Rev. Dr. Anita Farber-Robertson
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through.
And there was a man named Zacchae'us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich.
And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature.
So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way.
And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchae'us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today."
So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully.
And when they saw it they all murmured, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner."
And Zacchae'us stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold."
And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost."
Approaching Palm Sunday, we think of the cheering crowds, the excited welcoming of this spiritual teacher to Jerusalem by the spreading of branches and the waving of palms.
There are biblical scholars with a different theory about those palm branches:
they were a conscious symbol of Jewish nationalism and resistance to Roman occupation, Jesus of Nazareth was seen by many of his fellows Jews not only as a spiritual savior, but as a political one too. Local coins of the day … show a palm branch stamped over the image of the Roman emperor … leading researchers to believe the branches had a significance not mentioned in the scriptural accounts...1
It is the same story we know, but with a different twist- a little more revealing of the complicated truth.
What was going on was not simply a happy crowd gathering to cheer their hero. It was not like the homecoming parades we have for winning sports teams. It was more akin to the gathering of Sanitation Workers in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King came to support them in their strike. Yes they were glad to see him, thrilled and relieved to have a capable leader and spokesperson to galvanize the people and speak compellingly about the justice of their cause. In Memphis they welcomed Dr. King as an ally in their continuing struggle. In Jerusalem, the palms they waved were like placards carried by marchers in Memphis, or like T-shirts with rainbows on them worn at a rally for Gay Rights, or fingers held up in a peace sign by those at an anti-war gathering. The palms were political statements made by the wavers, identifying as resisters to the occupation, as people ready and willing to work for change.
We often think of these palmwaving crowds of welcomers like people on a parade route- somewhat engaged, excited, and enthusiastic for the moment, yet ready to go home to their lives and families, safe and secure at the end of the day.
It turns out it was not so simple. Those people waving palms had “outed” themselves. They had let it be known publicly which side they were on. It would be hard to go back to the old familiar way of living. They would be watched.
For these people Jesus was more than a hero to be ogled and admired from afar. He had called out their courage. He had enticed them to come out, to declare who they were, what they cared about and which side they were on. They heard the message he had been preaching and which had come to them as a legitimatizing of their struggle and their cause; they welcomed him into their city, as one of their own. He would reach them, teach them, coach them in their struggle to be free. And they were declaring themselves ready. Ready! Or so they thought they were.
Jesus turned out to be more seditious than they had expected, more ready to overturn the powers that be- not only the political powers and the entrenched religious powers, but most shocking of all, the social structures on which all of those hierarchies of power were built.
The people began by seeking a kind of liberation for themselves. And that is how it often is, with liberation movements. We begin with ourselves. But the story we tell becomes healing and true when we expand it.
The fight for women’s rights expanded to become a movement for abolition. The suffragettes and their struggle for the vote evolved into a struggle for the rights of women workers. Dr. King’s struggle for the rights and opportunities for African Americans became a campaign for the poor of all colors, and eventually a concern to end the war in Vietnam.
Any truly open welcome, it appears, as history reveals, is tantamount to letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle. One welcome leads to the next and the next and the next. First you welcome women. Next thing you know you will welcome tax collectors, immigrants, foreigners, people of color, gay people, young people, poor people, people not like us. It is a slippery slope, this welcome…inevitably seditious. Once you open the door, who knows who will come in... and change your life.
Focusing Questions: Entering Holy Week, what is it that your spirit yearns to welcome? How would you know it if it comes? How would you welcome it? What risks are you willing to take in that welcoming, knowing that you might have to welcome the unexpected or the unwelcome, in order to receive the blessing or healing that you seek?
Prayer: Gracious God, in whom we live and move and have our being, who welcomes us always, without reservation, teach us you ways. Let us sink into the arms of your open embrace and feel the softening of our hearts, the relinquishing of harsh judgments, and the emboldening of our spirits to meet the world where it is, and love it. Let us meet the challenges and receive the restoring power of your Holy Spirit as we enter, once again, the pilgrimage of Holy Week. Amen.
Ethan Rronner, “Biblical Politics”, Boston Globe. March 30, 1996