Give Me Understanding
There has been one time in my own life when I was waiting to get a glimpse of someone so popular that people around me were climbing trees to get a better view. It was the summer of 1989, and I was working in Boston, while living in a Quaker boarding house on Beacon Hill. Nelson Mandela had just been released after 27 years in prison, exactly the number of years that I had been alive. I learned that he would be visiting the States and giving a talk in the public bandshell on the green in the park just down my street, along the Charles River. That Saturday morning I left the boarding house early so that I could get a good place to sit. A fellow boarder asked me, “Why?” I’m sure I said something about being fascinated by someone who’d been imprisoned since I was born, but I realized in the moment that I didn’t have words for it. I couldn’t explain how compelled I was to be in the crowd that welcomed someone who never lost his dignity, his resolve, his faith, or his respect for the humanity of his captors over more than a quarter century of brutal treatment. I have since been to Robben Island, one of the prisons in which Mandela was held. A former inmate showed me the tree where guards would string up prisoners by their ankles dropping them on their heads so as to kill them or leave them with massive brain damage. If the human family is going to move forward, beyond our greed, our warring madness, our rationalized inhumanity toward others, it’s because we each become something more like Nelson Mandela. So yes, I wanted to see him for myself, and to hear what the gentleman had to say.
I believe that his talk was scheduled to begin at 4:00 PM. I was there by 11:00 AM. Already the whole great lawn was covered with picnicking people on their blankets. I found a seat on a park bench along the walk that circled the lawn’s perimeter. There were three other men sitting on the bench already. We didn’t talk much. We hadn’t brought things to read. But we bonded in a way of quiet purpose. We didn’t have to explain to each other why we were there. As 4:00 drew closer we completely lost any privilege we’d gained by getting there early. Standing people filled in the great expanse between the stage and us. They stood right in front of our bench. Eventually we stood on our bench. Three more guys joined us in that; the 7 of us stood in a tight row, our left shoulders facing the stage, sandwiched together. Johnny Clegg and Saruka, the wonderful band from South Africa, took the stage. People climbed all the trees to get a view. There were several hundred thousand of us in a rather small area. And then Nelson Mandela took the stage. I don’t remember a single word he spoke, but I remember what he said: Persevere for justice. Don’t let anyone’s treatment of you make you doubt your purpose or compromise your principles. Remember that you are never alone. Remember that you are of infinite value. Remember that you are the one who can end injustice. It was worth standing for hours and climbing trees just to be there.
Zacchaeus, we read, is a short guy, and the crowd that wants to see Jesus is deep. So he climbs a tree. Word must have spread that Jesus is a person who eats with tax collectors; in Luke’s travelogue we read of earlier examples of this. Zacchaeus wants a look at this man. Maybe Jesus is someone who will respect him, who will see him as a person and not as a cheat, who can help him get right with God and others and be the person he knows he is, or that he used to be. Zacchaeus wasn’t just any tax collector, he was the chief tax collector. He wasn’t a civil servant at the JRS, he was a collaborator in the brutal occupation by Rome. The Romans taxed every imaginable aspect of the local people’s lives. Zacchaeus’ henchmen were the ones who bullied it out of the population. Zacchaeus oversaw this and got big kickbacks. The system was corrupt from top to bottom and Zacchaeus became a rich man from it. When the prophet Amos excoriates those who would “sell the poor for a pair of sandals,” he is talking about Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is among the vicious elite of whom the Psalmist writes, “[T]hey have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble, as others are; they are not plagued like other people. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth” (Psalm 73: 4-9). Zacchaeus, clothed in extortion and violence, got rich off the backs of his own people. He was a traitor of the first order.
Jesus wants to talk to him – and not just a chat there on the road, Jesus wants to stay at his house. The big crowd that’s gathered starts to grumble. How can you respect a person anymore who wants to be pals with Ken Lay, Benedict Arnold, and Leona Helmsley all rolled into one? But Jesus says he’s there to seek out and to save the lost, and no one in the crowd is more lost that Zacchaeus.
Do you remember the theme, the point of your high school or college graduation address? I remember mine from college, woozy as I was from having stayed up most of the night. It was delivered by Jim Lehrer, who had a daughter graduating in my class, and he made his point a good dozen times in a row so that we would all remember it: risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk. We all got his point: you live once, don’t play it safe, make sound judgments, and don’t be afraid to take chances, some of the most wonderful things in your life will come from it. Zacchaeus may never have been noticed by Jesus had he not risked literally going out on a limb, hiking up his robes and climbing a tree. Did all those people he’d fleeced snicker at him? Clearly he didn’t care. He couldn’t be a passive observer. He had to take a chance. He had to go to some extremes. Risk, risk, risk, risk. Perhaps Jesus singles him out because he sees some audacity, he sees someone who may be willing to take some chances in order to be changed, to be saved, someone who might just be able to understand.
And Jesus sees in him a son of Abraham. He sees a traitor, a thief, someone who stocks up money bags at the expense of other people, someone who seems not to care that he causes others’ suffering. But he sees Zacchaeus simultaneously in spiritual terms. He sees him as a beloved child of God. Jesus won’t give up on him. Zacchaeus is still a son of the Covenant with God, a son of the Promise. Jesus still sees promise in him. Jesus shows Zacchaeus some respect, and Zacchaeus comes to respect himself and others, maybe for the first time.
In that moment Zacchaeus understands, he gets it. He understands who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. Zacchaeus goes far beyond what the law requires for restitution. He isn’t just going to pay back what he’s fleeced from the people, he’s going to do it four times over. He’s going to give people four times as much as they were ever cheated of in the first place – he’s giving them more than they deserve. What a windfall! And whatever he has left, he’s giving half of it to the poor; he’s going to help those who need it most, keeping only what he really needs to live on. Zacchaeus understands beautifully the overflowing grace of Christ’s forgiveness. He gets it – he understands. It’s not about deserving, it’s about endless mercy and love to all from Christ, endless mercy and love for all from those who understand Christ. Grace overflowing. “Give me understanding that I may live,” we read in our Psalm for today. Give us understanding indeed, gracious God. Help us to understand your grace so that we may live. Give us the courage and good folly of Zacchaeus to risk, to take chances, to go out on a limb, whatever it takes to expose ourselves to the grace and love that can give us understanding, change our lives, and save our very souls. Give us the understanding that every person on earth is a spiritual son or daughter of Abraham – your own beloved child.
I think that Nelson Mandela and some others who have been exposed to the worst of human brutality were able to keep their sanity and their sense of dignity because they never lost the ability to understand that their tormentors are sons and daughters of Abraham, children of the living God. They – we – do things of indescribable cruelty to one another. Our actions may have the most negative value possible, but nothing any person does can compromise their infinite human value. Those who understand this cannot be tempted to match others’ evil actions, to forfeit their respect for themselves or others, or to become haters themselves, people capable of brutalizing others. This is how Jesus can eat with sinners – can invite himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, and how he can forgive, in the very midst of his own execution, those who are putting him to death. Jesus never forgets what anyone has done, but he also never forgets who they are.
May God, indeed, give us understanding that we may live, live to God’s glory in every place and every time.