03/27/22 “12-Step Faith: Making Amends”

Luke 19:1-10

I’ve been thinking about mending this week. As you’ve probably guessed from the sermon title and our scripture passage for today, the next steps that we’re borrowing from Alcoholics Anonymous have to do with making amends. Here are steps eight and nine of AA’s 12 Steps: “Make a list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all,” and “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

As I reflected on these steps, the image that kept coming to mind was of my mom doing the mending when we were growing up. It seems like there were always patches to put on the knees of my brothers’ blue jeans. There were buttons to sew on my dad’s dress shirts. We all had holes in our pockets that needed to be stitched up. I also remember her darning socks. Does anyone darn socks anymore? I don’t think I ever have, but I remember Mom doing it. I know you can get a little wooden ball called a darning egg that fits into the toe, but Mom always used a light bulb.

The tasks of mending and making amends have a lot in common. They are both about reuniting what has been separated. They both put things that have been torn back together again. They both repair ruptures that allow precious things to be lost, so that further loss can be prevented. They both take something that appears to be ruined and make it useful again. Making amends has to do with mending the torn and broken places in our lives, or at least trying to.

Zacchaeus’ life had a lot of rips and tears in it. Zacchaeus was a Jew so, without knowing anything else about him, we know that he lived in a community that was suffering from political and religious unease. The land was occupied by the Romans and ruled by Roman appointees, who were more interested in lining their pockets and ensuring their own political survival than in the welfare of their subjects. Religious discord abounded, as various groups within Judaism jockeyed for power.

But, thanks to Luke, we know a lot more about Zacchaeus. The first thing Luke tells us is that Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. Tax collectors were viewed by their communities as traitors—collaborators with the Romans which, in a sense, they were. They were also seen as thieves and extortionists which, in fact, they often were. The hated Romans hired locals to collect their taxes for them. The tax collectors were told how much they had to collect and return to the Romans, but they also had permission to collect more. Anything over the amount that was owed stayed in the tax collector’s pocket.

Being a tax collector was bad. Being a chief tax collector, like Zacchaeus, was worse. Chief tax collectors hired other people from their communities to do their dirty work. So, they further eroded the community by enmeshing other people in the Roman’s net, enriching themselves in the process.

Zacchaeus the chief tax collector was indeed become rich, Luke tells us. The rich don’t fare well in Luke’s gospel. In Luke, Mary sings of the rich being sent empty away and Jesus pronounces woes on them. Luke recounts Jesus’ parables about the rich and foolish farmer who learns the hard way that you can’t take it with you, and the rich man who learns the hard way that, when it comes to the consequences of your actions, you can and you do. Then there’s Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler who was saddened when Jesus told him to give away his wealth and then, as Jesus looked into his eyes, heard Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In Luke, wealth is not an advantage.

So, we know that Zacchaeus is a Jew, living in a time of political and religious tension, doing a job that makes him an outcast in his community. He’s gotten rich through ill-gotten gains. And, if that’s not bad enough, he’s short.

Height, especially for men, matters. That’s certainly true today when it comes money and power. If you’d like to run for president, good luck if you measure less than 5’10”. 32 of our presidents have been 5’10 or over, and twenty have been at least six feet tall. It’s been 118 years since we elected a president who was shorter than the average American male at the time and, since then, the average president has been almost 4½” taller than average. If that’s not enough to discourage you from making a run, keep in mind that your chances will be better if you’re taller than your opponent. In the past 100 years, winners have been nearly 1½ inches taller than their opposition.

But what about all of us who are just leading our regular lives without aspirations of power?  Well, we all need to make a living, and studies have shown that taller people make more money than shorter people. One study reviewed by the American Psychological Association showed that, in the workplace, each inch above average may be worth $789 more per year in earnings, That means that someone who is 6 feet tall would make, on average, nearly $166,000 more during a 30-year career than someone who’s 5’5”, even when controlling for gender, age and weight.

Even our daily interactions are influenced by our height. In one study, researchers watched people passing each other in narrow aisles and sidewalks. Nearly always, when the passers-by were of the same gender, the shorter person made way for the taller person. Even our language reflects this. We complain that time is short, and money is short. We fall short of expectations, and we’re short with people who annoy us. On the other hand, we are encouraged to stand tall and to be the bigger person. Theories abound as to why we think and act as we do, but suffice it to say that our society perceives being tall as a positive and being short as a negative.

Height matters now, and it has always mattered. Zacchaeus was short, but Saul was tall—”head and shoulders taller” than the people he would rule over. Height was such a tempting yardstick for measuring a person’s potential that God had to issue a warning when Samuel went looking for Saul’s replacement: “Don’t look on the height of the stature” of your candidates,” God said.

Height matters, and Luke takes pains to tell us that Zacchaeus was short. Besides the practical problem of being physically too short to see over the heads of the people around him as Jesus was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus had come up short in every other possible way, including dignity. Running was considered undignified for men, especially men in important and powerful positions. And climbing a tree—well, that was unheard of. All this running and climbing would have made Zacchaeus the object of ridicule, and the crowd around him must have laughed with glee to see him making such a spectacle of himself. But, in spite of all this, Zacchaeus runs and climbs a tree because, Luke tells us, he wanted to see who Jesus was. He doesn’t just want to catch a glimpse of a passing celebrity. He wants to see who Jesus is.

What Zacchaeus doesn’t expect is that Jesus will see who he is. That Jesus will see a man who, for better or worse, is one of God’s people. That Jesus will see a man who has been lost, but whom Jesus has sought and found. That Jesus will see a man who is a sinner and yet is worth the honor of having Jesus as a guest in his house.

In response to Jesus accepting him in love, Zacchaeus resolved to make amends. “Look,” he exclaimed,  “half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” It appears that, if Zacchaeus had been following AA’s twelve steps, he had reached steps eight and nine: identifying the persons he had harmed and become willing to make amends—direct amends wherever possible.”

Some of Zacchaeus’ sins were easy to see. Some of the people he needed to make amends to were easy to identify. There were clear rules in Scripture for how to make amends for the financial kinds of harm he had caused, and he was willing to go above and beyond those rules. But there were other sins he had to make amends for. He had destroyed his relationships with his neighbors and his faith community. He had drawn others into his way of life, perhaps leading to broken relationships there, too. He would have to find ways to make amends to all the persons he had harmed, and that might require taking some drastic steps like giving up his lucrative job.

Step 8 doesn’t require that we take the most drastic steps to make amends, if taking those steps would hurt others. Quitting his job might have been the right thing for Zacchaeus to do, but it would have affected his family, if he had one. It’s possible that he could have made amends stay by staying in the job as an honest broker, making sure that people paid no more than the Romans required. The key is that we become willing to take whatever steps are necessary, even if ultimately conditions prevent us from taking them.

Although we focus on Zacchaeus in this story, he’s not the only sinner in who appears in it. There are others—sinners who don’t think of themselves that way. These were the sinners in the crowd, who passed judgment on Zacchaeus and, for that matter, on Jesus, grumbling about how Jesus had gone to be the guest of one they deemed a sinner.

This grumbling was done by sinners who had some amends of their own to make. There’s an interesting twist in Luke’s Greek that suggests that the crowd—and we—might not know as much about Zacchaeus as we think we do. Our translation has Zacchaeus saying, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” But, the Greek words aren’t in the future tense. They’re in the present tense. It’s possible that Zacchaeus was already generously supporting the poor, and that he was already paying back more than he was obligated to, if he was indeed found to have taken more than he should have. It may be that the crowd had misjudged him. We can’t know this, of course, but it does challenge us to think about how often we assume that we are qualified to judge the sinfulness of others, when we are more like the one we’re judging than we like to admit.

We can’t know whether Zacchaeus had already undertaken Step 9 and was actually making amends, or if he had just arrived at the willingness to make amends, as Step 8 requires. But, we do know that he was prepared to do more than apologize. He was going to try to make restitution to those he had hurt. He was prepared to repair the damage he had caused.  And, I imagine, he was hoping to mend the broken relationships he had left in his wake. What enabled him to do this was a repair that had already been made—by Jesus, when he looked up at Zacchaeus with love and affirmed his place in God’s family.

During this season of Lent, we are invited to reflect on how Jesus looks at each of us with love, knowing exactly where we have fallen short, knowing exactly what in our lives needs mending. That reflection should lead us to see where we, like Zacchaeus and the crowd that surrounded him, need to make amends.

AA’s books tell harrowing stories of alcoholics who were unfaithful to their spouses. Who stole from their employers and “borrowed” from friends and families with no intention of paying them back. Of being physically and emotionally abusive to their families, or of being unavailable to them. Of lying and pretending in order to cover up their addiction. The stories are sad and sometimes horrifying, and they are stories that many, many families know all too well but, often, are too ashamed to talk about. Yours may be among them.

But, even if we are fortunate enough to have escaped committing these kinds of sins, none of us has clean hands. We all commit sins against God and against others: the unkind words we speak, the assumptions we make, and the judgments we pass—just as the crowd passed judgment on Zacchaeus and Jesus.

I often work on my sermons at the Panera near my house. If you call me on a Friday, that’s the background noise you may hear. As I worked on this one at my favorite table, I looked around at the other customers and wondered about them. Was the man whose eyes were closed tired from a sleepless night after an argument with his wife? Was the girl holding tightly to her coffee cup thinking about the gossip she had passed along about a classmate? Was the young man with the earphones listening to a song that reminded him of how he had undermined a co-worker? Was the mother with the small child cringing each time she remembered slapping the little one in frustration? What sins like those have we committed and now need to make amends for?

Making amends is not an easy process. Money can be paid back, but some sins can’t be taken back. Opening old wounds is painful. It may be that the people we’ve sinned against don’t even know what we’ve done—that we passed along unkind gossip, that we described them to others with a racial or ethnic or religious slur, that we cast doubt on their reputations. It may be that our attempts at making amends could hurt others, and we can’t sacrifice the well-being of others in order to feel better about ourselves. We may tell ourselves that if we sleeping dogs lie, our sins will just be forgotten and the hurt will heal on its own. But, like a hole in a pocket that gets bigger over time, our sin can cause more damage the longer it goes unacknowledged, unrepented of, and unmended.

Not only can unmended brokenness hurt us and our relationships with others, it can get in the way of our relationship with God. Jesus knew this. In the Sermon on the Mount, he spoke about anger, judging others, and unkind words. And he said that, if we’re on our way to give gifts to God in worship, if we remember that someone has something against us, we are to go and reconcile with that person. Ruptures in our relationships with others stand in the way of our relationship with God, too.

Paul echoes the importance of making amends in his second letter to the Corinthians—people who had hurt him and whom he may have hurt as well. He wrote: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

We know that we can’t make amends to God in the way we can make amends to other people. But the good news is that we have a Savior who has done that for us. He made our amends to God on the cross, where he died for us—the sinners he came to save. He mended the relationship between us and God, stitching together what was torn and tattered. He looks at us with love as we struggle to know who he is. He seeks us out, wherever we are, and he invites himself into our lives and, sinful as we are, he gives us the chance to be made new in him.

So, what mending do you need to do during this season of Lent? What relationships have frayed at the seams and need to be stitched back together again? What habits have created holes in your life that have allowed precious things and people to slip away? What ragged places need to be patched with love and acceptance? Jesus has made amends for us to God, and by the power of his Spirit, he gives us the freedom and the ability to do our own mending. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young