There is an old saying on the planet Vulcan: only Nixon could go to China. Recognize that one? It’s from a remarkable movie in the Star Trek series: number 6, The Undiscovered Country. Captain Kirk and his crew get called in to do a job that he doesn’t want to do. The Federation wants to make peace with the Klingons and they want him to make the trip to start that negotiation. Well, if you know anything about the original Star Trek series, Kirk and those guys are always fighting the Klingons, who are as bad as they come, and Kirk’s son was killed by a Klingon. He’s a good guy, he obeys orders unwillingly at first, and of course things go wrong from the outset. They go through some adventures in making peace and there’s a conspiracy to derail the peace talks, but at the end of the movie, Kirk finds himself putting aside his anger and pain and saving the day so that Peace can come to the Galaxy.
Reconciliation is behind the story in today’s Gospel about Zaccheus. When we’re younger and shorter, we can relate to climbing trees and it understandable that Zaccheus being a short man would want to climb a tree to get a look at Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He didn’t think about pushing his way through the crowd for another reason: once they know who he was, they wouldn’t let him. We might also relate to Zaccheus not wanting to come too close to Jesus: we’ve run into tax collectors in the gospel readings of the past few weeks and you probably remember that they were the outcasts of society, considered cheats and traitors and unwelcome everywhere. In those days, people only stayed or ate with people who were their social equals: no one went to a tax collector’s house except other tax collectors.
Except Jesus. Except Jesus. He looks up at the tree, sees Zaccheus up there and says: “Come down here, Zaccheus. I’m spending today at your house.” This isn’t like the Prodigal coming home, this is like the Father going to the Prodigal’s house. The crowd must have been absolutely flabbergasted that Jesus would go to Zaccheus’ house, and after a brief moment, they start murmuring about it. Zaccheus is aware of this and now is a time for him to do something about it. So he makes his offer: it wouldn’t take long to figure that this offer would bankrupt the man. Why is he able to make it? Because Jesus is coming to be with him. And Jesus recognizes what has taken place, and that a son of Abraham has come home.
When we look at divine reconciliation, the pattern is in this parable and it isn’t what we expect. We expect someone who has hurt us to apologize and make it up to us before we forgiven them and take them back into relationship. But that’s not how Jesus works, and that’s not how God works. Reconciliation begins by the victim letting go of pain and blame. It isn’t about whitewashing evil or letting injustice go unpunished, but it about a victim letting go of past injustice so that they are no longer ruled by the pain or the drive for vengeance. It is about recognizing the humanity of someone like Zaccheus that the door to reconciliation gets opened. Once that door is opened, then Zaccheus is free to make amends and can offer an apology that is sincere.
There are folks who speak of how we hurt Christ and how we wound the honor of God, and I always am leery of those comments because God hasn’t acted on what we may have done to him. God reaches out to us first, puts our faults away first so that we can change our lives and live in freedom. We don’t earn our way back into God’s favor and we can’t make any restitution that will satisfy whatever we may have done. It is God’s action through Christ, that washes away our sins and restores us to our true selves that makes it possible for us to turn our lives around, just as Zaccheus’ life was turned around.
When we are called to instruments of healing the wounds of the world on Christ’s behalf, we are called to be a little like Captain Kirk in that movie. If we stay stuck on what has been done to us, if we stay stuck on what someone else has to do before we are ready to let go of our anger and pain then we are not likely to make the journey that’s needed, and the war will go on. If we can let go of our pain, our anger, our need for vengeance, then we can come to the place where peace is not an undiscovered country beyond our reach, but a reality within our grasp. I’m not talking about a dream peace or a false peace where the past is denied or realities are ignored. But a real peace, where the future is not bound by the past.
That peace begins here; where Jesus invites us to come down out of our trees and spend time with him. It is Jesus’ forgiveness that puts aside what we may have done and gives us a chance to go on as transformed people. It is Christ’s forgiveness of us that brings us real peace and starts within us and reaches outward until is will include the universe.