Searching for Redemption


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

November 17, 2019

Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2: 1-5; Luke 19:1-10

       Now, I know what you all are thinking—that I like the story of Zacchaeus because the text says he’s short. Well, that’s certainly one reason I like this story but there are others. One is the fact that Zacchaeus is prepared not to let his lack of height get in the way of what he needs to do. In this case, it is to see Jesus. 

       So often I see people who turn a supposed limitation into a real one. And that, quite frankly, irritates me. My parents would rail against persons who used their deafness as a limitation. And they inculcated that into me. I know when I see a deaf person selling those little sign language alphabet cards, I still end up coming over and repeating what my parents said: “Shame! Shame!”

      It’s easy to fall into the trap of using a supposed limitation as an excuse for not taking responsibility for our actions—or the lack of them. It’s too easy to expect that salvation, the change we need to make in our lives, will just bump along and move us with the flow. It’s not like that at all.

       Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Not the ordinary bureaucratic ones we see at the local IRS office, but someone with power even beyond that those bureaucrats can even imagine. Tax collectors in his day were known for overcharging and taking the balance. They were also hated as being representatives of Rome.

       The name Zacchaeus is an example of Luke’s wonderful play on words. The name has the same Hebrew root as fidelity or righteous, but in Luke’s eyes he was neither. He was a tax collector, agent of an occupying power, and he was rich, which indicates that he either did skim off the top or was paid well for his service, seen as collaboration with Rome.

       It’s clear from other passages in Luke’s Gospel that the writer doesn’t think much of those who are rich—the Lazarus story, the truncated version of the Beatitudes are but two examples of his view of wealth. Zacchaeus, of course, like many who are wealthy in our time, wants to justify himself: think Sackler.

       Now there are wealthy people in our own time, such as Warren Buffet, who have said they will give away just about everything before they die, but we have to ask: Is that redemption? Students of American history will recall that Carnegie created all kinds of endowments, established libraries, and funded education, but that came after he had earned his fortune by working men to the bone in spite of his professed belief in labor unions.

       So, we should ask, what is redemption? And for what do we need to be redeemed? Some African American activists want what they call reparations as a redemption for slavery. But, we should ask, what does that really mean? Certainly not forty acres and a mule as was promised by General William Tecumseh Sherman in his Special Field Order No 15 following the Civil War.

        And should redemption for the slaughter of Native Americans be more than an apology by Brad Upton, the great-grandson of Colonel James Forsyth who led the attack on the women and children at Wounded Knee suffice? Or do we really need to take the concerns of Native Americans today, the largest group of people living below the poverty line, seriously?

        Zacchaeus strives for redemption by promising to give half of his goods to the poor and to return fourfold of what he may have defrauded someone. But if you read the text carefully, you will see that Jesus did not demand that of him but simply accepts him as a “son of Abraham,” that is to say his profession, if you will, did not exclude him from the community of fellow Jews.

       I think the clue here is that we should not exclude anyone from our community, which is not just this church, or even just Middletown or Monmouth County, but that redemption means we accept all persons as one with us. Sounds okay, even not that difficult, but it is more difficult than we are willing to admit. And I suspect that is true for all of us who call ourselves liberal in social attitudes.

        Redemption means more than just outward behavior; it also means a real change of heart, perhaps the most difficult part of redemption. I have to admit that I wonder about the people who go to these so-called galas and get their photos in the New York Times as attendees. Are they there to really support a cause or to let others know they support a cause or to be in the social section of the paper?

       And, then, I ask myself, who am I to judge others when I often feel unredeemed myself? It’s really difficult to read sections of Luke’s Gospel – or any of the other Gospels – and feel – well – redeemed. I guess that is what is meant by approaching our salvation with fear and trembling. 

       How is it that we are redeemed? Fortunately, few, if any, are close to having to find redemption as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Somehow having become convinced that his wife Hermione has been unfaithful to him with his best friend, he sends her off to jail and when she gives birth, he has the baby put into the wild to die. However, the oracle of Delphi tells him he is a tyrant and Hermione is innocent, he spends the next fifteen years in so in solitude until the daughter is found, the wife is home from hiding, and all’s well that ends well. 

       The problem is, of course, most redemption stories don’t end up like one of Shakespeare’s happier endings; they tend to end up more like Othello. Our regrets, of course, don’t necessarily end with murder and suicide – sounds like a Verdi or Puccini opera, doesn’t it – just usually regrets of not being able to undo what we have done. 

       We all have our secret regrets, the acts we have done from which we wish we could be redeemed. In many ways, it’s not as easy as just passing off half our worldly possessions to the poor – or is that too much to ask as well?

       There are other examples of personal redemption beyond plays set in ancient times by Shakespeare. Les Miserables, vying with War and Peace for the longest novel ever written, is a classic story of redemption. Inspector Javert unable to accept the fact that Jean Valjean has been redeemed throws himself into the Seine. And isn’t that how society responds when confronted with redemption?

       I remember having heard Will Campbell at Battell Chapel at Yale telling us that what we most feared in 1973 was the idea that Nixon might actually realize the error of his ways and seek to be redeemed. That would have meant forgiveness.

        Forgiveness, to be sure is an important part of redemption. And when we are speaking of redemption, who is it we forgive? Ourselves? And from whom do we ask forgiveness? Those whom we have wronged – or God – or both?

         The prophet Habakkuk was writing at a terrible time that between the death of King Josiah in 609 and the Babylonian exile in 587. He was looking for the redemption of the people from the constant threats they experienced by being between two empires. His cry is much like our own: O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? 

        Habakkuk probably had an image of God different from the one most of us have, for sure. Habakkuk’s God was to intervene in events, punish and reward as was called for. I daresay most of us do not share that image of God. But possibly we do share the image of a God who embraces us and helps to redeem ourselves.

        So how are we redeemed? Zacchaeus gives us a clue: By redeeming the emptiness of others. We are redeemed by being in community with others wherein we can share our deepest concerns and greatest joys with others. When Zacchaeus says he will give half of his possessions to the poor, he is saying that he is part of their community, a statement that Jesus validates by telling him he is a son of Abraham, part of the community.

        We are redeemed through and with others. And for our ability to be with others, thanks be to God and to Jesus Christ, who came to show us how to live in community, one with another. Amen.