Why do we like Zaccheaus but never want to identify ourselves with him and his ilk?
As kids growing up on a farm post WWII we loved to play war games. Near our house was a hillock full of granite boulders and broken craggy trees providing an ideal spot to build forts from which to recreate great imaginative battles. The problem was no-one wanted to be the baddy. Everyone wanted to be the goody. So we often ended up defended ourselves from imaginary enemies who threatened the safety of the world!
Nobody wanted to be or identified as the baddies then, and no one wants to do so when they grow up. We can easily recognise the failure and faults of others and easily draw a line between ourselves and “them”, because we always find a way to be seen to be a goody. We exaggerate our perception of ourselves as being good people and are often blind to our baser nature and our real selves. Rarely do we see the sin of others in our own actions, thoughts and words. We are always in the right.
When we read the gospel stories, such as Luke’s story about Zaccheaus, we are appalled at the elitist position of the Pharisees and take a stand next Zaccheaus, defending him from the nasty Pharisees. Yet Zacchaeus was a thief, a robber, a person who did indeed spend much of his time taking money from the poor to feed the rich – that is himself. He was no angel. He was indeed a villain.
I would suggest he would be someone we would rather not be seen with, let alone share a meal with. If he moved in next door we wouldn’t invite him over for a welcome drink. Zaccheaus was no good. Yet we defend him and not the Pharisees. We fail to see ourselves in the Pharisees or in the bad guy.
Jesus not just says hello but goes home with Zaccheaus. Zaccaheus makes a big statement about returning what he had taken, rather grandiosely, and Jesus pronounces salvation has been witnessed. Those standing by condemn both of them. They stand with neither Jesus nor the chief tax collector.
And this is too easily the default position we can take for ourselves, the place of immunity, untouched by faults exhibited by others unable to place ourselves among them. In an individualistic worldview, the fault always occur elsewhere. It is not I but you who does these things I abhor.
Along with this goes the act of accepting inappropriate behaviour from those who are apart of our inner circle or those we spend time with. We are blind to the fact that some around me, if not me, are behaving badly. We make excuses, allow things to go on unchecked and refuse to call out bad behaviour because they are ‘nice people’, ‘well intentioned’, ‘mean no harm’.
The church has found itself caught in this trap. Abuse of all kinds have been tolerated, ignored, excused with statements like these. We have found it difficult to recognise sin in ourselves and in others because we want to see all those around us as good people. Therefore we tolerate behaviour that would elsewhere be called out and dealt with as inappropriate.
Much of such behaviour is entrenched and requires deep and honest self reflection by individuals and by communities to change. It is painful, costly and lengthy. The tax collector makes a start in the euphoria of the moment but will have to actually put his words into costly and embarrassing action. He will have to admit to the extent of his inappropriate behaviour. There are no shortcuts. He will have to confront people who are understandably angry, upset and very unforgiving yet that what it means to be saved in an ongoing manner. Salvation is a process and he will find the process difficult.
The church and us here at St Oswald’s are on a similar path. Due to the types of behaviours which have been allowed to occur in the past and continue to day, not just child abuse but the more subtle, and sometimes not so subtle manipulation of others to get our way, we are faced with making changes which protect and support all.
The Diocese has developed a comprehensive process for dealing with such issues and we will explore this more fully in January with a seminar on such. Until that time there will be several changes occurring around the parish to ensure the safety of all. For example, the parish centre will become the hub of parish life. All staff will work out of the parish centre to ensure people are supported. All appointments to discuss any issue with staff (vicar, secretary, organist or choir director) will be scheduled and held within the parish centre when the centre is open and staffed. A new approach to governance is being adapted for the parish to ensure we comply with best practice and the changes to the new Diocesan governance act.
These may seem cumbersome but are necessary because, whether we like it or not, not everyone we encounter is perfect, like we are. Like Jesus we recognise that the tax collector has to start somewhere on his process of redemption. Simply by recognising the tasks he needs to carry out he has taken the first steps towards salvation. Those around Jesus and the Zachheaus are yet to do so. They are still transferring their failures onto the baddy and holding fast to their righteousness.
The world outside the church is looking at us for the signs of accountability and repentance and until we are honest with ourselves and face up to our sins they will remain critical and sceptical of us.
So where do we start? Well, we could begin by:
Being aware of why we do and say things to others;
Being mindful of the impact our words and actions may have on others;
Being mindful of personal space and boundaries;
Thinking before we speak and ensuring what we say is appropriate for the person, time and place;
Being prepared to honestly reflect on our motivations – what is behind what we want to do?;
Being mindful of the big picture and not just what we want to achieve?
Being aware that we are to be concerned with our behaviour and not pointing the finger at another, the sin here of the bystanders.
Zaccheaus encounters Jesus and begins the long road back to redemption in his society. Whether he ever made that journey, we will never know. But Jesus endorsed his commitment to do so and his willingness to begin the process of deep personal assessment necessary. In AA, an important part of the process to sobriety is to write an inventory of all whom you have hurt and then to look at how you can set things right. It takes honesty, humility and great courage to do so. Zaccheaus had that ahead of him.
As we the church begins to put right what we have made wrong, as we as individuals in the church reflect on the role we have played and may continue to play in continuing inappropriate behaviours, we too have a long road ahead of us. Like Zaccheaus we can commit ourselves today to the necessary self awareness to make that possible.