Recently I talked with a young man nearing the completion of his law degree. I asked him about his process of choosing law as a career. He talked about his experiences of being bullied as a young boy. He was small for his age, studious, and not particularly interested in sports. He was the youngest of several brothers, and he reported being physically and emotionally bullied by his brothers and older guys in the neighborhood who were his brothers’ friends.

He told me that he decided during college that he wanted to do something in his career that would allow him to help others who felt abused and bullied. “I don’t want anyone else to feel the way I felt as I grew up.” So he chose law. He hoped that he could use the legal system to help others who felt powerless.

One kind of power was used against him. He hoped to use another kind of power to produce a different kind of result. A familiar New Testament story also addresses the uses of power.

Luke 19: 1-10

I grew up with this story of Zacchaeus and sang the simple song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man…” hundreds of times in Sunday School. These days, when I read a story such as this, I ask myself why this story is included in Luke. Of all the encounters Jesus had with others that were left out of the gospels, why was this one included? What did the writer see that was significant in the encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus? I believe that one of many lessons we can derive from this story is about the uses and misuses of power.

The writer includes two specific things about Zacchaeus, and I believe these are significant, both literally and symbolically.

First, Zacchaeus was short, and second, Zacchaeus was a tax-collector.I suspect that these two things about Zacchaeus are related. Like my friend, the law student, who could draw a straight line from his being abused and feeling vulnerable to his decision to become an attorney, I suspect Zacchaeus could draw a similar straight line, but with a different decision about the use of power.

 Zacchaeus had a physical characteristic over which he had no control, and like it or not, admit it or not, we tend to assign value to people based on physical characteristics and other factors that are not within one’s control. He was short in stature. This resulted in his being different, and as is typical of humans, this resulted in his feeling marginalized.

One thing we as humans do when we have a trait that puts us at a perceived disadvantage is that we compensate. Consciously or unconsciously, we take some action, learn a skill, develop at talent or take on some characteristic that we hope will level the playing field. We adapt in hopes that our perceived deficiencies are less visible or so that we can use them to our advantage.

It’s like the person who grows up in tragic circumstances and becomes a comedian, purposefully using humor either to avoid the pain or to poke tragedy in the eye and use it for their own benefit and other’s enjoyment.

In Zacchaeus’ case, I suspect it was no coincidence that he became a tax collector, a Jew who worked for the hated Roman government, not only collecting taxes for them, but who also had authority to extort his own people out of any extra money he could get. He had a job that gave him permission to stick it to the very people who bullied him as a child and scorned him as an adult.

His definition of justice was, “You bullied me, now I’ll bully you. You gave me a bloody nose in the sixth grade, you embarrassed me in front of my friends. Now I’ll show you how that feels. I’ll make you pay dearly, and even your family will suffer.” He grew wealthy at the expense of his own neighbors. He used the power available to him, by virtue of his position, to level the scales.

However, that kind of power always comes at great expense. In Zachchaeus’ case it was at the expense of relationships and his own happiness. And now we see him among the crowd hoping to see Jesus. It’s likely that his loneliness and emptiness have driven him to this spot. He clearly knows of Jesus’ reputation, and he shows up hoping that there really is something about this man that will help fill the void that his own abuse of power has created.

I’m sure that as Zacchaeus tries to make his way through the crowd, he is purposefully elbowed and shoved by the people he has stiffed. But he’s not just curious, he’s desperate. So he finds a tree to climb to get a better look.

Some observations about Zacchaeus’ use of power and our own:

We humans have never been very good at negotiating and sharing power. Look at our world today. Serve on any committee. Observe any marriage. The issue of power and control is rarely well navigated. It’s the story line of human history and the daily news cycle. Every war, the rise and fall of every nation and every political movement can be summarized by the use and abuse of power.

The kind of power that Zacchaeus reacted to and then used on others is the power of domination, or what we usually know as political power. It is the influencing of events or people through some external force such as coercion, punishment, reward, threat, money, the power of one’s position.

This is the power we are most familiar with because it is the primary influencing tool in business, politics, and almost every institution and social structure that impacts our lives. This kind of power always draws lines between people. Who’s in, who’s out? Who has access to power and who doesn’t. Such power rewards loyalty and compliance, and the basic motto is, “To the winner go the spoils.”

But Zacchaeus was not the only one in the story using power unwisely. Luke writes that the Pharisees grumbled once again that Jesus was going to the house of someone who was considered unclean, according to their standards. The Pharisees were exercising their own version of dominative power.

Over the centuries the Jewish religious leaders had distorted the covenant God made with the Jews into a laborious, punitive sets of rules and regulations. It had become a system of religious merit that demanded doctrinal purity and ritualistic obedience, and those in positions of authority made the rules for those under them. This is the story line of much of church history.

Here was the main problem for Zacchaeus, the Pharisees, and for anyone near the top of the heap. Dominative or political power, attained even by a good process, invariably has to be maintained by on-going and increasing control. Those with power must expend greater amounts of energy managing and maintaining their power, because dominative power does not really change people. It merely coerces behavior.

The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah spoke directly to obedience to this kind of power. The writer says, “I am not interested in your burnt offerings and your many other rules that have become jumping through religious hoops. I am interested that you learn to do right, seek justice, take up the cause of the oppressed.”

If dominative power is the story line of human history and church history, how are we to stand in the face of that? What is the alternative?

Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus is our alternative. Jesus exercises a different kind of power, transformative power, that changes people from the inside.

It is at this point in my preparation that I had the most difficulty writing this sermon. I had no trouble finding examples and explanations of dominative power. All I had to do was look around, look at the news, or look in the mirror. But what do I say about the kind of power Jesus exercised?

We’ve always had trouble grasping what he meant with words about the first being last and the last being first, about the rejected one being put in a place of prominence while the exalted one will be brought down. What do you do with someone who says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted.”

The Jewish leaders and the Roman government knew what to do with someone who tried to flex their muscles using dominative power. But Jesus was not interested in that kind of power. The power structures of his time did not know how to deal with someone who talked about turning the power hierarchy on its head, not with a counter-revolution but with a change of heart.

What do you do with a “spiritual teacher” who doesn’t play by the religious rules and then proclaims that God is far more concerned with “the least of these” than with the rules of the righteous.

Transformative power. It is a rare and illusive thing, but when experienced, it is unsettling and unmistakable. Observing Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus gives us some hints about transformative power for Zacchaeus and for us.

First, transformative power is relational. Jesus changed individuals, face to face, touch to touch. He went to Zacchaeus’ house, he ate a meal, had had a conversation, and he did not allow Zacchaeus’ status, wealth, or past deeds stand in the way of he compassion.

Transformation begins with our weakness not our strength. Zacchaeus was miserable. He was lonely and desperate and therefore open to what Jesus had to offer. True repentance and confession usually come from powerlessness, not guilt.

Therefore, we are more likely to be open to transformation in the midst of tragedy, loss, disappointment, betrayal, and awareness of our powerlessness rather than during periods of comfort, contentment or celebration.

Transformation power is an internal process. Jesus often told people to go do differently. Zacchaeus offered restitution to those he had swindled. But outward actions were always a result of their internal change.

Finally, transformation is never in a hurry. God is a god of history, not one particular election cycle. Transformational power begins with the assumption of a compassionate and long-suffering God, not a judgmental one who is easily offended. That is the consistent message of Jesus. Transformation begins with the belief that God is far more interested in forgiving than punishing, and including rather than excluding.

Zaccheaus had his story line extended. It had been a straight line from being bullied to being a bully. Jesus extended the line through his loneliness and desperation to forgiveness and transformation. Compassion does that. It is the straight line from where we are in our helplessness to an experience of grace. And once we have experience grace, we can extend that to others.

A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Urbana, IL. October 30, 2016