Around the time that Jesus was born, in the city of Sepphoris, a rebellion broke out. Led by a man named Judas, son of Ezekies, the armed rebels attacked the city, focusing on centers of government power and finance.
They did not succeed. The Roman army put down the rebellion. They burned the city to the ground. And they crucified 2,000 rebels; the roads were lined with crosses as a warning to other would-be rebels.
Sepphoris was within sight of Nazareth; Growing up, Jesus could walk to Sepphoris in about an hour. It’s likely that he did. After being destroyed by the Roman army, Sepphoris needed rebuilding. There was plenty of work for an apprentice carpenter like Jesus.
And from his parents and other adults in Nazareth, not to mention those he met in Sepphoris, Jesus heard many stories about the failed rebellion.
Rebellion. This was perhaps the greatest fear for Caesar and those in power. Common people didn’t have much power on their own in ancient Rome, but if they organized, if they had the right leadership, they could, theoretically, topple the pyramid structure of Roman rule.
Rome had a two-pronged approach to dealing with rebellion. One of those prongs involved using the might of the Roman army to mercilessly destroy any movement that sought to challenge Caesar. That’s what happened in Sepphoris.
Rome’s other method for dealing with rebellion was to prevent rebellions before they started. The thinking was: keep the people fed and entertained, and they will remain loyal and grateful to Rome.
So bread was given, and contests were held. Picture Caesar tossing out bread from a high place to the people below. Picture great gladiator contests and chariot races. Bread and circuses.
Caesar gave the people bread and circuses. Caesar maintained peace in the kingdom by destroying any rebellions. It was an uneasy peace, an anxious peace, but at least it kept wars to a minimum.
For all this, the people were in Caesar’s debt. That’s how Caesar saw it. They literally owed to Caesar a debt of gratitude, which Caesar took from them in the form of high, oppressive taxes.
When I went to hear Diana Butler Bass speak in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, this is what she talked about. Under Caesar, a debt of gratitude was just that: a debt. This, she said, was how gratitude worked when the structure of society was shaped like a pyramid: the ruler at the top, the masses of people at the base.
When society is shaped like a pyramid, gratitude is a debt; a duty; something that is owed to the person at the top of the pyramid.
What does the story of Zacchaeus have to do with this? Well, Zacchaeus was a climber. He didn’t just climb trees; he tried, as hard as he could, to climb the social pyramid. He tried to get as close as he could to the top.
He was rich. He chose to be a tax collector, even though it meant turning his back on his own people, and aligning himself with Rome. He chose to be a tax collector, even though it meant participating in the oppression of his people.
He’d do anything to climb that social ladder.
The story of him climbing the tree symbolizes how he tried to climb the social pyramid of ancient Rome. In every possible way, he wanted to move up in the world.
And what did Jesus do when he saw Zacchaeus? What is the first thing Jesus said to Zacchaeus?
“Zacchaeus, come down from that tree…”
Jesus didn’t operate within that pyramid shaped structure. For Jesus, the structure of society was different. For Jesus, society wasn’t shaped like a pyramid, with a ruler at the top, the people down below, and debts of gratitude always flowing up from the base to the top.
For Jesus, society was shaped … like a circle.
Consider that one line in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” I know some churches that have changed the words to say “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” or “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” but Jesus really did say debts.
Forgive us our debts. Get rid of the debts, get rid of the obligations, that are intrinsic to a pyramid-shaped society. In the world as Jesus envisions it, no one owes anyone anything.
This is similar to what the apostle Paul says when he expresses his desire that no one owes anyone anything except a debt of love.
Amy-Jill Levine says more about this in her book The Misunderstood Jew. She writes: “The line [about forgiving debts] does not promote some vague notion that God should forgive us for the occasional taking of the divine name in vain or for yelling at the cat. It goes directly to the pocketbook; it says, ‘Don’t hold a debt.”
Jesus wanted to get rid of a gratitude system and structure that was shaped like a pyramid. Jesus wanted to get rid of the debt and duty aspect of gratitude. Jesus wanted us to think of gratitude in a whole new way. Jesus wanted us to give thanks freely. Jesus didn’t want us to give thanks and express gratitude because a debt was forcing us to give thanks.
God, we are told, loves a cheerful giver. It’s not a part of God’s vision for the world that we give grudgingly, handing over our gifts of thanks, our gifts of gratitude, muttering, “Here. Take it.”
That’s very different from Caesar. Caesar comes and demands payment, demands gratitude, demands whatever he wants, and you say, “Fine. Take it.” … Caesar’s fine with that. He doesn’t care what your attitude is, just as long as you give Caesar what Caesar believes Caesar is owed.
That’s gratitude in a pyramid structure: “Here. Take it.”
In the kingdom of God, gratitude and thanks are expressed very differently. In the kingdom of God, gratitude and thanks are given with joy.
As Christians, we believe that it was through Jesus that God came into the world. In a pyramid-shaped structure, God could have remained at the top, God could have given us what we needed, and God could have demanded that we repay our debt to God in some way; but instead, God left that position to become one of the people. God became human, just like us. In Jesus, God lived and dwelt among us.
In Jesus, God took that pyramid, and made it a circle.
In a circle, gratitude is no longer about debt and duty. In a circle, gratitude is about community. In a circle, gratitude is about oneness. In a circle, gratitude is about unity.
“Zacchaeus, come down out of that tree. Stop trying to climb to the top. I’m coming to your house for dinner, and we’re going to sit together, side-by-side.”
In a pyramid, there is never enough. As you move down the pyramid, the number of people grows, but the amount of resources shrink. When Caesar distributed bread, it was all taken, and many were left wanting more. Even when gladiators fought in the enormous Colosseum, there were only so many seats.
In a circle, there is always enough. In a circle, there is always room for more. When Jesus fed the thousands of people in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how many people were there; there was room for all who wanted to be there, and there was enough food for all. In fact, there were leftovers! Nothing was held back so that those at the top could live in luxury with more than enough; instead, it was shared, so that all could have all that they needed.
In a circle, there is no debt of gratitude. There is only love and thankfulness.
I’m so glad I got to hear Diana Butler Bass explain all this a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to reading her book that comes out next spring. Her work is helping me understand gratitude and thankfulness in a whole new way.
In the church, we try to model a circular form of gratitude, in which all are invited to freely give to one another, in gratitude for the many blessings that God has shared with us. Gratitude is not about submission and obligation to repay a mighty benefactor. It’s about embracing the freedom and the invitation to share with others in love.
In the church, we gather around a table. We say that Jesus is the head of this table, but I’m not so sure that Jesus would have put it that way. Remember that he got up from and began serving those who were there with him. If he was at the head of the table, he left that place of honor, that place of heightened glory, to take his place among the rest of them, serving them, ministering to them, loving them.
This is a model for how we should give back to society.
A lot of times we give to charity, and it’s “us helping them.” In other words, we have the strengths, they have the weaknesses, the limitations. This is how charity works in a pyramid structure: it’s the rich and powerful tossing bread to those down below.
Or, sometimes, it’s the President of the United States tossing rolls of paper towels out to hurricane victims...and then complaining that those hurricane victims aren’t giving him the thanks and praise he thinks he deserves.
Sandhya Jha, a friend of mine, has just written an amazing book. It’s titled Transforming Communities, and in it, she says:
“So much work with marginalized communities comes from a space of charity, or ‘us serving them,’ [so] it sometimes misses a key element that solidarity brings; a ‘me journeying with you’ alternative framework. A charity model pays attention to the needs of a client and sometimes unintentionally or unconsciously focuses on his/her limitations or failings.”
In other words, charity models work within a pyramid structure, and those at the top help those at the bottom, because those at the top feel they are better than those at the bottom.
But in a circular structure, we are journeying together, we are focusing on each other’s strengths, we are supporting each other. We’re not giving from a higher/better position, but we are sharing, as equals, because we recognize that our lives are connected to theirs, that we are all in it together.
Like the story from last week of the five bridesmaids who had oil and the five bridesmaids without oil: If we say this is a problem that some have oil and some do not have oil, then it’s a pyramid structure; but if we say that ten bridesmaids have only half as much oil as they need, then it’s a circular structure; then we recognize that the problem affects them all, and they need to work together for a solution that will benefit them all.
This is the challenge that we are presented on this Sunday before Thanksgiving: To give thanks - and to give - from a position of solidarity, within a circle structure… to come down from our high position and learn to be part of a community, part of a relationship, in which giving and receiving go together. What can we receive from those to whom we give? What can we give to those from whom we receive?
It’s no accident that, at the Lord’s Table, we both give and we receive. We present our offerings to God, and we receive from God the bread and the cup. Our offering is not a payment to God, an admission fee to take our place at the table. It is an act of sharing. God shares what God has with us, and we share what we have with God.
And this sharing is rooted in love. We give out of love. We receive out of love. It’s not about obligation. It’s not about what is owed. Our giving and our receiving is all about love.