Guess Whose Face is Coming to Dinner – Br. Mark Brown

The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini had an article over the weekend about his encounter as a twelve year old with the Ballades of Chopin—actually, the first one in G Minor, and, especially, a certain three-note turn of phrase toward the beginning. He goes on to write about those musical moments that are so powerful that, in an instant, indelible impressions are made and lives are changed. Even children are susceptible to these occasions of transcendent beauty. Perhaps especially children.

It can be music or a painting or a ballet or an encounter with the natural world: something about it re-orients our life. We are no longer lost and confused, but we are found—or, at least, on a path to somewhere in particular. And it can all happen in a moment.

Sometimes it is a face that re-orients our life. For Zacchaeus, who was lost, it was a face, a personal encounter. In an instant, his life was re-oriented, transformed—he was a new person, or, at least, back on the path. It was a kind of love-at-first-sight experience, when he saw the one who said, simply: “come down out of the tree now—I’m coming to your house for dinner.” The words themselves are innocuous enough, although it might have surprised him that Jesus was inviting himself over to dinner. But in an instant, his life was changed.

I think it must have been not the words, but the face, the face of Jesus. Now nothing remarkable about the face of Jesus is recorded in the Scriptures—in fact, we know nothing at all. We can only wonder what Zacchaeus saw in the face of Christ—Zacchaeus and so many others who, in an instant, left what they had and followed him. Whether Christ’s face was handsome or plain, homely or beautiful we don’t know. But there must have been something about it to inspire so much love at first sight, so much transformation.

What a wonder it is that we live in a world where a few notes of music can change a life. What a wonder it is that we live in a world where the first sight of a face can be a moment of transformation.

Jesus certainly knew anger and impatience, sorrow and despair—this we read about. But what I imagine is that most of the time, the face of Jesus was a face of (what else, but) love. Love in the full spectrum of its colors: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, humility, compassion. All these things, all these colors, all together, somehow. (Rembrandt’s faces of Jesus somehow manage to reflect the full range of love’s colors at the same time.) But, I would guess, that above all else, Jesus’ face radiated joy, an infectious joy that delighted in the presence of other human beings.

In 1 John we read that perfect love casts out fear. I think the same could be said about joy: perfect joy casts out fear. Zacchaeus, I would wager, was a very fearful man—and, suddenly, in an instant, he beheld the perfection of joy. And his life was transformed.

It was probably fear that got him into his career as a Roman collaborator in the first place. He was a small man—perhaps with the so-called Napoleon complex, grasping at ways to compensate for a fear of being perceived as weak or inconsequential. Collaborating with the Romans perhaps gave him the illusion of power and status—a way of hiding his fear from his own self. His insecurities probably only mounted in his line of work: tax collectors were notoriously greedy and corrupt. The fear of consequences probably only compounded his need to amass large amounts of money, even dishonestly, and even at the risk becoming at outsider to his own people.

We can relate, can’t we? There’s a lot of fear in the human situation. Fear is the great adversary of our nature. The answer to the question, “what am I most afraid of?” looms large in the spiritual quest. If it’s not one thing, it’s another…but we all know fear. Fear of failure, fear of not being loved, fear of exposure, fear of starvation or poverty, fear of loss of dignity, fear of censure, fear of death, fear of fear.

But Zacchaeus was changed in an instant–by a face, a face probably unlike any other. Like Lazarus called forth from the tomb, bound by the winding cloths of the grave, Zacchaeus is, in an instant, unbound. The winding cloths of his fear falling to the ground in an instant. Love at first sight. Joy at first sight. A joy that made Zacchaeus realize, finally, that he had no reason to be afraid. An “all shall be well and all shall be well” face of love and joy and peace that makes it possible to face even death itself—as Jesus was soon to do.

Such is the power of the face of Christ. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” [1 John 3:2] “Now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we shall see him face to face.

His must be a face with no fear whatsoever, a face completely and utterly and eternally fearless. And we shall be like him. But what we shall be, what we shall be like, comes to meet us even now. Come down out of your tree—I’m coming to your house for dinner, he says. Come out of your tomb; be unbound, now! He calls out to us. The story of Lazarus is about a man raised from physical death; the story of Zacchaeus is about a man raised from a spiritual death, a death induced by fear.

You need not be afraid any more, the fearless one says. The one who is forever unbound, the unbounded one, the one who is our unbinding, comes even now to transform lives riddled with fear into lives of joy. To unbind the winding cloths of fear and to restore us to the path of life.

Sometimes this happens in a moment of grace, even in just a few notes of music. More often, perhaps, we find ourselves in process, in flux, over longer stretches of time—after all, what is a moment, how long is a moment of grace? Whether the moment of grace is mere seconds or all eternity, the end is the same: we shall be as he is—joyful, fearless, completely unbound. Salvation has come to our house.

“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” [Psalm 80:3 BCP p. 702] The Lord bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face to shine upon us, and be gracious to us; the Lord lift up his countenance upon us, and grant us peace. [paraphrase of Numbers 6:24-27]

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  1. Eben on January 27, 2015 at 15:41

    The quoted words, “All shall be well….”, come from St. Julian, who also frequently wrote of “His cheer”, which referred to the loving face (cara) of our Lord.

  2. Barbara Frye on January 26, 2015 at 22:00

    i was really touched by this. Thank you so much!

  3. Ruth West on January 26, 2015 at 19:05

    Br. Curtis, thanks for a very good homily.
    to Ann: Can we truly be joyful in anger and despair? In my own experience, anger kills joy.
    I know we can be joyful in sorrow, and perhaps
    impatience. One need not be smiling every minute to know joy. Teach us, Lord, day by day.

  4. Margaret Dungan on January 26, 2015 at 16:48

    Just over a year later I am more impressed with these words than even the first time that I read them.Thank you Br. Mark, This time I have written down some of these words so that I will never forget them.

  5. Ann on January 26, 2015 at 10:18

    Anger and impatience, sorrow and despair can also be the face of love.

  6. Margaret Dungan on December 20, 2013 at 15:53

    What a joyful end to fear!
    Thank you Br.Mark.


  7. Steve on December 20, 2013 at 09:49

    Thank you, Br. Mark.

  8. Margo on December 20, 2013 at 06:19

    Br. Mark, A wonderfully fanciful interpretation of the story at what Marcus Borg names a individual, spiritual, personal level. But what is your authority for this? Scripture..hmm – major introgesis, tradition marginally perhaps, reason..the beauty of a face that thousands ignored in his life time.
    Historically, a tax collector gathered money from the Jewish people backed by the authority and force of the occupying Roman army and empire. He took a cut for himself for his payment. As chief tax collector he also took a cut from other tax collectors. There were no standard fees. The tax collector got what he could extort. The system was very open to abuse. It led to a lot of economic oppression. As a Jew Zaccheaous, who was collaborating with the Roman oppressors of his people for his own personal gain, was feared, disliked, and isolated, by the people of his own community. He was in open violation of the Law of his religious community. He would have been part of what people protested against when they protested Roman occupation. Perhaps he carried a good deal of fear here.
    As an individual male Jew he would have been educated by studying the Torah and the prophets of Israel who had called the community to righteousness in all aspects of living, including fair distribution of resources and care for the poor. The probable reason he sought Jesus was he would have become conscious of being mired in greed, longing for something he didn’t have and looking for a way back to where he belonged.
    The things we are not told in his story are as important as the things we are. His encounter with Jesus is personal, one on one encounter. Jesus knows who he is. We are not told the details of his ‘spiritual experience’, his ‘streaming with God’ just how he responded to Jesus’ presence directly in his life. We are told what he did. The emphasis is on his act as an individual which is utterly communal and social in nature. He acknowledges he has cheated his community and offers to make huge reparations for this, far more than required by the Law. This would have redeemed him in the eyes of the community and reinstated him in his social world. Perhaps he would have dropped some fear of retaliation at this point. In doing so he would also be changing alliances from the Roman collaborator perpetuating imperial power to the righteous pursuit of the common good of his Jewish community, and a follower of Christ. This is a political act because it is acknowledging an alliance to a different source of power. (He would surely be more vulnerable to fear from Roman retaliation now.)
    Inspired and empowered by the Spirit his actions have deeply practical moral and spiritual implications both for himself and his greater community.
    This is much more a story that illustrates how the incarnate God, Jesus is completely concerned with how we use the whole of our lives. How we use our material possessions and how we interact with the powers which govern our communities.
    When we live in communities where some members are deeply marginalized by others, Jesus calls us to protest against this. Jesus confronts Zaccheaous in his greed laying an example of how we His followers can confront those who oppress the poor in our world in the same way.
    With much love for you and yours and those 200 odd people who this day in our Vermont village will line up for gifts for their children which they cannot afford to buy themselves and have probably never heard Chopin in G minor and a multitude of others. Margo

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