Bishop of Dorking: 5 March 2017, Lent 2 at St Mary’s Guildford
Zacchaeus is someone whose whole life depended on controlling what he could count. He measures people up according to their wealth, charges them tax, then counts his gains. He has the authority to exercise control – to determine what a person owes, and to ensure that they pay it. His life is all about measurement - charging, collecting, counting. It brings him lots of money but not a single friend. Here we meet a person impoverished by his prosperity and warped by complete immersion in a counting culture.
He knows all about how what we measure brings control, precisely because he does a lot of measuring and exerts plenty of control. The problem is that the means of measuring by which he controls others ends up controlling him. He’s like the addict who thinks she’s controlling the bottle when in truth the bottle is controlling her. He is lonely, he is trapped: his life is reduced to counting money. Surrounded by riches, he’s poor.
When Jesus offers the opportunity of release from this hamster wheel of despair, he does not hold back. The signs of transformation are dramatic and unprompted: suddenly he’s eager to give half of everything he owns away and to pay back anyone he has diddled four times the sum. A man who chased pennies is tossing away pounds – reckless in his new-found freedom.
We’re naïve if we don’t think the counting culture controls us. So much of life gets reduced to measurable bottom lines: to a number on a league table, to my score on a video game, to my rating on a UCAS form, to the likes on my social media page, to the points in a research rating, to the votes in a talent show. What might begin as healthy incentive and rewarding competition ends with crude reduction and insidious comparison – where lives are defined by a series of numbers, a score-card, and quantity seems to triumph over quality.
I remember someone in an interview trying to impress with the 2000 hours she’d spent in voluntary service. Afterwards the interviewer asked: ‘If it really was voluntary, would you need to count?’ The danger is that we find ourselves playing a game we detest, obliged to measure ourselves against a scale we don’t believe in. Trapped. Just like Zacchaeus – who thought he controlled what he could count, yet found he lost control… and didn’t count.
When life is reduced to how we measure up in quantitative terms, it’s not just that our lives are cheapened. We also lose the capacity to judge well, to value what we can’t count. We lose sight of how to value the things that really matter.
Jesus’ frustration at the traders in the temple wasn’t so much with the idea of trade in a place meant for prayer, but with the fact that these folks had turned what lay beyond all material evaluation into a financial transaction. The whole point of worship is that it’s divine, not human. They’re touting as a cash deal something that on the one hand is free and on the other hand is priceless.
The temple was the sign of God’s presence with the people: it was the place that embodied the very possibility of reconciliation. These guys are charging that which is not theirs for what they cannot control. They’re kidding themselves and deceiving others, pretending to have control not only over people but even over God. It’s a lost cause.
When we try translating things of real depth into our culture of measurement and control, we find ourselves just as confused, just as lost. It’s about as ridiculous as chasing the wind or catching a cloud. ‘How do I love thee?’ asks Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘let me count the ways!’. But she can’t count and she doesn’t count; her poetry paints pictures designed to stretch the soul to new depth and breadth and height.
That which we count and contain and control diminishes us. God’s love and life does just the opposite: it raises our horizons and expands our possibilities. God’s gift of reconciliation cannot be counted or contained or controlled. It is young and wild and free, growing the windows of our soul to new depth and breadth and height. Who would settle for less?
How do we live in a culture that evaluates by numbers without turning into a Zacchaeus or a temple money-changer?
Paul urges us ‘as God’s dearly-loved people, to put on the virtues’. That is to say, to inhabit the values of Jesus Christ, in just the way we put on our shirt and socks each morning. Resisting the culture of measurement is a daily intentional practice of shaping our lives around a different set of values. It’s as simple as getting dressed, and just as routine.
I sat down the other day and tried to write down my values. I wish I’d thought of the list that Paul offers here: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love. And if we can live them with others – as at the local school here in Guildford, or perhaps in your place of work, or your church – we start to shape the culture of a community, and together reach above and beyond those necessary-yet-insidious bottom lines.
Without a determined attention to live our values, to pursue the virtues, we’re liable to be swallowed up by numbers. But when our habits take root, they become our second nature, as automatic as tying shoelaces and brushing teeth. They’ll change the way we live and the choices we make – bringing us to love the things that are beyond measure: taking value in things for their own sake, not for how we might gain from them. Cherishing the simplest things we do, the profoundest.
You are God’s chosen, holy and dearly loved, says Paul. Which is to say, God values each one of us for our own sake – not for our effectiveness, not for our scores and successes, not for our usefulness – simply because we are. God is not interested in counting us or assessing us – each of us is the pearl of great price, the one for which he gives everything. Each of us is the one – as if there are no others. Jesus would have died on the cross just for you, just for me. God does not score the effectiveness of Jesus’ ministry by counting how many people like Zacchaeus are transformed.
It’s not about what we measure, thank God. It’s how we are transformed.