The dignity of each person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.
The Venerable David Stanton Sub-Dean, Canon Treasurer, and Archdeacon of Westminster
Sunday, 3rd November 2019 at 11.15 AM
If one walks around the more affluent shopping streets of Westminster and Chelsea, its no accident to find a higher density of homeless people begging for money than in most other parts of this country.
There’s a certain parallel here between highly affluent 21st century central London and the ancient and well-healed city of Jericho during Jesus’ lifetime.
From biblical times, Jericho was a winter resort for rulers and rich people in Palestine. Roman generals, including Pompey, knew Jericho well; indeed Herod the Great built his winter palaces there.
In those days the oasis attracted bustling activity, and historians such as Pliny stressed Jericho’s economic and military importance.
During Jesus’ time, Jericho was flourishing with the construction of numerous sumptuous villas, the cultivation of date palms, and the production of good wine, spices, and perfumes.
Indeed the Holy Scriptures describe Jericho as a city of palm trees. Since Jericho catered to the rich and powerful during the time of Jesus, homeless outcasts often lined the roads in and out of town because it was a good place to encounter the well-to-do traders and political elites.
Jesus is said to have passed through Jericho twice: once when he cured the two blind men and the other (as we heard in today’s gospel reading) when he converted Zacchaeus, the tax collector.
Jericho was one of the places that Jesus made a point to visit on his trips to Jerusalem, and this his last journey to the region before his trial and execution was no different.
In those days, Rome subjected the people to what was known as a tributary tax system. So above and beyond paying taxes to local magistrates, they were also taxed with the burden of paying financial tribute to Caesar.
To this end, the Empire used local agents in the community to collect these taxes. Quite often tax collectors would make the payment to Rome first, then, like a modern day unscrupulous rent collector, they would resort to extreme and exploitative means to recoup their money.
Violence and harassment were common, and the mere fact that local tax collectors were willing to collude with the Empire for personal gain was not lost on the people.
Tax collectors were viewed as the lowest of the low. But more than that, Zacchaeus was a rich tax collector. Today he would be put in the same bracket as a drug dealer or an unscrupulous landlord. His wealth being in proportion to his willingness to exploit others.
Nevertheless, Zacchaeus is profoundly moved by Jesus. The scriptures tell us that when he heard Jesus was coming through Jericho, he sought him out. He wanted to see Jesus for himself.
This causes Zacchaeus to do something that would have been considered embarrassing or uncouth, particularly for a wealthy man of his standing.
Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up a tree. Like an energetic teenager he runs ahead and climbs a tree just to get a better view.
If this happened in front of us today we would probably just stand there, looking quizzically at the sight before us. I am sure this is exactly how others looked at Zacchaeus. Yet Jesus looks at us differently.
Jesus does not see Zacchaeus as foolish, but rather Jesus sees his growing faith. Where others in the crowd may only see a wealthy tax collector, - Jesus sees an expanding heart. Where others just see a short man climbing up in a tree, - Jesus sees someone trying to figure out how to live a better and more balanced life.
We are prone look at outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. So when you encounter someone sleeping on the street or asking for money, do not allow your own insecurity to judge and condemn quickly, for, just like God himself, we should be concerned with possibility and potential.
God looks beyond the surface. He sees not just the complex beings that we all are, but he also sees the capacity for who we can become. In a very similar way, Jesus had faith and trust in Zacchaeus’s potential and possibility.
This causes this particular tax collector to begin to look again at himself and indeed the responsibilities he holds to those around him. Indeed its important for us to discern how Jesus was willing to welcome him with grace rather than judgment.
This causes Zacchaeus to see things through a new lense and he begins to understand others with a new grace and compassion.
There is so much that we too can learn from Jesus and Zacchaeus. Just as there is a lot that we can learn from one another, particularly those whom we stumble across in unexpected places.
At the end of the day, our lives need not be valued by wealth, but rather by our contributions to others. For in God’s eyes, the height of our humanity is not measured by money or physical beauty.
Our height is measured by the depth of our commitment to serving one another - seeing one another as God sees us, not so much as how we would like others to see us, but who we can become.
In a world warped by materialism and declining respect for each other, we proclaim that each individual person, whatever they have done or suffered, is special to God and that the dignity of each person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.