“All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.””
Luke 15: 1-2
“Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Luke 19: 7
I’ve been thinking about Zacchaeus, I’ve been thinking about election, and I’ve been thinking about leaders who gaslight and morally license bad behavior, and the generally fickle nature of all those who follow them.
Whether we like it or not, Democracy is on the ballot this Fall.
Whether we like it or not, this is the most crucial issue in this election.
Because all across the nation, election-deniers are on the ballot, promising that if they are elected they will forever change the way American votes are counted, and usher the very real possibility of future Constitutional crisis.
We should believe that they will do what they say they will do. Already we are seeing how sinister efforts at voter suppression are keeping voters away from the polls.
All across the nation, scores of other politicians who “once upon a time” supported Donald Trump, are running for re-election again; politicians who engaged in exactly the same kind of gaslighting he used for four years, or who sat quietly and allowed it to happen. They’re hoping you won’t notice any of that now, that you’ve moved on; hoping that when you pull the lever, you’ll focus on the economy or the price of gasoline.
I’m not at all making light of the very real suffering that’s out there right now. I understand that things truly are bad, and getting worse especially for the poor and working class. I’m not at all denying that both parties have failed the working class.
But only one party promises more voters suppression, and actively courts and supports those who *promise* to overturn the will of the American people in elections.
During the last years of the Trump presidency, I repeatedly said this: “We will be fighting against what has been unleashed here for the rest of our lives.”
My friends, we still are.
And maybe you no longer care about our system of government. Maybe you’re among those who believe we must “burn it all down.”
While I understand the impetus for these emotions, the very real concept that our Constitutional Republic could fall to totalitarianism is as possible, or more possible, than it’s ever been before. And should that happen, it is a fantasy to believe that the poor and marginalized will fair better. As we look back through history, there are no credible examples of totalitarian states that care for the poor and marginalized.
Therefore, Democracy is the most important thing on the ballot this Fall. That is because of what I said before the 2020 election: That the fight against totalitarianism will take YEARS, not only one election cycle.
Today, if I’m being honest, things don’t look great.
Polls are showing surprisingly close races across the country. And maybe you have reasons for why this is so.
From the Right you can lecture me about the economy.
From the Left, you can lecture me on how the poor and marginalized feel so disempowered and despondent that there is no will-to-vote left, or trust in the system.
I get all of that.
And even after we’ve said all of it, none of it negates the obvious fact that democracy is on the ballot.
The ability to elect *any* politician from the center-to-left of American politics, in any future national election, is currently at stake. The fight against totalitarianism is very much alive. None of the last two sentences is hyperbole.
So, please vote.
All of that said, as I read my Bible lessons this week, these two verses leapt out at me. We’ve been reading lessons from the Gospel of Luke all through the Fall. And a reminder about leaders and their followers hit me right between the eyes as I compared these two verses.
In Chapter 15 of Luke, Jesus tells his three great “Parables of the Lost.” (Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, Lost Son).
But the three parables are framed by this verse: “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.””
It is problematic to talk about Pharisees today, because of a history of Christian Anti-Semitism. But my worry is that our fear of that allows us to let modern *Christians* off the hook.
Because in OUR day, the most clear examples of Pharisees are among Christian Nationalists and their throught leaders. They gaslight the people. They sew dissension, discord and division in exactly the way Luke imagines Bible Pharisees do. (Again, not real Pharisees, but as they are portrayed in the Bible…)
Understanding the equation “Bible Pharisee = Christian Nationalist” is not only helpful, but essential.
If you’re still unconvinced by this, let’s just call them “Thought Leaders.” The Pharisees and “legal experts” of Jesus’ day were like contemporary pundits, preachers, and politicians. And they “grumble” at every chance they get about how Jesus is associating with the outcasts and the marginalized.
He’s welcoming women. He’s healing the children of Roman soldiers. And he’s even staying at the homes of “Tax Collectors.”
Tax Collectors, it’s widely believed, were even more despised in Jesus’ day than they are in ours. Regular Jews saw them as collaborators with Roman Imperial power. They were Jews, but they worked as a kind of contractor for Rome. And it’s widely believed they often took more tax from ordinary people than they should, and kept some back for themselves.
So, in Chapter 15, Jesus overhears the grumbling of these “Thought Leaders.” And he tells three stories because of it.
The stories are about how he has come to help find the lost.
In fact, the last line of the stories includes this: “He was lost and is found.”
These three stories even include a character designed specifically for these “Thought Leaders” —the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son— to remind them that God loves them too…but that Jesus has a special call to draw the circle wide and include even MORE folks at the table.
These “Thought Leaders” don’t seem convinced. They keep “grumbling.” They keep looking for ways to trip Jesus up.
Finally, in Chapter 19, we get to the story of Zacchaeus. He is one of those hated “Tax Collectors.” Only it’s even worse, because he’s a “Chief” tax collector…like being a mid-level Mafia Don.
Jesus rides into town in the midst of a crowd that looks to be very much the size of the Palm Sunday crowd later. It’s a lot of people. Jesus has to know that the authorities are still out to get him. But he stops when he comes to Zacchaeus The Chief Tax Collector.
He tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree, and he insists that he is to be Zacchaeus’ overnight and dinner guest.
And suddenly, we hear the same line we hear in Chapter 15. Except different people are saying it.
Now when they see Jesus stop and honor Zacchaues, is says that EVERYONE grumbles: “This man eats with sinners…”
Did you catch what’s happened?!
An important thing has just happened, and an important switch has been thrown.
The negative spin of the “Thought Leaders” in Chapter 15 is now being parroted by the ENTIRE CROWD.
The EXACT. SAME. PHRASE.
The people —apparently even the adoring crowds around Jesus— have bought into the critique of the Thought Leaders.
Friends, there’s no better example in the Bible of just how gaslighting works…of just how “moral licensing” works.
In our day, Right Wing politicians and pundits relentlessly parroted the lies of Donald Trump. So much so, that some of his followers attempted to overthrow the US government on January 6th. So much so that, even this week, they were still trying to kill Nancy Pelosi.
There is a deep sickness in our land. There is a potentially *fatal* sickness among the leadership class of our country.
For four years, far too many Thought Leaders defended the lies of our ex-President. They parroted his lies about President Obama’s birth. They parroted his hesitancy about the vaccine, or his crazy theories about bleach and COVID. They finally believed his “Big Lie” about the 2020 election.
Far too many will hear this recitation as “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
And that, friends, is part of the problem too. That, friends, is just how insidious these lies are, once they are repeated over and over. The leadership class of our world apparently believes that they can say anything they want, at any time they want, and not face any repercussions.
But the constant lies never just “die out,” they get reborn in a thousand ways among the people. They get “parroted back” in a thousand small ways in our present day. They are literally in the campaigns of people on the ballot today, all across the country.
Please also note: Jesus has to know exactly what he’s doing when he stops and greets Zacchaeus. He has to know that it won’t be popular to for him to stop and pay special attention to this guy everybody assumes must be a soundrel.
But Jesus does it anyway. And he finishes his encounter with Zacchaeus with the same consistent message of Chapter 15:
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
In Jesus’ day, the lies of “Thought Leaders” eventually gets you a crowd of people parroting their spin.
In our day, it gets you a guy with a hammer trying to kill Paul Pelosi.
Democracy is on the ballot this November, make no mistake.
Lives are in the balance. The future of our Republic could well be in the balance.
There is only one true and final way to tamp down the lies that continue to be spread by Christian Nationalist Thought Leaders, and parroted back by their followers.
It’s not through brilliant logic.
It’s not through just waiting them out, hoping some die off of old age, or get bored or lose interest.
It’s not by putting your head in the sand, going back to “normal” life, and hoping for the best.
It’s through your VOTE.
Please. Get out and vote.