PRINCIPLES Isa 1:10-18; Luke 19:1-10
When children attack a hundred year old in the street or youths deliberately
set up an ambush that kills a family pet dog, it makes our blood boil.
It offends our natural sense of justice and we feel like taking revenge
on the perpetrators. The media uses words like animal or beast to express
a sense of revulsion. We despair at such cruelty and wonder on the one
hand what can lead to such delinquent behaviour and on the other, what
can be done to stop it.
The words of judgement expressed in our reading from Isaiah help to express
in more eloquent ways our sense of outrage at crimes that seem to be done
just for the heck of it. But Isaiah’s condemnation was aimed not
at juvenile delinquents but at the rulers and citizens of his own land.
Sodom and Gomorrah have become bywords for outrageous behaviour and places
that experienced the wrath of God in fire and brimstone. The way in which
we could summarise today’s passage is that God has had enough of
his peoples’ religious ceremonies and festivals because they cover
up the social injustice of which they are guilty.
called to be a prophet from an overwhelming sense of the holiness of God.
To see the people of God acting in unholy ways gave him the insight and
courage to speak out against them. He can hardly believe how stupid his
people can be, thinking that they can disobey God and get away with it.
Just before today’s extract Isaiah describes his people as being
more senseless than animals. The people are beaten and sore from the wars
they are involved in, but they have still not made the connection between
their choices and the sorry state their nation is in. So they turn to
putting more effort into the rituals of their religion. They think that
by doing all the sacrifices, ceremonies and services in their tradition,
they will somehow get God’s favour and life will turn around for
them. But, Isaiah, says, they are missing the whole point. “Seek
justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow.”
In other words, what is needed is not a veneer of looking religious but
a deep and thoroughgoing reform of the unjust and oppressive ways in which
society exploits its vulnerable
Perhaps we find this scenario a little difficult to connect with. Let
me give you a more personal and pastoral illustration of what I mean.
From time to time my colleagues and I are approached by individuals or
families for help. One couple who took courage in both hands and decided
to linger after a service asked if I would do a blessing for them because
they were having all sorts of difficulties. I offered to meet and chat
with them at more length to try and understand the nature of their problems
and point them in the kinds of directions, including spiritual guidance,
that might help them. But no, what they wanted was some kind of magical
formula of words and me to wave my hands over them as a kind of instant
cure. They didn’t seem prepared to work at the real roots of their
difficulties, whatever they were. I said a prayer with them but pointed
out that it wasn’t like a spell that would cure them. I gave them
my card and encouraged them to be in touch with me so I could spend more
time with them, but so far I have not heard back. The example I give is
to illustrate my point that people suffer whether families or societies.
They can sometimes want a quick fix, they seek a solution that comes from
the outside, like being more religious. In reality the solution can only
come from the inside when people are willing to change the way they live
and deal with the source of the problem not merely its symptoms. “Come
now,” says Isaiah, imagining God trying to talk reason to his people:
“let us sit down and talk this through properly! Though your sins
are like scarlet they shall be white as snow.”
If Zacchaeus could have watched Jesus’ visit to Jericho on TV I’m
sure he would have jumped at the chance. Here is a man who wants to see
without being seen. He knows he cannot see over from the back of the crowd,
so he risks indignity and shins up a tree. Imagine him sitting there,
not moving a muscle so that the branch does not shake or give him away.
He doesn’t want his cover to be blown. His trade as a tax collector
makes him unpopular. He’s not considered to be a fit member of society,
he’s a cheat, a collaborator with the Roman occupying power, and
he’s socially excluded. No wonder he wants to be an unseen observer.
He had put himself on the margins of society and his place on the branch
symbolises it perfectly. He can be an onlooker without getting involved.
Is that a place that some of us are sometimes tempted to share?
a short man with a big problem. But the gospel tells us how things changed
for Zacchaeus. Jesus does not leave him unseen but stands directly under
the tree and calls to him. It must have been the ultimate embarrassment
for Zacchaeus! But can you imagine how different the story might have
been if it didn’t go the way Luke tells us it did? Someone has suggested
how it might have turned out differently. When Jesus called to him the
man in the tree hesitated. He thought about the risk he was taking, so
he stayed up in the tree until the crowd had passed on, then he slunk
down and crept home. He lurked about later, hoping to catch Jesus for
a quiet word, but couldn’t find him. What a pity because Jesus had
stirred something in him and he felt unsettled for days. He made restitution
to a few people he could remember cheating, and hoped that was good enough.
But soon he slipped back into the old ways. He sometimes told his fellow
tax collectors he’d been quite impressed with Jesus but that’s
as far as it went and by the end of the year all the excitement of Jesus’
visit was faded. The moment had come and gone and Zacchaeus had lost his
A son of
Thank God the story turned out very differently! It’s not simply
that I mean our memories of Sunday school stories would not be so rich
without Zacchaeus, but that his story comes to us as a challenge. He does
come straight down the tree and invites Jesus into his home. It’s
not even that Zacchaeus allows Jesus to change the furniture round a bit,
but that he completely refits his whole life. In recent times I have noticed
the significance of the way Luke concludes this story. Jesus joins in
the rejoicing by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house
because he too is a son of Abraham.” What does he mean by that?
I gained a new insight into that as I became, through school governing,
more acquainted with the principles of restorative justice.
A sense of
Restorative justice, which is sometimes applied to criminal cases, is
also what lay behind the Truth and Reconciliation movement in South Africa.
It is also applied in school settings as restorative principles and involves
reorienting a whole school approach aimed at good behaviour and a healthy
learning atmosphere. Restorative justice aims to overcome the roots of
crime or offending behaviour by helping the criminal or delinquent child
see how their actions ultimately harm the people they do care about. A
carrot and stick approach to misbehaving children often only leads to
more carrots and heavier sticks. A child who, for instance, bullies, is
brought into a structured meeting with the victim, along with parents
and friends from both sides. The aim is to help the offending child to
change their attitude and see that they actually belong to the whole community.
Their offending behaviour can hurt their own family. They are also confronted
with the harm they can cause to a victim. The whole of a school’s
life is restructured to foster a sense of every member of the school belonging
in a community of learning. It is aimed at reducing the chances of individuals
excluding themselves from that community. If they value their own contribution
more, they are less likely to display behaviour that is resentful, destructive
and rebellious. A sense of belonging and being valued encourages positive
involvement. Zacchaeus’ self-excluding lifestyle was broken through
when Jesus gave him the chance to restore his sense of belonging and that’s
why Jesus declared Zacchaeus’ true nature: he too was a son of Abraham.
for each of us in our different ways is symbolised by the call of Jesus:
“Come off the branch! Let me into your life, and begin to be involved
with your own restoration!”
© Rev Paul Smith