By Rev. Kathryn Ray
"Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."... Zacchaeus stood up and said to the LORD, "Look, LORD! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham." -from Luke 19
Public benefits offices are among the most hellish devised by human hands. These are the places you go to apply for food assistance, Medicaid, or financial assistance with housing and utilities. Where you wait for four to six hours under harsh fluorescent lighting in hard plastic chairs, surrounded by dozens of other people who are stressed and in pain, all to spend five minutes with someone who may or may not understand exactly what services you are requesting.
On my most recent visit, a security guard stood up in front of the dozens of people who had come to line up an hour, two hours before the office opened. He told us:
“Listen, I know you have problems and you’re suffering. I’m not here to hear your story. I really hope you get better, but I don’t care. I’m just here to take your names to send you upstairs as quickly as possible.”
As appalling as that may sound, I couldn’t fault him. These employees have to work at this place day after day. They are constantly faced with desperation, pain, and deep need. They don’t have near the resources they require to actually meet those needs. So they find ways to protect themselves, both logistically and emotionally. We all do this. We all find ways to steel our hearts in the face of deep need.
It makes me wonder: What if, instead of sending my tax dollars to the government to allocate to those in need, I put it aside and kept it. And I was told, we’re sending people who need assistance with food and medicine to you. You decide how to apportion the money. You decide who gets what. How would I do it? How would I manage, both logistically and emotionally?
I ask, because this is the situation in which Zacchaeus is now in.
It’s easy to see this story as a kind of Christmas Carol. Zacchaeus is the Scrooge whose heart has opened, “fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions.” He buys Christmas dinner. Everybody rejoices, and God bless us everyone.
That’s not how it’s going to work.
Zacchaeus is opening his door to a world of hurt and need that goes farther and deeper than even his abundant financial resources can meet. He has committed to giving half his possessions to the poor. Jericho is a city, and there are lots of people in need there. How does he choose whom to help? How much does each person get?
What happens when they come back the next day?
What happens when- God forbid- they are not grateful for what they are getting from this wealthy man who has cheated people for so many years?
Zacchaeus is opening a public benefits office, of which he is the sole proprietor. God help him.
But of course, that’s the point. He’s doing this because God helped him. He has, more literally than any of us, found Jesus. He wanted to see who Jesus was, and now he has. He has been converted and convicted.
Father Gustavo Gutierrez, the Latin American priest who galvanized the liberation theology movement, calls conversion a starting place, a break with the life lived up to that point. Note that, according to this definition, conversion is not primarily a change of religious identity. Rather, it is the beginning of a new spiritual journey.
For a prime example of someone who was truly converted, Father Gutierrez looks to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who just last week was being canonized as a Catholic saint. Romero was already a believer and a Christian leader. His conversion to the cause of Christ happened when he got woke to the realities of the people that he was called to minister to. He was torn out of an upper-class, academic world in which he was quite comfortable and placed in a new world, the world of the poor.
That world was described by a member of our Hispanic congregation at last week’s service for lamentation and healing in the wake of the Laquan McDonald case. She said, “We were jailed, we were put in dungeons where, supposedly, we had disappeared. And our only commitment was to work for our people.”
Romero’s conversion moved him to speak out, like the biblical prophets before him, against the systems that crushed the poor into the ground. This kind of authentic conversion is not something that happens in a single moment, once and for all. Father Gutierrez reminds us this. Rather, it is ongoing process. A process that includes stumbling blocks and temptations to turn back.
If Zacchaeus is to truly commit himself to the poor at the level he proposes, he will not be able to simply give money to those in need and turn away again. Once he opens his door to that flood of need, it cannot easily be shut. He will have to attend deeply to the stories and the hurts of the people. He will listen to them, he will know them, and he will be changed. Father Gutierrez gives that kind of relationship a name. He calls it solidarity.
Zacchaeus will doubt. He will not know the way forward. If he does it right, he will, sometimes, be taken advantage of. And his heart will be broken again and again.
He will not be enough. He will eventually fail and burn out. He will have to steel himself, guard his heart, like the workers in that public benefits office.
Unless he finds a community to do it with him. That, my friends, is #whyIgivetoNSBC. Our giving of ourselves interweaves us in relationship with one another. It draws us together into a deeper commitment, a solidarity with one another and with the world around us.
Together, as a church, we can truly face our continual need for conversion. We can stay strong as we continually open our hearts to the needs of those around us. We can stay creative as we ask together how we might commit ourselves anew to the task of solidarity with those in need in pain.
Siblings, on this road of solidarity that we walk together, we will struggle, we will feel doubt and fear, and our hearts will be broken again and again.
But through it all, the Spirit of God goes with us. She holds us up through the love and support that we give one another. As we love each other with loyalty and forgiveness, as we share joys and heartaches, and care for each other in times of need.
That is the mandate of our church covenant, which you can find in your bulletin today. It is a holy promise to walk with one another in and with those around us in the way of Christ, on the road of solidarity.
Together, may we follow Zacchaeus in giving deeply of ourselves, and in so doing, follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
 In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, ed. Michal Griffina and Jennie Weiss Block (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013), p. 71.