Blogging Towards Sunday October 31
Free from what and for what?
The texts I'm choosing from the Lectionary list this week lift up several theological and philosophical themes: relationship, community, making-meaning in and of our lives, looking for a ethical/moral compass, conversion to a new way of life and thinking and freedom. It's this last theme that most strikes me. In our American-Idolized culture of everyone can be famous. In the face of massive daily choices, updates and tweets that define who we are. In the realization of the complexity of the global system in which we swim like a fish bowl, it's ironic to say that we're free when freedom is the thing that seems to most elude us. We all want freedom yet we seem to pursue it on our own, by our own power and without any strings.
Zacchaeus (Luke 19) is a cultural outsider. He's not someone who thinks outside of the box. Rather he is excluded, rejected, reviled for his profession as a tax collector who collaborates with the imperial colonial power of far away and nearly all-powerful Rome. The Romans were smart. Rather than collecting the taxes themselves, they looked for members of the populations they dominated to do their dirty work for them. For becoming the target of everyone's anger they were given the freedom to collect and keep anything above the amount required by Rome, kind of like a wicked ponzi scheme, but perfectly legal.
Zacchaeus is free to do what he wants yet not really free. Universally detested he can't have any sort of relationship as most folks might return his smile but not want anything to do with him. He can't actually do whatever he wants because he's entrapped by the limits of the role he plays in the Empire and society. Who knows why he chose that path in life (a desire for wealth? Is he a suck-up to power? Was it a choice forced upon him by necessity or politics?) yet he seems to be looking for a different moral or ethical compass to guide him. He seems to suspect that this Jesus coming to his hometown of Jericho just might be that compass, or at least his teachings. So the short guy who is supposedly tall in terms of wealth and power climbs a tree too see Jesus in the throng of the crowd.
He encounters this Jesus and realizes that he isn't in fact free, that he hasn't been. He begins to taste and fathom what true freedom, a new life, might look like. He knows that it involves following this Jesus literally and philosophically. Freedom is something he thought he could choose and possess and yet it turns out that it's something he can only receive and foster.
And us. We live inundated with choices because we're supposedly free: endlessly mobile in our upwards ascension to a better life. Yet does having choice mean that we're free? What choice do we have? Are we truly free to choose anything or are we conditioned by society, guided by our global economy, enslaved by our group thought? Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes about the liquid modernity of our time, the stratification of our consumerist society that markets the belief that we're all free to move upwards on the social ladder in terms of earning power. Yet when we look at the housing bubble blow-out, the current depression, the cries for help issued in the current election cycle it's hard to see this freedom. In an American Idol-ized culture we think we all can become rock stars, or the next top chef, top model or biggest loser. This freedom to change and become great overloads us with responsibility: it's up to us. We have the power. We have the responsibility. We alone can make it happen.
We often look for our freedom in avoiding any sort of link or relationship that could tie us down or to something. We want to be independent of relational bonds. We want to be free in terms of religious ideas and philosophical world-view choices. We want to be free to be all that we think we can be. We want the freedom to choose the divergent path, the road less traveled and yet is that even an option? What happens when that freedom doesn't become a reality? What happens when we realize that the truth we've been following doesn't set us free? When we encounter an impasse in the realization of our dreams what ethical compass do we follow? In our freedom of any ties and links we often find ourselves lost without community, without spiritual direction, without an ethical compass, like the passengers of oceanic flight 815.
I read an article written by Rabbi Hirschfield last year that said, "while answers make like manageable, it's our questions that make life meaningful." That's what I find remarkable about Jesus is this gospel encounter story - and in his teachings - it's not about giving a simple one-fix answer, but rather a question, an invitation to follow that gets at the meaning of what we do and who we are, that leads to the claiming of what life is about: true freedom.