12; Luke 19: 1-10), on the surface, look very different and yet there is a common theme running through each of them. In Isaiah we hear the frustration, anger and anguish of God towards a people who maintain the outward semblance of religious rituals, piety and practice but whose heart just is not in it. He exhorts His people to turn to Him, find forgiveness, healing and reconciliation – to be the people they have been called to really be.
In the New Testament: the story of Zacchaeus is so familiar that perhaps we miss what is really happening here. It is a story so often told of a ‘sinner coming to repentance’ and the focus is on Zacchaeus. The people in the crowd however are the ones who learn the greater lesson.
Zacchaeus is a rich tax-collector, collecting money from ‘Abraham’s people’ to give to the hated occupier of their land. He also was physically challenged and thus doubly stigmatized. He was stereotyped and labeled a sinner (all tax-collectors are sinners) and treated as an outcast. Is it any wonder that the crowd did not make way for this short man to encounter Jesus and why they grumbled so much when Jesus engaged with him? Yet Jesus did notice him, did enter into dialogue and even invited Himself to Zacchaeus’ home. Zacchaeus is delighted and declares: ‘half of all my goods I give to the poor and if I have wronged anyone I repay them four-fold.’ In earlier translations, Zacchaeus says all this in the present tense i.e.: I am already doing this. Jesus affirms him and makes a clear statement that Zacchaeus is one of them by declaring that salvation has come ‘to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’ In so doing, Jesus is reinstating his place amongst the others, no longer to be excluded and thus offers the possibility of reconciliation between Zacchaeus and his fellow-man and reconciliation to God.
In Thessalonians, Paul and others offer warm encouragement to the persecuted Christians there, acknowledging their rapid growth in numbers and the wonderful manifestations of their Christian belief: their faith, their love and their perseverance (hope).
These three readings have the same underlying theme. God is more concerned about a pure heart and intentions than the outward trappings of religiosity. He reaches beyond and through the exclusion, the stigma, discrimination and judgments to the heart and He reminds us what His true mission is: ‘the Son of man came to seek and to save those who were lost.’ The message is just as strong for the crowd as it was for Zacchaeus and calls us to repentance and reconciliation with each other and with God Himself.
To think about:
- Who are we stereotyping and excluding on the grounds of the work they do, the system they are a part of or the disease in their body?
- Where are we in the crowd?
- What would Paul write about us and our response to those on the margins and those who live with HIV?
Written by: Dr Sue Parry, Southern Africa Regional Coordinator of the Ecumenical HIV & AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA)