Proper 26(C): The Whole Story
By: The Rev. David Clifford
If you grew up in the church as I did, you probably know this particular story from scripture very well. I am fairly sure I knew the story of the wee little man named Zacchaeus, who climbed the sycamore tree, “for the Lord he wanted to see” even before I could read the actual scriptural account in Luke’s Gospel. It is a noble thing that we teach our children the stories from the life and ministry of Jesus. However, we fail our children, faith, and God when we fail to continue teaching them as they get older. While I knew this particular story from the children’s song taught to me in Sunday School, it would not be until my time spent in undergraduate classes studying the scriptures academically that I would truly begin to read and understand this scripture.
If we only hear of the wee little man from the Sunday School song, we miss the context of who Zacchaeus represents in the Gospel. Zacchaeus is described in Luke’s Gospel as a “chief tax collector” and “rich” (verse 2). In the context of Luke’s Gospel, this puts Zacchaeus in the role of outcast. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary sets the context of the outcasts for us:
In Luke, the tax collectors function as the prototypical outcasts—those whom Jesus befriends. Roman officials contracted with local entrepreneurs to collect the prescribed indirect taxes, tolls, tariffs, and customs fees in a given area. These entrepreneurs, the “chief tax collectors,” were required to pay the contract in advance. They would then employ others to collect the taxes with the hope that the amount collected would yield a profit. The system, not surprising, was open to abuse, and Jews who collected taxes for the Romans were assumed to be dishonest and were hated by other Jews for their complicity with the Gentile oppressors.
If we only know of Zacchaeus’ short stature and tree climbing capability from the Sunday School song, we may fail to understand his context and entrepreneurial zeal for making a profit off his own people. If we fail to recognize this context, we may not quite understand the crowds muttering and grumbling (depending on our translation) and calling Zacchaeus a “sinner.” Zacchaeus’ “sin” was not his wealth, but his work for and with the Roman oppressors. Zacchaeus is an outcast in the town of Jericho.
This story is not so much a story of a wee little man climbing a tree; rather, it is good news for all who may be considered outcasts in any way. For many of us Christians, we assume that those who sin and find themselves outside of a relationship with Jesus are lost and need to be saved. We fail to realize this is a reality for all of us as finite creatures. Especially in our day and age of thinking everything that happens in the world is an attack on us as Christians, we must constantly remind ourselves of God’s preferential treatment of the outcasts.
Richard Beck is an author and professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. Beck is also a prolific blog writer, writing almost daily at his blog, Experimental Theology. I find Beck’s work interesting in the ways in which he combines psychology and theology. In one of Beck’s blogs from December 2013, he shares an advent meditation from the bible study he leads at a local prison.
In this particular post, Beck describes the controversial art released in 1987 by photographer Andres Serrano entitled Piss Christ. Beck describes the photograph and its controversy in the following:
Piss Christ was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a mixture of blood and urine. The work broke into public consciousness in 1989 when members of the US Senate expressed outrage that Serrano had received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Senators called the work “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent.” One Senator said, “In naming it, [Serrano] was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.” Later, in 1998, the National Gallery in Melborune, Australia was closed when members of a Christian group attacked and damaged Piss Christ.
Maybe you can relate to the Senate and their outrage? Maybe the image of Christ juxtaposed with the urine borders on the blasphemous for you?
Beck points to this reaction and yet shares another view in his prison bible study and blog:
Piss contaminates the Christ.
This is an example of the attribution called negativity dominance in judgments of contamination. That is, when the pure comes in contact with the contaminant the pure becomes polluted. The negative dominates over the positive. The power is not with the pure but sits with the pollutant.
This is why the Pharisees see Jesus becoming defiled when he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The pollutant—the tax collectors and sinners—defiles Jesus, the pure. The negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Thus it never occurs to the Pharisees, because it is psychologically counter-intuitive, that Jesus’s presence might sanctify or purify those sinners he is eating with. Because pollution doesn’t work that way.
Thus, in the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.
But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively—and blasphemously—believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.
It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the “piss” of our lives.
Psychologically, it seems counter-intuitive that something pure could clear the pollution it comes into contact with. At the very least, it goes against most of the chemistry and science that we have been taught. And yet, this is the good news of our scripture. Christ is stronger than the sin in our lives. Christ can purify each of us of the contamination of our finite lives as human beings. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is constantly meeting, living, and eating with the outcasts of the world. Many Christians today would have a field day on social media if they were to see Jesus sharing his life with such outcasts. They believe, like the US Senate in 1989, that the negative is stronger than the purification of Christ.
The story of Jesus and Zacchaeus is so much more than a story of a wee little man who wants nothing more than to see Jesus. It is yet another reminder than Christ is stronger than contamination and “piss.” As Christians, it often seems that we are quickest to judge. We believe that the outcasts and their “sins” will contaminate the sanctity and purification of our church and faith. When we judge the others around us in this way, we insult the forgiving power of Jesus…and God’s Grace. Real blasphemy, as Beck points out, is thinking the sin of the world is stronger that Christ, and not believing that the sacrificial love of Jesus can purify the world. The next time we as Christians have the urge to cry out blasphemy and point out sin, we might do well to remember two things: the first is that we all sin and fall short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23). The second, and more important, is that Christ is bigger than sin. The Gospel and Good News is that Christ can purify the contamination and piss of our world and our sin.
The Rev. David Clifford is a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN, where he graduated in 2014 with degrees of both Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling. David currently serves as Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, TX, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading and lives with his wife and three children.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Volume IX, pg. 356.
 The NIV translates that the crowd “began to mutter” while the NRSV translates that the crowd “began to grumble.”
 Beck, Richard. Piss Christ in Prison: An Unlikely Advent Meditation. December 22, 2013. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/search?q=piss+christ&submit=Search