Halloween, Martin Luther and Zacchaeus
A sermon preached by Canon Kenneth Padley, Treasurer.
Sunday 30 November, The Fourth Sunday before Advent.
Halloween is a heady mix of things serious and superficial. On the one hand it is a commercial festival of orange and black plastic. On the other hand, as events last night in South Korea tragically remind us, it touches the biggest questions of death and existence. Anna, Alex and I saw an example of this tension where we used to live in St Albans. Lots of children would trick and treat along the street. But none would dare come as far as the Vicarage, because this required them to walk past the mist-festooned gravestones of the churchyard. On October 31st, the dead forefathers of the hamlet saved us considerable money and hassle.
Of course, Halloween is but a prequel to the ancient Christian season of All Saints. As we enter the last few weeks of the Christian year, we naturally look backwards. This week we will recall those who have gone before us in faith, great heroes and heroines as well as our own departed loved ones, saints whose goodness should inspire us. Details of special services this week are on the Cathedral website and notice sheet.
Tomorrow is not only Halloween. In parts of Germany and other countries shaped by the traditions of Lutheran Christianity, the last day of October is also marked as Reformation Day. This is the anniversary of the infamous incident in 1517 when an obscure monk called Martin Luther is said to have pinned 95 Theses onto the door of the castle chapel in Wittenberg. Luther was engaging in dry academic debate, but his theses became the unlikely spark for a global revolution as social radicals and political magnates weaponised his arguments to their own ends.
Despite some uncertainty about how the 95 theses were published, it was no coincidence that Luther chose to disseminate them at this time of year. Because Luther’s theses are arguments about what happens when we die and about the nature of Christian salvation. In particular, Luther was critiquing the sale of Indulgences. Indulgences were a form of spiritual insurance sold by the medieval Church. They offered proleptic absolution – forgiveness in advance – for sins that one might commit in the future. For example, if the Canon Treasurer wished to remove the badger which is in his garden and secrete it, say, in the offices of the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral, he might seek forgiveness in advance through the purchase of an Indulgence. In turn, the Chairman of the Friends might buy an Indulgence should he then wish to surreptitiously dispose of said badger in the grounds of the Cathedral School. And so on…
Indulgences in the age of Luther were a tidy money-making scheme for the Pope – all terribly convenient at a time when the Pope faced heavy bills for rebuilding of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
Luther’s point about Indulgences is not only that were they inherently corrupt, but that they also misunderstood how people are put right with God. His argument was that God’s grace could not (as well as should not) be up for sale. Nobody, said Luther, can deserve God’s love, either through what they pay or even through the holiness of their lifestyle. You can’t bribe the Big Man: God’s perfection is something to which we simply cannot attain through our mortal efforts.
Looking back at the end of his life and reflecting on a lynchpin verse in the first chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther described the moment of illumination which transformed his theology. Quote,
I began to understand the ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith, and [St Paul’s] sentence “the righteousness of God is revealed” to refer to a passive righteousness by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “The righteous lives by faith”. This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again.
Luther felt born again. I suspect the same was true of Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. In Zacchaeus we meet a man well aware of his physical limitations. He had to scuttle up a tree to see Jesus. But then, through his dialogue with Jesus, Zacchaeus also became aware of his lack of moral stature. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus had an inherently corrupt profession. Having agreed to give the Roman authorities a set amount for the right to tax his area, Zacchaeus made his own living from the extra money he screwed out of the locals.
So Zacchaeus had no base from which to reach out to God. But Jesus chose to reach out to him. ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ The response of Zacchaeus is immediate and dramatic. We heard that he ‘hurried down and was happy to welcome’ Jesus – verse 6. This translation is one of those bizarre instances where earlier English Bibles offer a wording which is both more accurate and more emotive. The King James Bible correctly says that Zacchaeus received [Jesus] joyfully. Joyfulness: that is the outcome of conversion.
The seventeenth century lawyer, civil servant and poet Frances Quarles wrote this about the urgency of Zacchaeus’ conversion:
Methinks I see, with what a busy haste
Zacchaeus climbed the tree. But O how fast,
How full of speed, canst thou imagine, when
Our Saviour called, he powered down again!
He ne’er made trial if the boughs were sound
Or rotten, nor how far ’twas to the ground.
There was no danger feared: at such a call,
He’ll venture nothing, that dare fear a fall.
Needs must he down, by such a spirit driven;
Nor could he fall, unless he fell to heaven.
Down came Zacchaeus ravished from the tree:
Bird that was shot ne’er dropped so quick as he.
Zacchaeus is transformed. Instead of looking inwards to his own interest he now looks outwards to those whom he has defrauded and to the poor. His generous response echoes Jesus’ superabundant embrace: he gives away to the poor and restores to his victims more than the Jewish law required of him.
There is something noteworthy in the way that Jesus chooses to celebrate Zacchaeus’ conversion in verse 9 of today’s gospel. Jesus proclaims that ‘today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham’. The previous reference to Abraham (the Jewish patriarch) in Luke’s gospel occurred three chapters earlier when Jesus told a parable about the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Both the narrative of Zacchaeus and the parable of Lazarus and Dives are unique to Luke’s gospel, so maybe the reference in both to Abraham is related. In the parable, Abraham insists that a gulf separates the destiny of Dives in hell from the comfort which poor Lazarus receives in the afterlife. Is not this gulf the rich man’s failure to repent and show greater concern for the poor like Lazarus? In chapter 19, the converted and repentant Zacchaeus does what Dives could not, such that salvation comes to his house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
Zacchaeus is an illustration of the principles which Luther would want us to hear on Reformation Day. Here is someone who cannot save himself, but who is touched by the invitation of Jesus to acknowledge his fallenness. Here is someone justified by faith and whose sanctification is illustrated in a transformed outlook. And that is something much more joyful and relevant than Halloween.