It was renowned physicist Albert Einstein who once quipped “Insanity is doing he same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By Einstein’s definition, many of us are insane. We see the same problems constantly emerge, and we apply the same strategies (because this is how we have always done this) and, while we hope by some stroke of luck things will be different this time around, they are not. Same problem, same tactics, same result. To expect differently is insane.
Perhaps today’s gospel offers us an example of some insane thinking. The Sadducees, who are opposed to the teaching about the resurrection from the dead, offer Jesus this strange scenario. A man marries a woman and dies, leaving the woman childless. According to Mosaic law, the man’s brother must now marry the woman in order to bring about offspring in the name of his deceased brother. As the story unfolds, all seven brothers marry the woman and in the end, they each die leaving no children. In other words, the same thing is done over and over again (seven times) with the same sad results.
The basis of insanity, at least in Einstein’s definition of that term, is that we have been accustomed to approach life with a sameness. Maybe for some people, same is safe. Maybe newness (to think new thoughts, to try new approaches) creates fear. Certainly the Sadducees are filled with a fear even to think about something as radical as “resurrection from the dead.” Even the Pharisees are filled with fear to think that God could love and even reward the outcast, the sinner, the lost sheep. The people of Jesus’ day could not handle new ideas, new approaches, especially when it came to institutional religion. And then the fruit of this insanity is the most insane act of all – let us crucify the One who dares to make us think outside the box.
What is it in us that makes us want to keep trying the same strategies to solve the same problems and, in the end, receive the same pitiful results? Maybe it comes from that misguided belief that I can fix most things that are broken in my world. I can fix this broken marriage. I can fix this dysfunctional family. I can fix this recurring habit. I can fix this falling-apart work place. I can fix this church, this country, this world. So I apply the same strategies with no noticeable progress – and then am left with a list of people to blame for the failure that has occurred once again. But perhaps the blame is not to be placed upon some other person’s unwillingness to join me in the so-called “tried-and-true” strategies. The blame may be placed on my unwillingness to admit that even here I am powerless to fix this mess.
Belief in resurrection can only emerge as a result of my coming to terms with my own fundamental powerlessness to make things right. In the end, only God can repair what is fundamentally flawed – and that is what our hope in resurrection is all about.
I can remember the first time I saw the classic movie Boys Town when Father Edward Flanagan (played by Spencer Tracy) solemnly declared, “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” Imagine if we applied that “Flanagan Faith” to grown-ups as well – There is no such thing as a bad person. Deep within the heart of every human person there burns a desire for God – a flame that is never extinguished by either lifestyle or the accumulation of bad habits or sin. Deep within each of us is that desire that defines us, in the eyes of God, as good. For even in the heart of the most hardened sinner, that desire can leap forth as a determination to try to find a way out, a way back. Oh if only we all knew how easy it is to find our way back home!
Today’s gospel is one of my favorite conversion stories – the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector. The story begins with Zacchaeus having a desire to see who Jesus is. That desire has such a grip on his heart that nothing will stand in the way – even the crowd that towers over his short stature. With determination, he climbs a sycamore tree to get a glimpse – for nothing will stand in his way.
I can imagine the humor on Jesus’ face when he happened to glance upward and see this grown man sprawled over the branches of the sycamore tree. “Hurry down, Zacchaeus, for I must have dinner in your house.” Could the way back to God be so easy? Could the way to undo a lifetime of bad choices, a lifetime of greed and ambition, be as simple as welcoming Jesus into his heart, into his home? In Jesus, Zacchaeus could see that God never gave up on him – “and so, he came down quickly and received Jesus with joy.” How easy the way back home truly is!
Of course, the crowd has labeled Zacchaeus as intractable, irredeemable, and beyond salvation. No, they would never buy into that silly optimistic philosophy “there is no such thing as a bad person.” This chief tax collector was proof in their minds that there are people beyond redemption. Yet, they must have been amazed when Zacchaeus demonstrates the fruits of his change of heart. “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”
Perhaps the real story of conversion happened when the crowd let go of their judgmental opinion of Zacchaeus. Conversion happens when a person truly admits that their own ego-based perception of people is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps I too can receive the grace of conversion if I sincerely seek to let go of my judgmental opinions of others.
In today's gospel, Jesus tells us the story of the man who enters the temple area taking an inventory of all his moral strengths and religious practices while, at the same time, holding a tax collector in contempt because of his wicked deeds. Imagine if the story turned out differently. Imagine if the parable went something like this:
“Two people go up to the temple area to pray; one is a Pharisee and the other is a tax collector. The Pharisee notices the tax collector entering the temple area and begins to muse about what it was that brought this man
to enter into this sacred space. The Pharisee thinks to himself, ‘This tax collector is a traitor to our country and a greedy extortioner, for sure. He has handled unclean money with the idolatrous image of Caesar stamped on it. Yet, for some reason he is here.’
The tax collector, still at a distance from the sanctuary, bows his head while beating his breast. This gesture has an impact on the Pharisee who is now able to see real contrition in the face of this man. He begins to remember his own past, the skeletons that are there in his own closet, well hidden from the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He first quickly tells himself, ‘I am no longer that man who in the past did those things. I have changed!” However, he then begins to think about the grace that brought about change in his own life, and he begins to feels a gratitude for the mercy of God that was extended to him.
Turning again to the tax collector, the Pharisee feels a joy in his heart that the grace of God has, in fact, reached out to another sinner. ‘Yes,’ thinks the Pharisee, ‘Another sinner has been saved!’ Filled with the joy, a heavenly joy that rejoices in the repentance of one sinner, the Pharisee walks over to the tax collector and warmly hugs him – and then leaves the Temple area to continue his day.”
So, the next time you come to Church look around you. Maybe there is someone in the Church whom you might have judged at first glance for whatever reason – their clothing, their deportment, their misbehaved child or their attention-drawing behavior. Begin to wonder in your heart what has brought them to this sacred space, this holy place? What are they seeking? What is it we are seeking together? As judgment gives way to compassion in your own heart, be aware of the joy you yourself feel that someone has found their place before the mercy seat of God in Saint Brigid’s in Westbury.