From 1956 to 1964, Karl Barth preached among those incarcerated in Basel. In many ways, these sermons most faithfully capture the vast volumes of theology Barth wove throughout the twentieth century. At the center of each homily, which began with prayer and concluded with the Eucharist, was the confession that all of us stood in need of God’s grace. Here is where Barth found common ground with those he considered fellow congregants.
“Has [God] really made things right for all of us? Even for the most miserable, the most afflicted and the most embittered of human beings? Yes! Even for the most grievous offenders? Yes! Even for the godless- or those pretending to be godless, as may be the case with some of your fellow-prisoners who declined to be with us this morning? Yes! Jesus Christ has made things right for them and for us all. He is willing to do it time and again” (Ascension Day 1956).*
Barth recognized the mercy and grace of God were the great equalizers and levelers for all of humanity. In confession, he recognized each of us plays some part in the world gone rogue. The forgiveness of Christ then sets us free to view our neighbors, whether they are behind bars, a political debate podium, or this blogpost, through the lens of the gospel and God's promised reconciliation of all things.
In Luke 18, Jesus illustrates a likely foundation for this theological and practical center through the contrasted prayers of a Pharisee and an unnamed tax collector. The piety of the Pharisee elevates the self at the expense of neighbor and constructs a faulty religious wall of ignorance, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector."
But he was just like them. And so are we.
So Jesus shares the contrasted prayer he may have personally heard from an unnamed tax collector, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."
The humbled other confesses his need for God's intervention in the midst of human brokenness. The "sinner" confronts his participation in dysfunction only able to be remidied by the One whose mercy overcomes even the worst of human dealings or politics. The unnamed refuses to compare himself to his neighbors or to Caesar, who was at the helm of the corrupt socio-economic policies that underwrote his vocation. Instead, the unnamed confessor looks to be made right and whole so he can participate in a better economy and more just reign than that which has framed his lifework.
If we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and jump a chapter over in Luke's gospel, we just may notice this tax collector “standing far off” has a name- Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). After much contemplation and confession, Zacchaeus has ventured from temple to tree, climbed down from his elevated perch, given reparations for his unjust and oppressive deeds (i.e. repents), and identified with the poor he once exploited. It is only after this sort of repentance that Jesus says salvation has come to this son of Abraham. Said differently, salvation in the economy of God happens in our concern for, identification with, and solidarity alongside the poor, oppressed, and neighbors on the margins. As Luke says elsewhere, "blessed are you who are poor…woe to you who are rich" (6:20,24); "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30); "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (18:14).
Zaccheus was only able to do this as he shifted his narrative from one of "us and them" and treatment of persons as collateral to one of solidarity with neighbor and those exploited by systems bent towards the rich. In a sense, his prayer in the temple was fully realized as he ventured to the streets of Jericho. Here he would find jubilee, reconciliation, and salvation.
In the midst of the hostile rhetoric that consumes all arenas for public and personal discourse, the witness of Zacchaeus dares us to embrace a sobering narrative that binds us all together and see one another through the lens of God's mercy and grace. Zacchaeus' temple prayer combined with his offering of reparations in Jericho, point to salvation coming when we as the church, versus any presidential candidate, are willing to come down from our privileged perch in the tree and make amends with brokenness of the world we have allowed to happen. After all, we are not only contributors to the fracturing of God’s world, but also paradoxical agents of wholeness, hope, and redemption.
Each of us are mirrors of the sinner and saint whose name is Zacchaeus.
This is likely what sent Karl Barth into the Basel prisons. May we make similar confessional journeys from sacred spaces to whatever cities, communities, neighborhoods, digital spaces, God calls us. May we do so aware we are all wrapped in the love and grace of Christ able to reconcile all things- even each of us.
*Read the collection of these sermons in Deliverance to the Captives. The most pertinent sermon for this lectionary text would be the one delivered in September 1957, "All!"