31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
April 7, 2019
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
As the song says, Zacchaeus was “a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” However, that’s not all he was. He was very wealthy and a chief tax collector. The two always went together in Jesus’ time.
You had to be privileged enough to know the right people to be able to buy the tax contract from the Roman Empire, and you had to be wealthy enough to be able to pay for the tax contract in advance of collecting the taxes.
And being a tax collector always made you wealthier because as long as you paid the contract and on time, the Roman Empire and its bureaucracy didn’t care how much you collected. It was a system ripe for abuse. And it was a system that was heavily abused – because where could the average person go for justice? The Roman bureaucrats did not care about anything other than peace for themselves and maintaining or adding to their power and wealth. And the religious leaders in Jerusalem were equally self-serving.
After Rome conquered Judah and Jerusalem in 63 BCE, they put in place “kings” that were loyal to Rome, “kings” who were an extension of the Roman Empire. These “kings” and their Roman counterparts worked very closely with the temple high priests – as in, if you wanted to be a high priest and sit on Jerusalem’s high court, you had to first be approved by the Roman governor. So as you might imagine, this court of religious elders, who held the “supreme power of life and death” over all Jews, was made up of wealthy landowners, who kept their power and position, as long as they kept the Roman peace. (Reader’s Digest Jesus And His Times, pg 59)
So the average person could not go to the Roman Empire for justice and neither could they go to the Temple authorities, who were also taxing the people to support themselves and the Temple.
No wonder people hated tax collectors. Tax collectors were a symbol of everything that was unjust: a symbol of burdensome taxes that left most people with barely enough to survive; a symbol of the Roman Empire that said you do not belong to God, you belong to the Emperor who is a god; a symbol of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There were very good and legitimate reasons why people hated Zacchaeus and the unjust, oppressive system he represented and supported.
A little heads up here that I am about to talk about a very uncomfortable topic in our society, so I invite you to practice one of those peace techniques I shared last week. Breathe in for 3 seconds; breathe out for 3 seconds. Touch your fingers “Peace begins with me.” Okay, here we go….
In the last few years, I have realized I am Zacchaeus. I represent and support an unjust system, even as I seek to follow Jesus and bring about God’s kingdom of peace and justice for all. My eyes have been opened to the ways I have unknowingly, unquestioningly, participated in a system that consciously and subconsciously oppresses many.
By the time Zacchaeus climbed that tree to see Jesus, the Roman Empire had been occupying the Jewish people for almost a hundred years. Even in our time, that would be 3 to 4 generations of people. The corruption, the oppression, the status quo must have been very ingrained by the time Zacchaeus came along. Perhaps his father and grandfather had been chief tax collectors before him. Positions of power and privilege are often historically handed down.
Perhaps Zacchaeus didn’t know, didn’t realize that his wealth, his privilege, came at the cost of others. Perhaps he just took his life and his world for granted. I have. I never wondered or questioned why there were very few people of color in my hometown and school; why the only people of color were Asian; why African-American students were bused in from Hartford. I did judge them for sticking together, not realizing how intimidating it must have been to be a racial and socioeconomic minority.
In my privilege, in my cocoon, I did not even think about how this experience must have been for them, what their lives, their stories were. I was totally oblivious to my part in supporting racism, in maintaining “an economic and social system [designed to support] those at the very top.” (So you want to talk about race, Ijeoma Oluo, pg 32)
Because that’s what racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and all of the other isms are. They are systems.
In her book, So you want to talk about race, Ijeoma Oluo writes that racism:
was never motivated by hatred of people of color, and the goal was never in and of itself simply subjugation of people of color. The ultimate goal of racism [is] the profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich white men. This is not about sentiment beyond the ways in which our sentiment is manipulated to maintain an unjust system of power.” (So you want to talk about race, Ijeoma Oluo, pg 32)
Are you still calm? Do you need to take a deep breath? I do cause I’m nervous as can be. Let’s all take a deep breathe and remember that if we are going to transform the world, we need to transform ourselves first, and defensiveness and guilt are not helpful in the journey of transformation. They do not open us up to God’s holy and transforming spirit. So let’s take another breathe and look at this oppressive system, this hundreds, if not thousands year old system of injustice and oppression through clinical, discerning, reflective eyes.
Racism is a system. It is not about one person; it is not about two people or even three. It’s about an entire society agreeing, some consciously, some unconsciously, to play by certain rules, rules that define someone as different, someone as less than, and then exploits those people – in the case of racism, people of color – for economic gain.
It’s an unjust system that built the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system, which gives some of us the privilege to travel from sea to shining sea. Have you ever wondered why I84 splits Hartford and North Hartford? Because it was easy to take over the black business district in most cities. After all, these business owners were often denied their right to vote so who could they go to for justice? (PBS, 10 Streets That Changed America) Not the people who were going to benefit from this new interstate system!
Racism is a system, an unjust system, that continues to privilege those in power. From new laws limiting voting rights in Florida and Texas to “Whites Only” signs on the bathrooms and nooses hung from the ceilings at a General Motor’s plant in Toledo, to a little girl I know being told by other Kindergarteners, that she could not play on the jungle gym because she was black – and the principal of that Plainville elementary school telling her parents that “kids will be kids”.
Racism is a system, an unjust system that separates people, that labels someone as less than, all to benefit one group financially. It’s not so different from the oppressive, unjust system that Zacchaeus participated in two thousand years ago.
But something different happened one day. A man was going to pass through Jericho, a man Zacchaeus had heard about, and out of curiosity, out of this feeling inside that is the Holy Spirit calling, Zacchaeus went to see him, just to get a glance of him.
And Jesus saw Zacchaeus, looked right at him and told him to come down because Jesus was going to eat with Zacchaeus; Jesus was going to go to Zacchaeus’ house; Jesus was going to bless Zacchaeus.
And in that moment, Zacchaeus knew that his life would never be the same. He was transformed by Christ’s love and that kind of transformation invites us to transform the world. Zacchaeus offered right in that moment, immediately, to give half of his possessions to the poor and to conform to the strictest of Hebrew laws by paying back anyone he had cheated four times as much. And while scripture does not say this, those gathered there would have know that Zacchaeus’ actions would have put him out of business as a chief tax collector.
Zacchaeus willingly gave up his wealth and his place in this unjust system – all because of Jesus. Transformed by Christ’s love, Zacchaeus took a step to transform the world with Christ’s peace and justice.
And that is the good news in Zacchaeus’ story for me. Because even though I am a part of this unjust oppressive system, I know that Jesus sees me. Jesus sees us, and he does not condemn us for our part in injustice; however neither can we stay where we are, be who we were, after Jesus invites himself into our homes, into our lives.
Systems of injustice and oppression are not easy to overcome. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither can the ways of Rome be dismantled in a day.
We all have some power though. We have power over our words and our actions, and as our eyes are opened to the systems of oppression and injustice all around us, we, too can take a step to transform the world with justice – seeking a day when there are no longer distinctions, a day when all people are one in the spirit, a day when all people are seen and treated as God’s beloved children.
This sermon includes information learned from So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo; Suits: Racism racing around GM by David Welch, Hartford Courant, Jan 26, 2019; Reader’s Digest Jesus And His Times; Christianity: A Social and Cultural History; Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 4; and the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol IX.