Monday, November 8, 2010

Lazarus & Mimetic Desire: Or Why Claude Raines And Humphrey Bogart Should Be Cast In This Gospel

Rene Girard is one of the most influential philosophers of our time;
but he started out as a teacher of literature.
He wrote about what was going on in Don Quixote.
Then he noticed the same thing going on in Tolstoy.
The he saw the same pattern in Shakespeare.
Girard eventually realized the reason the same thing
kept happening in all these novels and plays
is that it is what happens in real life.

It works like this: People don’t trust their own hearts
so we don’t know what we truly want.
Instead of feeling our own feelings, we copy the feelings of others.
We don’t know what we genuinely want
-- so we assume that what other people want is valuable
and try to get it.

We all act as if we want the same thing,
and that puts us in fierce competition with each other.
We hurt each other trying to get whatever it is that we think is valuable,
but then when we get it, it doesn’t make us happy.

Rene Girard started out as an atheist,
after he came to understand the cause of human unhappiness,
he saw that Christianity was the best answer.
Let’s see how Girard’s ideas play out in today’s Gospel lesson.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector – the chief tax collector.
In those days, tax collectors got paid on a commission basis,
so they were pretty oppressive.
As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was the most oppressive of all;
so the Bible says, “he was rich.”

Now what motivated Zacchaeus to become the chief tax collector?
Is it really obvious?
Did his commissions make him happy?
His wealth had not made him popular.
Tax collectors were universally hated
and it’s clear that the Jericho crowd despised our boy Zacchaeus.
So what did this quest for wealth do for him?

As the story unfolds, we begin to see how his mind worked.
Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus,
just to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
But why was that?
Does Zacchaeus strike you as a theologically curious guy?
Do you think he is a spiritual seeker?
Not very likely. The man is an avaricious tax collector.
He’s been doing it long enough to work his way to the top.
That’s not the sort of fellow who just goes spiritually curious.
What was his interest in Jesus?

Blind Bartimaeus sitting beside the road – him we understand.
He wanted his vision back.
The 10 lepers we read about a few weeks ago
calling out to Jesus – them we understand.
But why was Zacchaeus so desperate to see Jesus?

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus
because the crowd wanted to see Jesus.
If a crowd has gathered, there must be something to see.
If they want to see it, then we want to see it, right?
But this crowd could see Jesus and Zacchaeus couldn’t.
That’s what made him crazy.

This was a competition.
He wanted it because they had it and he didn’t.
That’s what his whole life felt like
– always competing with the crowd
whether it was for money
or a glimpse of the celebrity.
That’s what made him run ahead of the others
and climb the sycamore tree.
It was his way to outsmart them, to win.

Jesus saw all this.
He knew what was going on.
Somehow he knew Zacchaeus’ name,
and apparently his heart.
Jesus knew Zacchaeus was a desperate man
who didn’t know what he wanted.
He was just competing with the crowd.

Most of us rarely recognize that we are such copycats.
But isn’t it true?
Don’t the movies and the magazines tell us
what constitutes a good looking person?
Don’t we want to drive what the cool people on tv
look so happy driving?

Don’t the advertising people tell us what to want
by persuading us that other people want it.
The other day I bought a tie.
I don’t wear ties much but I got one for the odd occasion.
The salesman was not a good salesman.
After I chose it, he said, “A lot of people wouldn’t go for that tie,”
and immediately I felt that I had made a mistake.
Whether I liked it didn’t matter.
It was the judgment of the crowd I cared about.

So there was Zacchaeus scrambling about like a fool
to see a celebrity he didn’t know
just because the crowd was cheering.
When Jesus saw the poor guy up a tree,
he did one of those absolutely Jesus things.
He did the odd thing that somehow flipped the situation around.

He said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down,
for I must stay at your house today.”
And look what happened.
The crowd had thought Jesus was totally cool
until he befriended Zacchaeus.
After that, they weren’t so impressed with him anymore.
Jesus wanted the wrong thing
– friendship with someone who was unpopular,
even despised.

But Jesus didn’t care what they thought.
Jesus wouldn’t have cared whether a lot of people liked his tie or not.
He saw Zacchaeus and he valued him, called him a son of Abraham,
appreciated him for who he was.
Even though Zacchaeus didn’t know himself, Jesus knew him,
and claimed him as a friend.

Then look what happened.
Zacchaeus immediately gave away half his wealth
plus promised to repay everyone he had cheated 4-fold.
It looks like the money hadn’t made him all that happy
if he was so ready to part with it.
He didn’t need it anymore.

Jesus had given him something worth more
than all the money in Jericho.
By seeing him, by acknowledging him, by calling him by name,
Jesus gave Zacchaeus a sense of himself.
Jesus held up a mirror to Zacchaeus
and said, “Look, you exist. You matter. You are a son of Abraham.”
Now Zacchaeus wanted to be Jesus’ friend
Even though Jesus was no longer the hero of the crowd.
They went off to lunch alone because neither one of them was popular anymore.

The crowd called Zacchaeus a sinner.
Jesus just said Zacchaeus was lost and he was.
He had lost himself in trying to get what other people wanted.

This is the gift Jesus has for each of us.
He sees us as we are and values us for what we are.
We get lost in the copy cat wanting culture.
But Jesus finds us and gives us back our own hearts,
gives us back out own lives.