One of the provocative claims made in the early Genesis creation narratives is that humans are the imago dei (the image of God) and that a declaration of ‘goodness’ lies at the heart of humanness. This was provocative in the Ancient Near East because nobody believed in the inherent goodness of human beings – the world was understood to be a violent place, and humans were savages; here to do the bidding of the gods. And this insistence that goodness and beauty is at the centre of humanness continues to be a provocative claim today – especially (and ironically) in the Christian tradition. In this sense, it becomes a prophetic utterance that challenges the well-worn paths of negative self-perception.
And as much as I love this ideal vision of my humanity, I find myself struggling with it too. In my own personal experience I doubt my own capabilities and I’m all too aware of my failings, my attitudes and behaviour. I can be wracked with insecurities, doubts and anxieties. So I hear this bold claim that as a human I image this beautiful relational loving divine reality, but I look in the mirror – both literally and metaphorically – and it’s not what I’m inclined to see much of the time.
So we have this contradiction at work in the story. A claim that to be human is a beautiful and good thing, and yet an experience of being human that doesn’t always appear to correspond to this vision. Even further, not only do we feel our inadequacies internally, but we also project this negativity outward in the way we interact with other people. So much of my problematic behaviour towards others flows out of the brokenness I carry inside of myself.
And the scriptures do talk about this reality; that to be human is beautiful and good, but that we are capable of acting in ways that go against this vision of what it means to be human. The word ‘sin’ is often used in our sacred text, but within some streams of the Christian tradition the word sin has been framed in really unsatisfactory ways. It’s as if God is up in heaven somewhere with a giant list of banned attitudes and behaviours, waiting to see who does all of the naughty things. In many respects, the church has damaged the word ‘sin’ so much, that it’s not very useful anymore.
What this idea is supposed to get at, is our capacity to avoid living in the light of the good and beautiful vision of humanness and instead to embrace dehumanising ways of seeing ourselves and acting towards others. In the ancient Jewish idea of shalom, they spoke of a harmony that is said to lie at the heart of what it means to be human. A relational idea: harmony with God, with others, with self, and with all of creation. We are immersed in a wonderful creation – filled with and sustained by the breath of the divine Spirit – and oriented to the central creed of Jesus: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. When we act against this harmony, we dehumanise ourselves and one another.
But the presence of the Spirit of Christ among us is at work in bringing us toward re-humanisation; often referred to in the Christian tradition and the scriptures as “salvation”. We experience the liberating work of God, freeing us from our tendency towards (or enslavement by) the forces of dehumanisation, and as we do, we begin to recognize that what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God” is breaking out within us and all around us. This “kingdom” is both mystical and tangible. It is found emerging in our inner world and manifests in our outer world.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus is a wealthy rip-off merchant who betrays his own people by collecting taxes for the Empire and skims a fat margin off the top to take for himself. He dehumanises others, treating them as objects to be taken advantage of, and he is also dehumanised; labelled a “sinner” and as one not to be associated with. But Jesus invites himself to stay – a sign of inclusion and embrace in first century Jewish culture. And Zacchaeus re-orients his life, he enters into the journey of transformation, and Jesus says “Today salvation has come to this house.” The path to transformation starts with radical acceptance, an acceptance that leads to a profound re-humanisation of self and others. The story of the ‘gospel’ acknowledges that when we are unable to accept and forgive ourselves and one another, God names our acceptance, God names our forgiveness, and the Spirit of Christ enlivens us to experience transformation and renewal.
Our invitation is to listen to the prophetic claim that to be human is a beautiful thing. To receive a radical grace and acceptance from God, and to allow it to transform our sense of who we are and the way we live in the world.