Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Season for the Reason - meditation, affirmation & sermon

Excerpts from the Coming of the Light service
First Parish Church, Fitchburg, MA 
December 28, 2014 

I. Meditation - Fanning the Light Within
II. End of Meditation Prayer 
III. Affirmation
IV. Sermon - The Season for the Reason 
V. Prayer

I. Meditation - Fanning the Light Within
Focus, if you will, on a lit candle before you.  See the flame, flickering and flowing upward from the wick.  Keep your eyes there and watch it closely for a moment as it glows...

Sometimes we feel lost at sea.  Sometimes we feel adrift and unknowing, alone and seemingly unloved.  We are like darkened lighthouses, unlit and untended, a steeple with no light, saving no one and nothing.  Guiding no one from the danger of the rocks, shepherding nothing into the harboring safety of community.  

But in this next moment, close your eyes and see behind your closed lids the small flame still floating before you.  This is your flame, your fire, your own divine spark.  In your mind's eye, gently fan the flame.  In your imagination, begin to slowly blow on it; don't let it go out, but grow in intensity and heat.  The fire grows steadily.  A match worth of flame at first, growing into a torch, and then a comforting campfire.  Feel the flame become a raging bonfire.  Bask in the warmth of it.  Hot, but not scorching.  Feel the penetrating heat sink into your face, into your skin, into your heart.  This is the fire within you.  Your fire.  Your divine spark, glowing and building and consuming all the fear, all the the negativity, the anger, the rage.  The fire consumes it all.  Leaving behind only the indestructible towering essence of the real you.  The lighthouse.  Ablaze with guiding light and nurturing comfort.  Aflame with a fire that does not consume, but inspires.  

II. End of Meditation Prayer (following a period of meditation)
May I know the light, my own divine spark, that glows within me.  May that sacred fire burn ever more brightly as I become a lighthouse to others.  And to myself.  Amen.

III. Affirmation
I am a part of this spinning Earth.
I am a part of the expanding heavens.
From these two things, and one thing more,
am I divinely made.
I am fire.
I am flame.
I am wisdom.
I am strength.
I am hope.
I am teacher.
I am student.
I am growth.
I am light.
I am light.
I am light.
Blessed be.

IV. Sermon - The Season for the Reason
The amount of daylight today is 26 seconds longer than yesterday.  Tomorrow we get to keep those 26 seconds of today's additional light and then add an extra 31 seconds on top of that.  35 seconds the next, 39 the next.  Not only are the days getting longer, they are getting exponentially longer every day.  The light is snowballing.  The longest night has passed.  The literal and symbolic darkness has lost its ground.  Remember, darkness has no substance.  No wave form.  The smallest amount of light will banish the deepest dark.

So, today, let's celebrate a win.  Let's breathe a sigh of relief that our days are, bit by incremental bit, getting longer, warmer, more productive, more illuminated, more abundant, more alive.  More enlightened.

Welcome to the season of the return of the light.

At this time of year, not coincidentally, we celebrate the birth of one of our great prophets, Jesus of Nazareth.  Considered to be the living embodiment of the Christ energy.  The incarnation of God Itself.  Of light itself.  A savior of humankind.  The great reconciler of humanity and God.

But these statements sound like so much poetry, mythology and fable.  We struggle deeply with them and try to wrest ourselves from their cultural grasp.  But they represent something that is far more tangible than we realize.  Many of us are here in a Unitarian Universalist church because we feel an inherent distrust of words like these: savior, son of God, Father.  So often have they been used to harm and to hurt; even kill.  All in the name of a god and son who are supposed to be about love and light, not abuse, not judgement, hatred, death.  We witness grave injustices committed on behalf of ideas like these.  Jesus Christ, protect me from some of your followers!

As many of us know, Jesus wasn’t actually born in December, but Christianity has placed the celebration of the birth of Jesus at this time of growing light for a reason.  A largely pagan reason, in fact, from which it then promptly distanced itself, and with venom.  The old earth religions make a great annual observation of the return of the light, the return of hope.  The Winter Solstice, Yule, and the birth celebrations of Ra, Cronos, Lugh, Mithra, and Odin among others.  All of these are celebrations at this time of year celebrating the birth of a god.  The coming of a light.  The conquering of darkness is at hand.  May all rejoice. A savior has come.

There are many and varied suggestions for when Jesus might have actually been born.  In the year 2 BCE, on June 17, the planets Venus and Jupiter were in extremely close conjunction, crafting together in the eastern sky what appeared to be a single, great star.  Venus and Jupiter.  Interesting to note, the planet Jupiter was named for the principal Roman god, Jupiter, "whose name comes from the Proto-Indo-European "Dyēu-pətēr," (die-ay-you-pe-teer) meaning "O Father Sky-God.  And Venus is the name of the Roman goddess of love.  So a celestial conjunction of the Father Sky-God and the goddess of Love might have heralded the birth of a divine teacher of peace.  Fascinating to ponder.  Another potential birthdate comes from a similar conjunction on October 9 years earlier of Jupiter and Saturn, not Venus.  However, considering the Biblical reference to the shepherds who were watching their flocks that night, it was more likely in the spring or early summer, rather than October or December, which supports the June 17th date.  So, perhaps Christmas in July isn’t as strange as we’d like to think.

Most of the feast days in the religious calendar are not placed according to the actual births of their subjects.  Placing the celebration of the birth of Jesus at this time of the year was a relative no-brainer.  It was highly necessary, in fact.  In the fourth century, Christianity had a lot of competition.  One thing it didn’t have was a big festive celebration of the birth of its god.  If it was going to compete it needed a birth-of-God celebration of its own or get lost in the more “colorful” seasonal attractions of the other religions.  And by colorful I’m sure you can guess what I might mean.  It was a convenient conversion method, having their very own god called, among other things, the Light of the World.  Come on over to Christianity!  It's just like your old religion, but new and improved!  And in many ways, it was a new and improved thing.

Now, it is claimed by many that Unitarians do not believe in the divinity of Christ.  I don’t necessarily agree with that.  Some do and some don’t.  They say that by not holding up the Trinity as the 3-fold identity of God it precludes an acceptance of Jesus’s divinity.  That unless we agree it’s the Father, Son and Holy Ghost at work here, Jesus has no divinity.  And without his divinity, he’s just some radical hippy from the first century upsetting the apple cart.  But I don’t see any reason why we should not consider Jesus to have been divine.  If you believe the tradition, his humanity was a creation of God’s just like ours all.  And in that spirit our divine spark holds even greater significance for what it may have in common with the divinity of Jesus, our teacher.

Let’s ask a dumb question.  Why do we choose to celebrate his birth?  What did he ever do for me?  Or maybe it’s just because we get a day off and we like presents.  Or maybe we feel herded into celebrating it.  Forced to buy things for people and toast and smile and wear ugly sweaters and eat and eat and eat.  Compelled by our culture to either make merry or feel guilty.  That’s no fun.  So let’s not say that we all celebrate the birth of a master here.  For we don’t all.

But the celebration exists.  An opportunity to reflect on what he taught us during his life exists.  We unpack the tradition of every holiday throughout the year and examine each one as part of our traditions almost every time we celebrate it.  Usually it’s without realizing it.  We celebrate Memorial Day and we hold parades to honor those who have lost their lives in service to our country.  That parade is the unpacking of the meaning of our day of observance for our veterans.  The point of the holiday, of any holiday, is to observe.  Sometimes with honor, sometimes with joy.  Sometimes with both.  When we examine Christmas as a festival it’s an opportunity for giving thanks for the extra bit of light that Jesus brought into this world.  I am thankful for the lesson of Forgiveness.  I am thankful for the example of how to treat others with justice and compassion without judgement.  I am thankful for his example of advocacy and activism and revolt and for both social as well as spiritual recalibration on this planet.

Today let’s celebrate his light.  Let’s reflect for a bit and take a small amount of time to be grateful for what he taught us.  Let’s for a moment dispense with the garish religious bottle that humanity has been worshipping for 17 centuries and read a bit of the message inside it.  It’s the message that matters.  Not the bottle.  Although the bottle has its significance too, for it carried the message dutifully, protecting well its contents through wars and inquisitions and systematic hatreds of its own making.  All the while carrying a message of peace inside it.  Quite an accomplishment, I think.  And one that may have been a conspiracy, but the conspiracy might have been on them all along.

When we look at the message inside we see that there is only one authority: Love.  All the things that Jesus taught us were ultimately about love.  Love of each other.  Love of ourselves.  And lessons on every manner of pathway to achieving a perfect state of communion with the divine spark in ourselves, in one another, and thereby with God. And by doing it we will realize a wisdom and power that can only result in one thing: Peace on Earth.  Jesus asks us to forgive one another.  Put down our swords.  He asks us to have compassion and exist in a state of welcoming.  He admonishes us to avoid judgement and to end cycles of violence.  And that by doing so, we will eventually see a new kind of world, a new kind of kingdom if you will, that we’ve never seen before.  

If you believe in your own divine spark, then you might believe that spark has a point of origin.  If you believe in that, then you might see how we are all a part of that point of origin, a part of a great central spark.  And if you can see that, then you might just see how in caring for each other, in loving one another, in caring for our world, we honor the spark inside of us as well as its source.  And in connecting with Source we will manifest the New Jerusalem we have been promised for ourselves, by our own free will, and all because we have taken the time to not only see the light inside of us, but bless it. Fan it into being.  Not hide it under a bushel, but reveal it in all its resplendency and warmth.  Like a lighthouse for all to see and gain safe passage by.

Live peacefully.  Walk gently.  Love completely and without fear.  Forgive with dignity and with an awareness of self.  Forgiving does not mean forgetting.  It means letting go of the emotional hold it has on you.  The fact of your trauma can stay, but dissolve the emotional impact it has on you.  Render it present but powerless.  Let what others have done to you hold no power over you anymore.  You have the power to exercise your own demons.  Get them behind you.

You are the light.  You are the lighthouse.  You are the bringer of peace or destruction, the choice is yours.  Do you create?  Do you turn the other cheek?  Do you love your enemies?  That’s a hard one.  Right now I want you to think of someone that really pisses you off.  Close your eyes and picture them.  Their smug face, their hostility, their condescension, their rage.  Remember here you are safe.  They cannot harm you.  You are not alone.  Picture your feelings for them emanating upward like a heat from your body.  Now, take a deep breath. Mentally leave them where they are but turn away from them in your mind for a moment. Breathe in a cool stream.  Another breath.  Breathe in coolness and green and water and calm.  One breath more.  Find a state of peace in spite of the fact that your adversary still stands before you.  Now you may turn back to them in your mind and say to them, out loud after me, Namasté.  Namaste is Sanskrit for the God in me sees and acknowledges the God in you.  Say it again, Namasté. Namasté.  In your mind’s eye see the divine spark in your adversary.  See and acknowledge that, aside from all the grief they have caused you, they are a human being.  They may not be a human being you want to spend time with, but that’s not what’s important.  Simply acknowledge their divine spark for a moment even if begrudgingly.  See it glowing inside them even if their hostile surface would prevent it.  Now take another deep breath and make a wish for them.  Wish them peace.  Wish them comfort.  I challenge you to picture them peaceful and comfortable and happy.  Picture them having nothing to inspire them to harm you anymore.  All their discomfort and inner turmoil has evaporated in a puff.  All their dis-ease is now at rest, it troubles them no more.  Picture them smiling and giving a sigh.  Picture placing a single flower in a vase on the floor in front of them.  A peace offering.  Do this even if, and perhaps especially if, they are completely in the wrong.  Even if they are completely guilty of a horrible crime against you.  Give that flower to them without malice or hatred.  Give it to them in the hope that it will change what exists between you and invite a solution that neither of you has ever thought of before.  Let it be a moment for each, you and your adversary, when your humanity falls away and you each greet one another soul to soul, essence to essence - nothing to get in the way of greeting an old friend playing a dastardly role as a spiritual being having a human experience.  Dig deeply into your core, the core that Jesus taught us about.  Find the love there and use it to heal the world.  Starting with yourself.  You may return now.

Does Jesus save?  Only if you let him.  Was he the Way?  Try it his way, and see.  Do you have a reason to celebrate?  Do you have a reason to look past the commercialism and the coercion and the trappings of the season to see a deeper thought?  Celebrate the coming of the light.

V. Prayer
Dearest God, if you are there, if you do indeed send messengers to help us, we thank you.  If you exist on paper may we read it.  If you exist in the air, may we breathe it.  If you reside in our hearts may we feel it.  And if you walk this earth, may we walk beside you.  Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Academic Paper: The Rhetorical Value of the Gospels: Establishing a Platform of Empathy

The Rhetorical Value of the Gospels: 
Establishing a Platform of Empathy
An examination of the use of rhetoric in the Zacchaeus story

Wil Darcangelo, Master of Divinity Program
Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts
December 17, 2014

Luke 19:1-10  (NASB)  Zacchaeus Converted
He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man called by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. 3 Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 And he hurried and came down and received Him rejoicing. 7 When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

  1. Thesis: Storytelling 101
  2. The Value of Rhetoric in Pronouncement Storytelling: Zacchaeus as Everyman
  3. The Big Finish - Last Things First
  4. The Purpose of Rhetoric as a Storytelling Device
  5. The Wealthy Chief Tax Collector, Zacchaeus
  6. Humor of the Grotesque
  7. The Tree of Life?: Symbolism of the Sycamore-Fig
  8. Receiving the Kingdom of God Like a Little Child
  9. A Replicable Act of Repentance
  10. Allow Me to Invite Myself
  11. Why We Like Zacchaeus
  12. Son of Man
  13. God to Earth. Can You Read Me?
  14. Relationship: the Divine Goal
  15. Traveling with Purpose: Final Teachings on the Last Road Before Home
  16. Conclusion: Examining the Divine Structure

Thesis: Storytelling 101
If God is speaking to us, how is that best accomplished?  What do our most efficient techniques of education and storytelling illustrate about ourselves?  To what literary methods do we most reliably respond?  How do we best utilize our observation of that response to learn about who we are?  If God is really judging us for being childlike and childish why does God choose to speak to us on our level?  What does the analysis of rhetoric in Scripture offer in terms of understanding the nature of humanity and how it sees itself?  Rhetoric is merely a tool, yes.  But one that in the instance of Scriptural persuasion, shows us who we are by instigating empathy between reader and subject.  God wants us to see ourselves in Scripture. To feel connected to it and empowered by it.  To learn of our estranged relationship with each other and discover ways we might go about restoring it.  
Rhetoric as a dialectical craft is value-neutral.  It is merely persuasion for the sake of it.  It is an art of manipulation that can be used for evil or good as our individual degree of integrity dictates.  In the Scriptural context, it is a manipulation of our humanity to get it out of the way long enough and keep it entertained, so that we may achieve a glimpse our divinity.  It is a way that we can see ourselves in our neighbors so that we may begin the long task of dismantling the walls that keep us from being in relationship with one another.  Rhetoric is an art of inviting self-identification with a subject.  The goal of self-identification with Scripture is achieving relationship through pathways of empathy.

The Value of Rhetoric in Pronouncement Storytelling: Zacchaeus as Everyman
Lost.  The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.  One could argue, mostly correctly, that the word ‘lost’ is meant to refer to lost men in general.  Men just like Zacchaeus.  Matthew Henry, in his 18th century renowned work, Concise Commentary on the Bible, believes the final word of the Zacchaeus story refers to the world as being ‘lost,’ and that Jesus “seeks those that sought him not, and asked not for him.”1 For the second part, I actively disagree with Henry if he is concluding in these words that Zacchaeus is not seeking him.  He obviously has gone to much trouble, even foolishness, in order to see Jesus; ergo he is definitely not among those who “sought him not.”  And while the world was, and is, arguably ‘lost’ in many regards, though not all, the rhetorical style of this story is meant to make the reader/listener identify personally with the title character, making the supposition that the word ‘lost’ in this instance to define the entire world is incorrect.  Zacchaeus is the one who is lost.
But then again, is Matthew Henry entirely incorrect?  Does Luke mean Zacchaeus is lost, or the world?  The answer is, yes.  The value of rhetoric is in establishing a platform of empathy.  We are the lost.  We are the wicked who run as children up trees in an attempt to look down on the divine.  We are Zacchaeus.  But are we wicked?  Or are we, from the divine perspective, merely foolish and afraid?  Does our childish enthusiasm prevent our salvation or ensure it?  Do our childish actions prevent our salvation, or increase the value of our prodigal return?  
What does Zacchaeus’ joyous response tell us about the value of meeting our own sins head-on, out in the open, and publicly declaring our repentance with words, if we must, but deeds, even more so?  Our deeds save us in the way they get into the fiber of our muscles and the patterns of our behavior.  They are performed by the physical even if they are inspired by the Divine.  And they reinforce our connection to God with each act.

The Big Finish - Last Things First
The final word of the story is the word lost.  How does one go from being lost to being found?  Is ‘found’ truly the opposite of ‘lost’ in this instance?  Actually, it isn’t.  The word ‘lost’ in the final word of Luke 19:10 is a translation from the Greek word apollumi.  Apollumi doesn’t just mean to misplace something like when you lose your keys or your glasses.  Apollumi means to destroy something utterly.  An online search will give you a long and devastating list of nuances and variations of interpretation of the word apollumi.2  Based on how it is used in the sentence and the story it tells, apollumi means lost in the way that something is put out of our experience entirely.  Abolished, put an end to, ruined, rendered useless, killed.  Declared to be put to death, either devoted to or given over to eternal misery in hell.  To perish, to be lost, ruined, destroyed.  To lose.
Good rhetoric is evocative.  Zacchaeus and most of his contemporary civilization were very much lost in this admonishingly descriptive way 2,000 years ago.  One might wish to claim that it hasn’t changed a bit since then, but they would be utterly wrong by comparison.  We are a very different people today than we were.  Two thousand years ago, we were little more than beings of intellect and greed.  That was our duality.  That was what we were manifesting with the gifts of our divine spark.  We used our intellect to feed our avarice without consideration of ethic.  And while significant vestiges of that ugly human attribute are yet lingering and powerful in the shadows of our world today, our full barbarism of the time was predominantly indicated by the fact that the phrase “value of human life” was, historically, an oxymoron.  Human life had no value.  Even Emperors were not worth the golden laurels they sported, and the remnant value of human life only decreased from there according to caste.  
We were a constantly-warring, fractious, barbaric race who fed human beings to lions for sport and nailed people to giant wooden X’s for punishment.  We used our divinely-given creativity to invent the most painful methods possible to inflict misery for the sake of it; and worse, for the entertainment value of it.  This was not an era of corrupt individuals.  At the time this story was first being told, human malevolence was literally codified into the entire culture by its own consent.  It was systemic and pandemic.  It was legal.  It was encouraged.  And people applauded when the government enacted its wrath against someone, as long as it was someone else.  Be glad it isn’t you and cheer loudly when the head rolls.  That’s the world which the word apollumi describes to the Greek-speaking listener of Luke’s time.  They knew full well what lost meant.  To use that word had deep rhetorical value.  To know its meaning now should have no less so.

The Purpose of Rhetoric as a Storytelling Device
In general, rhetoric is defined as the art of discourse.  It is a craft of strong oratory and persuasion.  Not only in storytelling but also debate, public speaking, and especially, preaching.  It is a skill of engaging the attention of the listener using their own common understandings about the world as tools to persuade them to a new understanding.  Luke’s use of rhetoric in the Zacchaeus tale and throughout his gospel is significant in that he deliberately employs a literary style meant to illicit an emotional response from a well-educated, Greek-speaking audience.  Sophisticated gentiles, who were desirous of academic and theological clarification on the story of Jesus.  Even today, each artfully crafted story element is available to us for examination, study, and debate.  Moreover, it behooves the reader to undertake such an exploration because the author chose the words carefully for a purpose.  There are often multiple layers of meaning in Scriptural rhetoric. Uncovering each layer brings the fullness of the story to life.  Luke wants us to be angered, amused, surprised, confused, and beguiled by the tale of the salvation of an unlikely despot.  He wants us to submit to the tale and eventually realize that the villain is actually the hero, the antagonist becomes the protagonist. And that the protagonist is us.
The story of Zacchaeus holds many impactful elements of rhetorical storytelling, making it compelling reading despite its short length. We begin by despising Zacchaeus and laughing at him before realizing that we are him.  And by then, the joke is on us.  

The Wealthy Chief Tax Collector, Zacchaeus
As the story opens we immediately find that our subject is not only a tax collector but the chief tax collector, mentioned by name, Zacchaeus.  He is possessing of a wealth that, given the reputation of the other publicans described in the Gospel of Luke, could be surmised to have been acquired deceitfully.  As listeners we feel the resentment for this man building during the first lines.  Zacchaeus wants to see who this Jesus is.  He wants to know what the big deal is.  It makes the audience wonder suspiciously: What might have been the source of his interest?  Plain old curiosity, as if he had nothing better to do that day and just happened to walk by, or something deeper?  Was he seeking something?  Given that we are inclined to dislike him at this point merely for the knowledge of his occupation, we might first assume that his motivation is less than pure.  Does he have a rock in his pocket?

Humor of the Grotesque
Adding greater entertainment value, and thereby engaging the reader/listener even further into the story is the use of what is called ‘grotesque’ humor.  ‘Grotesque’ in the storytelling sense is defined as “being odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character.”3  The use of comic elements like this define not only the humorous visual image of the title character, but also afford us an invitation to laugh at him.  Specifically here, the diminutive height of Zacchaeus is useful because it further degrades him in our eyes; all the more purposeful for the contrast it creates when the villain later becomes the hero.  
Mikeal C. Parsons in his 2006 book, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, also believes that Luke uses Zacchaeus’s short stature as a physical deformity to make a point.  He explains, “Luke has spared no insulting image to portray Zacchaeus as a pathetic, even despicable character. He paints a derisive and mocking picture of a traitorous, small-minded, greedy, physically deformed tax collector sprinting awkwardly ahead of the crowd and climbing a sycamore tree like an ape.  But Luke exploits these conventional tropes only for the purpose of reversing them in the conclusion of the story.”4 Again here we see an element of the rhetorical storytelling style of Luke: calculated derision.  I don’t know that I would go so far as to infer from the text the number of derogatory adjectives that Parsons ascribes to Zacchaeus (I’m not sure from where he arrives at “pathetic,” “traitorous,” and “despicable,” for example), but it does make the point that rhetorical text is colorful and evokes the imagination.  
Plus, the mental image of a little man running ahead of the crowd to get a good look is just plain funny.  One can almost see him huffing and puffing as he scrambles ahead to secure his viewing spot.  Sharon H. Ringe in her 1995 commentary on Luke, also sees the humor in Luke’s setting: “The story begins as a comedy. Zacchaeus is drawn, not by devotion to Jesus or any high-sounding confession of faith, but by simple curiosity to try to get a glimpse of him. Being short, he decides to climb a tree to get a better view.”5  Ringe may not hold that Zacchaeus is a character of the grotesque the way Parsons does, nor does she ascribe a high motivation for his actions, but the humor and its value to the story is clear nonetheless.
This view is not limited to contemporary theologians.  Augustine of Hippo, also noticing the humor in Luke’s tale, preached 1,600 years ago, “The crowd laughs at the lowly, to people walking the way of humility, who leave the wrongs they suffer in God’s hands and do not insist on getting back at their enemies...Say what you like, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason you cannot see Jesus is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree.”6 An interesting point here is that Augustine invokes guilt as a motivating factor for climbing the tree and finding salvation.  He claims it is shame which prevents us.  Luke isn’t focusing on that in the Zacchaeus tale.  Luke is concentrating on the the long term effectiveness of persuasion and, selecting empathy as the better motivational candidate, opts out of using fear and shame to make his case for transformation.  He doesn’t even give the crowd a chance to do anything more than grumble.  They do not get to fully voice their judgement and scandal which might influence the reader with fear and shame.  For transformation must be done willingly, after all.  We must go to the door ourselves and knock.  The door will not come to us.  The now ex-tax-collector is rewarded in this scene for his actions, not rebuked for his previous life.  This lovingly reinforces Luke’s argument in favor of emulating Zacchaeus’ actions ourselves.

The Tree of Life?: Symbolism of the Sycamore-Fig
Jesus finds Zacchaeus in a sycamore-fig tree, of all places.  One of the most symbolic trees of the ancient world.7  The ancient Egyptians even considered it the Tree of Life.  What might this tell us of Zacchaeus’ place in the pantheon of New Testament stories?  What might the use of this tree in particular figure into the efficacy of the story’s message?
The choice to use a sycamore-fig tree for the setting of Zacchaeus’ climb, as in all rhetorical story elements, is likely no accident.  Considering its symbolic importance to the region, this tree is not gratuitously used by Biblical writers.  In fact, despite its significance it appears only seven times in the Old Testament, and the Zacchaeus story is the only time it appears in the New Testament at all.  So, when considering the placement of Zacchaeus in the sacred sycamore-fig tree, it makes one assume it is a significant choice.  But what purpose might we infer from its use?  As Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell clarify in the Tyndale Bible Dictionary: “The word translated “sycamore” in Luke 19:49 undoubtedly refers to the well-known sycamore-fig, which is also known as the mulberry-fig or fig-mulberry...The sycamore-fig of the Bible is a strong-growing, robust, wide-spreading tree... It is a tree that is easily climbed and is frequently planted along roadsides, which accounts for the reference in Luke 19:4. In David’s day it was so valuable that he appointed a special overseer for the sycamore trees (I Chronicles 27:28).”10  While something could be extracted from the robustness of the tree and its climbability, it is the note of its significance to King David which gives pause.  Might David have believed that he was protecting something sacred?
It’s possible that the tree is a clever play on words.  Robert H. Gundry in his Commentary on Luke sees a connection between the tree and Zacchaeus’ later confession in verse 8. “In Luke’s original Greek there may be a wordplay between “I’ve extorted” (esykophatēsa) and “sycamore tree” (sykomorean), as though before God his extortions “put him up a tree” from which he has now come down in repentance.”11  This may be so, but more likely it is the cultural understanding of the species and not the clever wordplay which gives us the most meaning, although it could be both.  
The sycamore-fig tree may very well be the same tree found in the center of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:6-7).   If that is so, just what does Zacchaeus represent here?  The sycamore-fig is considered a sacred tree throughout the early Middle East, and it might be the same species from which Adam and Eve not only ate the forbidden fruit, but from whose leaves they constructed the world’s first clothing, their shame personified.  Might Zacchaeus be the very fruit which Jesus plucks down in order to restore that which was lost by the plucking of it in the first place?  The reader/listener can only guess.

Receiving the Kingdom of God Like a Little Child
Not only is the tale loaded with meaning about the choice to have Zacchaeus climb a sycamore-fig tree, but also with his choice to climb a tree at all.  Children climb trees, not grown men and certainly not wealthy men of position and status.  This illustrates more than anything Zacchaeus’ profound desire to see Jesus.  He risks his reputation, his pride, and even bodily harm to see Jesus.  Not the act of someone only mildly curious.
Climbing a tree in public would have been deemed highly undignified for an adult, much less a person of standing. Depicting the tax collector in the act of tree climbing is one of many ways that Luke features Zacchaeus in the most embarrassing light possible.  Or is he?  Whatever his motive for climbing the tree, it can be certain that Zacchaeus is determined to glimpse Jesus. Robert H. Stein deduces: “Such undignified behavior, according to that culture, indicates that more than curiosity was at play here.”12   And yet this is exactly the kind of youthful enthusiasm which Jesus heralds as a requirement for salvation only one chapter earlier: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”13  Luke, through his description of the scampering Zacchaeus, may be entertaining us at first, but ultimately he is reminding us of the way in which to approach God.  Excited, loving, guileless, enthusiastic, hopeful, experimenting, often faltering, but always forgiven.

A Replicable Act of Repentance
Zacchaeus is exhibiting a replicable act of repentance in his decision to give half of his wealth to the poor and to use the rest of his fortune to make good on his transgressions against others. It is replicable in the sense that through the story we are encouraged to emulate him and replicate his actions, or at least the spirit of them, if we wish to achieve our own transformations.  But Zacchaeus’ repentant actions have caused some confusion among scholars.  As Robert Tannehill in his 1994 article in the Semia Journal, puts it, “Zacchaeus’ announcement that he is giving half of his goods to the poor may seem like a half-hearted response when we compare it with Luke 18:22-23.  There Jesus commanded a rich man to sell all and give it to the poor.  However, Zacchaeus's statement in 19:8 indicates that he has two important obligations: He, like other rich people, must care for the needs of the poor with his wealth, but he also must restore fourfold what he has gained by false use of his office.  Thus the reference to “half” is not meant as a limit on the distribution of wealth, permitting Zacchaeus to keep the rest, but simply recognizes that he must compensate those from whom he has extorted wealth.”14  By contrast, Raymond Brown’s 1997 text, An Introduction to the New Testament, in his section commenting on Luke’s Zacchaeus story, ignores entirely the second half of Zacchaeus’ pronouncement that he will make restitution to those whom he has swindled.  Brown is probably at a loss to explain why Jesus appears to be asking one rich man to give it all away (Luke 18:22), while of Zacchaeus, merely one chapter later, he appears satisfied with only half.  For he quite unnecessarily asks the reader if it is the spirit of sacrifice rather than the percentage being offered which constitutes the important issue here?15  I would say yes, the spirit of the sacrifice does matter in the general sense, but Zacchaeus does not seem to be holding much, if anything, back.  This takes us back to Tannehill’s article which states, “Of course we cannot know how much Zacchaeus owes in compensation, but nothing is said about keeping a portion for himself.  Thus it is a mistake to assume that Zacchaeus is trying to strike a bargain, offering less than Jesus demanded of the rich man in 18:22.  Rather 19:8 is intended to be an enthusiastic announcement of a new life that will be devoted to the needs of others.”     
Powerfully, Zacchaeus not only promises to pay it all back plus damages, he offers to voluntarily pay the highest restitution amount required by law.  “In addition, anyone who was robbed will be paid back with the highest penalty the law allows, a fourfold rate (Ex 22:1; 2 Sam 12:6). Normal restitution added only 20 percent (Lev 5:16; Num 5:7). The Mishna tended rarely to apply a more severe 40 percent penalty (m. Ketubot 3:9; m. Baba Qamma 7:1-5).”16  This indicates, more than anything, Zacchaeus’ humility as well his rapturous joy at being publically selected by Jesus and affirmed as being among the true purpose for his coming.  Wealth now suddenly seems utterly inconsequential to Zacchaeus as compared to the favor of Christ and the relief he feels when unburdening himself from the trappings of earlier deceits.  He would have likely promised Jesus more if he had it, so profound is his epiphany at not only the forgiveness of Jesus, but the complete acceptance and validation of a lowly sinner such as himself, proven by Jesus’s public willingness to enter his home and take rest.

Allow Me to Invite Myself
The self-invitation of Jesus to the home of Zacchaeus is yet another story element which adds depth to his implicit teachings on reaching out to sinners with compassion and validation, rather than alienation. Earlier in 5:29-32 he states, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  Further, Bock illustrates that Jesus has a standing purpose in inviting himself to stay with Zacchaeus.  “Jesus announces that it "is necessary" (dei) for him to stay with this eager spectator.”  What might be “necessary” about staying with Zacchaeus?  What does this reveal about Jesus’s purpose for singling out a short, wicked, silly, tax collector for redemption?  It’s because the tax collector is us.  We are often like fools, stumbling ahead of ourselves trying to get a glimpse of something special because we see nothing special in us.  We debase ourselves, and lie, and cheat, and alienate ourselves from our communities because it’s easier to follow the status quo (in Zacchaeus’ case, Rome) than to stand up and act according to the pull of the divine spark inside us.  So in inviting himself, Jesus is choosing to receive something which Zacchaeus would likely have never felt worthy enough to offer.  And in requesting it, he is signaling to those present exactly who really has value and worth in the eyes of God: Those who willingly transform themselves.

Why We Like Zacchaeus
Tannehill offers a reason for our feelings toward Zacchaeus and the value of good storytelling when trying to make a point. “For a pronouncement story, the narrative gives an unusual amount of attention to another person, Zacchaeus.  He is presented as an individual, not merely a character type.  We are told his name, once of his physical characteristics (he is short), and an unusual action is narrated (he climbs into a sycamore tree), even though none of this information is strictly necessary for Jesus’s final pronouncement.  Attention is directed to Zacchaeus as an individual, who begins to stand out as a subject of interest in his own right.  Those who become interested in Zacchaeus as an individual will be interested in what happens to him.”  He goes on to note, “Descriptive detail tends to awaken our interest, and a quest for a worthy goal by a highlighted character tends to awaken our sympathy.”17  Luke wants us to like Zacchaeus in spite of, or perhaps because of, his buffoonery. We first laugh at the absurdity until we realize that the joke is on us.  We are Zacchaeus.  And the salvation Jesus offers him is directed at us.

Son of Man
Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in final pronouncement of this tale.  The term is not traditionally viewed as an article of faith defending Christianity; understandably so, for it undermines the crucial argument in favor of the authority granted by his divine status.  But simply because it contradicts the doctrines of the Nicene Creed and its theological descendants, does not negate the possibility that Jesus was referring to himself as the divine embodiment of Humanity for its own sake.  This is not a new idea, of course.  For centuries, the Son of God was seen as the logical counterpart to the Son of Man.  And as Son of God affirms his divinity, Son of Man affirms his humanity.18  Jesus may refer to himself this way to describe himself as a single human metaphor representing the entirety of humanity including its own divine duality and the untapped human potential it represents.  Jesus says as much about our own power in one of Luke’s own sources, the Gospel of Mark.  All we have to do is believe and all power is ours.  We can tell a mountain to jump into the ocean, and if we truly believe we can make it happen, it will.19  Jesus tells us that a full belief in our own power, as created beings with divine potential, is the key.  And with full belief we are as powerful as Jesus.  Full belief is the sole catalyst for a deeper activation of the divine spark.  Our struggle is to believe.  Through his human incarnation it is as if he himself is his own living, rhetorically-structured parable on the duality of the created mankind and its deeply creative potential.  One could even imagine Jesus as a rhetorical choice by God to send a man to deliver a pronouncement tale to mankind.  The audience has to empathize with the protagonist after all.
As the deliverer of a salvific pronouncement message told in the form a rhetorical tale, who is Jesus in the Zacchaeus story?   Did the real historical Jesus refer to himself as the Son of Man after he came upon a real spectator perched in a real tree?  Or are those the words of Luke, inspired by Mark and other sources, which were used rhetorically in a mostly fictional story composed to artfully frame one of Jesus’s pronouncements?   Modern theological scholarship holds an increasing view that the term was added to Jesus’s words by the early church.20  Perhaps the story happened as stated, and perhaps it is a partial fiction.  Either way it doesn’t negate the rhetorical value of the pronouncement message: For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.   A man of the people, a carpenter, has come to rebuild what has been destroyed.  The final Zacchean line, when taken out of context and left as a free agent, could be placed in a variety of literary settings meant to illicit a variety of interpretations.  But the way it sets up the pronouncement here (as well as in the entire Gospel itself) makes a very specific set of points which not only help illuminate aspects of Luke’s salvation theology for those who wish to explore it,21 but the way he uses his exceptional rhetorical skills to subconsciously compel the reader/listener’s attention to that theology.  Who is Jesus in this story?  Jesus is who Luke wants him to be: a savior arising from mankind at the behest of God to restore our relationship with the Divine.

It is interesting to note that the expression “Son of Man” appears 81 times in the Greek text of the four Canonical gospels.  Also of note to the divine humanity supposition above, the title only appears in the sayings of Jesus - words accepted to be from his own mouth describing his role and his teachings to mankind.22  As a literary character, this further emphasizes his embracing of his own humanity as being the most important ground aspect of his duality regarding his role in the salvation of humanity.  In other words, Jesus is acknowledging that while it may be his divinity that gives him the message, it is his humanity which delivers the message to the rest of humanity.  His humanity is the divine bridge between God and Man.  He may be fully divine, but unless he is also fully human (possibly meaning all that comes with being fully human—including smells, fears, sexuality, hunger, anger, frustration, ego, failures, grief, etc.), the message will fall as seeds on rocks.  His message is not for prophets, but for people.  Human people.  Humans (with smells, fears, etc.) who as a culture, are at that time operating almost exclusively from a barbaric socio-political philosophy, would likely not comprehend such a complex, transformative message coming ex supra, as it were.  It would need to be spoken by someone they view to be special, but still of them.  

God to Earth. Can You Read Me?
To send a message one intends to be successfully comprehended, the message must arrive in the full language form23 of the listener or else it will not be fully received.  Divine message forms (like those delivered through prophets, mediums, channelers, etc.) are vulnerable to dismissal or misinterpretation before they even get to the ear of the first listener.  Translation of a divine thought package into linear words cannot achieve a full, complex expression.  Prophets are subject to mistranslation.  They are limited by their linguistic, cultural, and experiential vocabulary.  A human being displaying evidence of a direct divine connection to God removes the interpretive middleman.  A direct connection allows God to manifest one degree closer.  The message is one degree clearer.  However, the translation of God’s Love into human language still has its limitations to comprehension no matter how few degrees of separation between the Creator and Its Creations exist.24  Even Jesus had to intelligently dumb-down his teachings into parables for best possible immediate comprehension, while at the same time filling them with layers of additional meaning, planting long term opportunities for rabbinic theological debate, known as havruta.25

Relationship: The Divine Goal
Havruta, meaning friendship or companionship, is the Hebrew word describing the traditional relational rabbinic approach to Talmudic studies involving debate and analysis occurring among pairs of students.26  Parables, allegories, and metaphors offer multiple layers of hidden connections under the surface of more easily comprehended tales, into which we can delve for even greater meaning.  Best of all, as the root word haver (meaning friend) suggests, these debates occur in relationship with others.  And since Relationship could be argued to be the ultimate goal of God, by creating opportunities for theological debate in relationship with other seekers, that divine goal is achieved even in the process of discovery, much less in the eventual discovery itself.
As the cultural importance of havruta would indicate, restoration and forgiveness are not only important to God, but important to humans.  We need our heroes to win in the end.  We need to see ourselves in the shoes of those heroes.  We need to run from the storyteller brimming with excitement and empowered to be the agents of our own transformations.  The second to the final line of the story is the restoration of Zacchaeus to Relationship.  It is the moment he wins.  It is more than the restoration of the relationship between Zacchaeus and God.  It is the restoration of Zacchaeus and his estranged Jewish community.  Jesus reminds those present that he is a son of Abraham.  He was one of them once, and now that he is repentant, he is restored.   
But we, the listener/reader, are not left out.  The gentiles for whom the Lukan gospel was originally written wanted to be included in the relationship as well.  By Luke reminding us that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, he is also connecting the rest of us to Zacchaeus in that Abraham, according to Luke’s own genealogy of Jesus, is a direct descendant of Adam, the mythical human father of us all.27   When Zacchaeus turns his back on Rome he returns his heart to his people.  Back to us.  Salvation is even more profound because of how far he had strayed and, like the return of the prodigal son, is a cause for rejoicing.  Relationship restored.  God’s purpose fulfilled.  The hero wins.

Traveling with Purpose: Final Teachings on the Last Road Before Home
In Luke’s wider travel narrative, in which the Zacchean story penultimately figures,28 he illustrates the purpose of Jesus’s mission on earth quite clearly.  By his actions and interactions throughout his travels, Jesus outlines a radical theology: Women are worthy of discipleship,29 blessing comes from tending to the lowest castes,30 and even wealthy despots like chief tax collectors are capable of a restoration of relationship with the divine, just like everyone else.  Just like you and me.  Not only does Jesus claim these are worthy people, but that they are the very people he came to see and empower.31  
At the end of the travel narrative, Jesus delivers two messages.  The first is the Zacchaeus story, and then, to the same crowd who only moments before witnessed Zacchaeus’ spiritual restoration, the Parable of the Ten Minas.  These two final pronouncements, one given in through live experience and one in parable form, give Jesus the opportunity to reinforce the crux of his teachings to mankind before he enters the gates of Jerusalem to begin the final, tragic phase of his ministry.  This is his last moment with the people of his country.  He will enter a free man, but he will come out condemned to death.  He leaves them with one final pair of thoughts: The first, you are worthy. The choice to be saved is your own.  The second, keep an eye on the store while I’m gone and use what I have given you wisely until I return.  Use your divine cleverness, creativity, and free will to build on all that I am leaving behind.  Don’t destroy it, don’t hide it away.  Learn to recognize your divine power and use it to accomplish Peace on Earth, so that when the time comes to test the future of Humanity, you’ll graduate with honor.

Conclusion: Examining the Divine Structure
It is not a sin to be entertained.  In fact, it is a most useful tool to achieve understanding.  Our brains are wired to respond to reward.  If we were being judged for wanting a spoonful of sugar with our medicine, God wouldn’t employ the method.  The use of rhetoric in Scripture is valuable not only for the sake of immediate comprehension of a basic idea, but for inviting further analysis of its various strata of additional meaning.  Examined in the reverse, the understood effectiveness of rhetoric as a comprehension tool illuminates the part of our humanity that responds to it in the first place: our loving, joyous, imaginative, divinely-given Creativity.  It stimulates the part of humanity that most resembles our Creator.  It is no accident that Jesus was a carpenter, nor that Zacchaeus was up a sacred tree.  These are rhetorical storytelling devices that remind us something was being built here, using sacred materials that reach upward toward God, and place Humanity squarely in the embrace of divine structure.  Tree and Cross, both.  ♚

Bibliography and Footnotes

  1. Henry, Matthew, An Exposition of the Old and New Testaments (known also as Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible), 1706
  2. Apolumi translation:, accessed December 2014
  3. Definition of the word “grotesque,”, accessed December 2014
  4. Parsons, Mikeal, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006, 107
  5. Ringe, Sharon H., Luke: Westminster Bible Companion Series, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995, page 232
  6. Just, Jr., Arthur A., New Testament, III: Luke - Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003, 290
  7. Smith, William, Dr., "Entry for 'Sycamore,'" Smith's Bible Dictionary, London, 1863
  8. Assmann, Jan, and David Lorton, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, Translated by David Lorton, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005, page 171
  9. The word “sycamore” also appears in I Kings 10:27; I Chronicles 27:28; II Chronicles 1:15, 9:27; Psalm 78:47; Isaiah 9:10; Amos 7:14
  10. Comfort, Philip W., and Walter A, Elwell, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Carol Stream, IL: 2008, page 1058
  11. Gundry, Robert H., Commentary on Luke - Commentary on the New Testament Book #3, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010
  12. Stein, Robert H., Luke: New American Commentary - An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, vol. 24,  Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992, 467
  13. Luke 18:16-17
  14. Robert C. Tannehill, "The Story of Zacchaeus as Rhetoric: Luke 19:1-10," Semeia Journal, no. 64, 1994, 203
  15. Brown, Raymond E., S.S., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York: Doubleday, 1997, 252
  16. Bock, Darrell L., Luke: Volume 3, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010
  17. Robert C. Tannehill, "The Story of Zacchaeus as Rhetoric: Luke 19:1-10," Semeia Journal, no. 64, 1994, 201-2
  18. McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, page 270
  19. Mark 11:23
  20. Burkett, Delbert The Son of Man Debate: A History and Evaluation, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  21. The Zacchaeus story, in my view, is a single lesson in the larger Lukan curriculum of Jesus’s salvation life practice which, if codified as such, could be referred to as “The Way.”  Specifically, the Zacchaeus lesson teaches us that we are not defined by what we have done in the past, but by what we may do now and yet do in the future.
  22. Hurtado, Larry W., Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005, pages 290-293
  23. The term ‘full language form’ is used broadly here and includes in its meaning the speaker’s cultural fluency, the literal language spoken, as well as the accepted authority of the speaker.
  24. Lee, Simon, class lecture on Revelations, December 14, 2015, New Testament Foundations, Andover Newton Theological School
  25. Also chavrusa, chavruta. Literally "friendship" or "companionship" in Hebrew. Havruta also occurs in groups, called haburah, of the same root word havruta--haver, or, in English, friend.
  26. Two sources for havruta definition:  1. Ritual/Torah_Study/How_to_Study_Torah/Havruta_Learning_in_Pairs_.shtml, accessed December 2014.  AND 2. Liebersohn, Aharon (2006). World Wide Agora. p. 155.
  27. Luke 3:23-38
  28. Luke 9:51-19:44
  29. Luke 10:38-42
  30. Luke 14:12-14
  31. Karris, Robert J., "Luke's Soteriology of With-ness," Currents in Theology and Mission,1985, 347-8