We have been talking about “the other” a lot lately. Will Willimon was here earlier in the month to talk with us about his book, “Fear of the Other.” “The other” is defined as “one who does not belong; one who is different or distinct in some fundamental way.” “The other” is not usually a positive term, but rather denotes one who is outcast, considered outside “the norm,” even one who can be seen as less worthy, less intelligent, less moral, perhaps even sub-human in a sense. People spurn the Other, make fun of the Other, avoid the Other. There has unfortunately been a lot of categorizing people as “others” in our current political scene. It has been ugly on all sides.
If ever there was an “other” in the Gospels, it was Zacchaeus. He was despised by his own people because he chose to be employed by their oppressor, the Romans. And he took their money from his own people. As did most tax collectors, he probably took more than was required, so that the tax collectors themselves became rich. Zacchaeus was wealthy, the text tells us. But he probably also did not have friends among the Romans, because he was not one of them, he was just a worker for them, and was one of the oppressed. So he was an “other” to the Israelites, and he was an “other” to the Romans.
As far as we know, it was simply curiosity that led Zacchaeus to go see this wandering prophet and healer Jesus. Zacchaeus was a man of short stature. (He was vertically challenged.) He could not see Jesus as he approached because of the crowds. So he climbed up into a sycamore-fig tree. Sycamore trees can grow very tall, and they split near the bottom of the trunk, and have lots of branches, so they are good climbing trees. They are lush in leaves, and produce fruit year round. So Zacchaeus might have thought he was hidden but would have a good view of Jesus in a tall tree.
But Jesus saw him. And without a word from Zacchaeus, Jesus knew his name, knew what he did and who he was. As he did with others in the Gospel stories, Jesus seemed to be able to see right into Zacchaeus’ heart. He spoke to Zacchaeus and told him to come down, and that he would be visiting at his house. By Jewish law, Jesus should not have gone to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus, as an outcast, as an “other,” was unclean, and so going to his house would make Jesus unclean. Yet Jesus did not worry about that. By going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus made a public act of forgiving and restoring Zacchaeus to the faithful community.
We are not told that Jesus lectured Zacchaeus about the abuses of his profession. We are not told that he said a word at all to him about what he did. But for whatever reasons, maybe because Jesus so honored him, Zacchaeus blurted out what he would do to atone for his wrongdoing. According to the Torah, one who defrauded another would have to pay back the original amount plus another 20 percent (Lev. 6:5, Num. 5:7). If the offender was caught and was not penitent, the cost could rise two, four, or even five times higher than the original amount (Ex. 22:1-3, 5-14; I Sam. 12:16). Zacchaeus’ action was purely voluntary. He was not accused of fraud, though he may have been guilty of it. But his repayment was unsolicited and generous.
In response to this generous act of atonement, Jesus declared Zacchaeus and all of his household to be saved. He even called Zacchaeus a son of Abraham, raising him to the same status as the chosen people. Jesus concluded by saying that his task in coming was to “seek out and save the lost” (v. 10).Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reaches out to those who are separated from society by sin, or illness, or lifestyle, and brings them into the fold on an equal par with all the others.
We know from experience that such actions of inclusion can go well, or they can go very poorly. Jesus may have declared Zacchaeus to suddenly be an insider. But that did not mean that the people accepted him readily. The only reaction from the crowd in this story is that they grumbled about Jesus associating with a sinner. So we might suppose that, even though Jesus declared him saved, that Zacchaeus was still snubbed when he walked into the synagogue. Other tax collectors might have called him names like “hypocrite” or “traitor.” The Gospel does not follow up on what happened after this story, but we can imagine because unfortunately we know human tendencies to criticize.
Yet we like Zacchaeus! We know his story, we know the cute song, and, in a sense, we feel like we know him. And so we accept him, even though others who were not there when Jesus declared Zacchaeus righteous might not have been so generous or accepting.
Isn’t that what it takes to help “the other” move from being alienated to being one of us? It takes knowing them, hearing their story, seeing their good deeds. We can ignore “the other” better when we know little about them. It is easier to call someone who is faceless to us ugly names, to make jokes about them, to make fun of them as if they are objects rather than real people. But when we get to know someone who is “other,” suddenly they are no longer so strange or threatening.
As Will Willimon says, “Of course I love my wife, my children; they look like me. When I have loved the Other, as Christ has loved me in my otherness and enmity, then that’s a specifically Christian, counter-cultural, virtually miraculous love.” (Willimon, p. 4). Willimon says that our bent as Christians has to be to move away from xenophobia (fear of the other) and towards hospitality. Willimon even goes so far as to say that not only did Jesus give us the example and the commandment to love the other, Jesus “was other than the God we expected” (Willimon, p. 8). Jesus was other than we expected in part because he “invited to his table people whom nobody thought could be saved, people whom nobody wanted saved. Resisting the clutches of the powerful and the proud, he condescended, touching the untouchable and lifting up the lowly” (Willimon, p. 8). Through the very actions and words of Jesus, we, as followers of Christ, are convicted to welcome “the other” just as Christ welcomes us, every day, every hour, every minute. We cannot pick and choose when or whom we want to welcome, as Jesus calls us to welcome and love all.
It is too often fear that keeps us from welcoming those who are different than us. Willimon points out that fear comes naturally to us, especially when we feel threatened. In order to act as the welcoming committee that Christ calls us to be, we have to figure out how to overcome our natural inclination to fear the Other. It is fear that drives people to say and believe things like, “All Mexicans are thieves,” “All Muslims are evil,” or “All gays are immoral.” That is fear talking.
But, friends, we are better than that! And we can do better. Since we are created by a triune God, a God who is community, we are created for community as well. So, says Willimon, “while the threat functions of the brain are strong and resilient, the human desire to move ‘toward,’ rather than move ‘away,’ can be cultivated and enhanced’” (Willimon, p. 32). This, then, is the work of the church. With a world that is increasingly enhancing, even stoking the fears that divide us, with all the name calling and demeaning of “others,” the Christian call is to turn our world on its head by welcoming and being hospitable to stranger and friend alike. We are called to open our doors and our hearts to others rather than to build up walls between us and others.
“The Washington Post” carried a story on July 10 of this year, in the midst of times when we seemed to have one after another shooting in the news – whether mass shootings or police shooting a suspect, or someone shooting a police officer, the fear and anger were running high. In many ways, they still are. The story said this:
“On the night of the shootings in Dallas that killed five police officers, Michael Waters and Omar Suleiman had known each other barely a year. Waters is the pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church; Suleiman is a nationally known Muslim scholar and one of two imams at the Valley Ranch Islamic Center.” (Really, the two could hardly be any further “other” to one another than this.) “Both were at the rally in Dallas protesting the police shootings of black men when a gunman started shooting. Together with some parishioners, the two found refuge in Water’s church, where they spent the night praying and wondering what they could do to stop violence rather than just react to it. They agreed on one thing: though of different religions and ethnicities, they are brothers.” (The Washington Post, July 10, 2016).
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” In this familiar story, Jesus shows us and calls us to embrace the “Other” as if we knew them, as if they were a brother or sister rather than a stranger. Or in other words, we are to welcome the Other as if they are Jesus. When we put a face on the Other, our fears melt away, and we realize that we are all just children of God, all beloved by God, every single one of us. Jesus ended this story by saying that he came to seek and save the lost. Maybe, if we sit in fear and judgment of others, we are the ones who are “lost.” May Jesus seek and find us, and may we truly follow Jesus’ lead and call to find, and welcome, and love “the Other.”
In the name of the God who is Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.