Along the Road
I have the impression - perhaps you do too - that there is a greatly heightened emphasis in our culture now on living well. (Or, maybe I am simply more attuned to the current fads in an ever-present emphasis on self-improvement and quality of life.) It does seem that, for those of us who do not have to struggle to live, a significant priority is on living well. For growing numbers of people I know, this means “detoxing” - dietary and physical habits that counter the impurities in our bodies from what we have eaten and drunk and from our environment. I think that the huge popularity of yoga these days comes from an impulse to live well, both physically and spiritually. Mindfulness is a key concept to so many people, and meditation as a regular discipline is growing by leaps and bounds. I’m not putting any of this down - in fact, I am trying to do most of these things! I - we - want balance; we want to manage the stress that comes with demanding and challenging lives. We want to live well with our worries; we want to use whatever agency or power we have to promote our physical health, to age as slowly as possible. We want simplicity. We want clarity of mind. We want contentment. We want to live well.
Our two Bible passages for this morning are about the contrast between human ideas of right-living versus those of God and Christ. They are about what we do in order to live well. The verses from Isaiah were written in the years following the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. The decades of exile had wiped out the line of kings descended from David, so now Judea was run by various others jockeying for power.
The great temple in Jerusalem was certainly the center of Jewish faith and practice, but it was more - it was the lynchpin to political power as well. And so the temple was very interesting to the ambitious and power-aware citizens of the region. They became very, very involved in the temple’s administration and in religious observance. They made themselves paragons of religiosity. They observed every new moon, festival, and Sabbath. They brought the most expensive animals to be burnt. They outdid one another in piety - it happens in every religion, time, and region, including here and now.
And to them the word of the Almighty comes through the Prophet Isaiah, saying, “You rulers of Sodom! ...you people of Gomorrah!” This is not how they pictured themselves. They would have expected a divine address to begin, “You paragons of virtue! You upstanding citizens! You models of religious righteousness!” (Let me mention that in the Hebrew Bible the sin of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is not correlated with intimate acts but with greed and injustice.)
So! The leading citizens of Judea live in pious accord with all that they know that God wants them to do. They are living well. Or not?! What’s this about being greedy and unjust? “I bring the most costly and blemish-free animals for the sacrifice,” they would say. “I observe every ritual and festival and make sure that no possible opportunity to manifest my religious conviction goes unused,” they would say. But what the elite people of Judea had done was made the offering of very costly sacrifices the standard of measure of religious devotion, and the rest of the population couldn’t keep up. They tried to do so and it hurt them. They ran out of money for the things they needed, like food. In the eyes of God, the extravagant offerings of the well-to-do weren’t feathers in their cap but attempts at self-promotion that forced the humble into spending more than they could afford in order to “be religious.” This, too, isn’t unique to the time and place of Isaiah’s writing: how often have the tastes of a few made the rest feel a requirement to give as much to church, impoverish themselves to drive the same car, wear the same clothes, all in competition with their pressing human needs. Isaiah prophesies that God rails against the elite for installing, to their own glory, a system in which they will surely win: if true faith is about the monetary value of the sacrifices you bring, the wealthy will always have true faith. God tells Isaiah to say to them: I am not having any of that. Faith resides in the heart, not in the wallet. It begins in the heart, then manifests itself throughout one’s thoughts and actions. Living well is about living faithfully.
And not only this - living well - living faithfully - means living not so that one’s religiosity gets affirmed but so that the human welfare of every neighbor is lifted up. If I am living well, it is not because I have achieved a certain level of material standard of living, but because I have ensured that my neighbors have achieved the necessary, material standard of living. If I want the personal, mental, and emotional leisure to spend time thinking about what truly comprises a life well-lived, I should want this for all my neighbors, which is to say, I should want them not to spend their time wondering how they will eat or pay their rent, but rather on what comprises a life well-lived, on the terms I have set for myself: worship, contemplation, meditation, prayer, exercise, study, self-improvement of body, mind, and spirit. “Nearer my God to Thee” - if I want that for me, I should want that for everyone.
Isaiah’s bottom line to those persons to whom he writes is: if many cannot match the supposedly neutral roles you have established as the foundation for “righteousness,” what does that mean? Your actions and rules apparently serve you. The recent partial government shutdown here in the U.S. brought one furloughed person I know within $500 of being completely broke - she was a pawn in the broader political scheme of quasi-religious righteousness. I imagine that Isaiah would prophesy, as he did several thousand years ago, “You rulers of Sodom! You people of Gomorrah! Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Help the uninsured be healthy.
And then there is our brother Zacchaeus. Luke writes that the Messiah was speed-walking through Zacchaeus’ hometown: “He entered Jericho and was passing through it.” Jesus isn’t stopping, he’s going elsewhere, but Zacchaeus is desperate to interact with him. They only way he can be noticed by Christ is to climb a tree - the crowds are too thick, and he is short. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector, and rich. Tax collectors were those Jews employed by Rome, the occupying power, to extract the monstrously unfair remittances from the local Jewish population. The tax collectors were collaborators with Rome, and had earned an added reputation for swindling the local population of even more money through bribes, lies, and threats. They became rich indeed of the backs of their countrymen. No wonder the good people of Jericho are shocked when Jesus goes to eat at the house of Zacchaeus - he was the worst sinner of all.
Zacchaeus, I think, was inspired by Christ to turn his life around, and he climbed a tree to get the attention of the Messiah so he could tell it to Jesus himself - he would give half his possessions to the poor, and he would repay four times over anyone whom he had defrauded. Zacchaeus is effectively saying that he will give away everything. He will impoverish himself.
He had worked hard all his life (if nefariously) so that he might live well. He had, says Luke, become rich. He must have had all the things that make for a life well-lived: a well-appointed home, many possessions, the ability to purchase whatever he wanted for himself - whatever he told himself he needed. He was, by all accounts, enviable: he was living very well.
But what he had heard about the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth resonated with what, in his deepest heart, he knew was wrong. He saw the results of his actions - impoverished families whose small income was acquired by him through his deceit and threats. He saw the destitution he caused. And he decided that he was not living well. He didn’t try to find Jesus at a tasteful dinner and get a moment of his time; he made his confession of repentance in the most public place possible. Others might have through it humiliating. Zacchaeus knew it was essential to his liberation: his liberation from all he once had thought it meant to live well.
Zacchaeus had somehow learned, and praise God, that living well isn’t defined by the material standard of living we can achieve, or by professional or social or spiritual accomplishments, but by how we live for others. Perhaps he had been reading the Prophet Isaiah! Living well, according to God and Christ, isn’t about living for ourselves, but living so that all may have “the life that really is life.” Living well isn’t about how we live, but about how all are living. Three weeks ago our wonderful text from Jeremiah reminded us that in the welfare of all who are around us, we will find our welfare. We are inextricably bound up in the well-being of all in our midst, especially those we think are least like us. Living well isn’t living for ourselves, but for others.
I recently read the words of a contemporary expert on living well. In these days of particular emphasis on exercise, diet, spirituality, and more, he was asked the key to living well, and he said, “Eat real food.” I think he’s right! I think Isaiah and Christ would agree. “Eat real food” means “pursue real worship.” Eat real spiritual food. God doesn’t care, in any age, what we do ritually with livestock, but what we do daily with human beings. Then and now, living well takes hard work, but do we understand what that work really is?