Why do great works of art stand out? Or great works of literature, for that matter? What makes something great, “great”? What makes the Mona Lisa great? Why does she stand out above all the rest? Have you ever thought about it? Why is this painting, in a museum far, far away the defining work of art for western civilization? (I’m not picking on her directly. I could pick from any number of paintings but she is well-known, well-regarded, and pretty important.)
One answer is simple: she just is. It’s the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci painted her in 1503, it hangs in the Louvre in Paris, and everybody says it’s great. We take this knowledge at face value but we don’t know where that knowledge originated. The knowledge of Mona Lisa’s greatness came from somewhere else, did it not? Who told the person who told you the Mona Lisa was great? Who told them?
If you go to the Louvre and line up to see the Mona Lisa, in its climate controlled bullet proof box, you might find yourself asking, “Why is the Mona Lisa so superior to the three other Leonardo’s in the previous room to which nobody pays any attention and lack the protection of bulletproof glass?”
For most of its life, this painting of an anonymous woman languished in obscurity. Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for artists like Raphael and Titian. The Mona Lisa wasn’t a big deal to anyone. That was until 1911. What happened in 1911? A janitor stole the Mona Lisa. He put it right under his shirt and walked out the front door. The Parisians were so offend that something, even something to which they had paid little attention to had been stolen! So when the museum reopened, they lined up to see the spot where the Mona Lisa had once hung. Even though they had never cared about the painting, Parisians lined up to see a blank spot on the wall. Thus, the mythology of greatness begins. If people will line up to see a blank spot on the wall, what will they do when the painting actually returns?
Two years later, an Italian carpenter was caught trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The French public was electrified. To the Italians, this man was a national hero trying to return the Mona Lisa to its rightful home. From that moment on, the painting becomes the symbol of western culture. Newspapers around the world reprinted the image, it goes into textbooks, and art critics tell you how the eyes will follow you around the room.
The Italian carpenter didn’t repatriate the painting but he did make “the” cultural icon. We now know that the Mona Lisa’s unique status is not entirely attributable to its brushwork and the famous “follow you around the room” eye effect is seen in many Renaissance paintings. The Mona Lisa has value because someone told us it has value. We inherited someone else’s opinion and didn’t question it. It just is valuable. And it is because a janitor stole a painting. I feel a little cheated.
Sometimes it’s that way with the Bible. We’ve inherited paintings in the form of stories and parables and we don’t know why they’re great, what they mean, or what to do with them. Take this story we read this morning, the story of Zacchaeus. We know this story. At least we think we do. The song helps. Yes, we once sang songs in church that mocked those who were vertically challenged. Over the centuries, the church has confessed many sins but I don’t think we’ve adequately repented for making children sing songs about greedy short people.
This is one of those stories which we inherently visualize. Luke is recounting an event and we see it as a painting or picture. It becomes a painting in our mind. We saw it in Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. You see the crowd, Jesus and his disciples coming into Jericho, the tree (probably large and near the center of the scene) a small man making his way toward the top of the tree, then perhaps out on a limb hanging over the road itself. Jesus is approaching the tree. He may or may not be in conversation with the man in the tree. One man’s face is bemused; the other’s is fearful and strained. This is the basic image we all carry of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus. Our minds fill in the rocks, houses, walls, dusty roads, earth tones, greens, blues, and browns until we see the painting.
Again, like the Mona Lisa, we know this painting well. Were I to offer you a blank sheet of paper and ask, “On one side draw you best likeness of the Mona Lisa” you could do it. If I asked, “On the other side, “Draw you best Jesus meets Zacchaeus,” I think you could do that as well. You know this story.
You know the image. What I want to know is simple, why is this story great? Why is value attached to Jesus and Zacchaeus? Is it simply because we’ve done it so much, talked about it from our childhood and youth? Or did someone steal it, bring it back, and attach value to it?
Does it have something to do with Jesus meeting with (or going to the home of) a tax collector? Jesus meets with tax collectors all the time. That no longer strikes me as unique. It’s like the eye technique. It’s happening all over the place by this time in Jesus ministry. I spoke last week about how people felt about tax collectors. People grumbled when Jesus did much of anything out of the religious norm, even people who supposedly “liked” him. This is par for the course. This picture is not great because people get self-righteous over him eating with a tax collector.
Is this painting great because Zacchaeus gets religion and suddenly becomes a generous dude? That’s always a favorite place of the art critics when looking at the painting. Let’s look a little closer at what he says in regards to his generosity. The translations, particularly the NRSV and others do Zacchaeus wrong. They say “will give” and “will pay back”. As in, “now that I’ve met you Jesus, I will do the right thing because up to this point in my life, I’ve been doing the wrong thing.” That’s not what the Greek says it all. It’s like someone retouched or cleaned the painting to convey a certain kind of message.
In Greek it’s real simple. Zacchaeus say, “I give” and “I pay back”. It’s not a future tense. It’s present tense. He’s already doing it. He wants to tell Jesus, “Look, Jesus, I am right now giving my stuff away and have an active plan which pays back people if they get defrauded.” We try to turn this into a story about a man who “WILL” get right with the Lord after his dramatic roadside conversion. He is ALREADY right with the Lord. We think we’ve inherited a great story of conversion, a life changing event when it’s really great because Jesus gets to say, “Awesome job, and keep up the good work.” That changes the whole picture. The face of the man in the tree is now smiling at the bemused man on the road. The painting changed right before your very eyes. That’s how quickly life can change, for the better.
Why else might this painting be great? Is it great because Jesus stops to talk to Zacchaeus? Yes, that’s one of the reasons we’ve been told its great. Jesus stops to talk to the diminutive sinner in the sycamore tree. Does that interaction, in the center of the painting, make this story great? If you said yes, you’re on the right track but you need to change perspective. Perspective is very important in art and faith. It’s not Jesus talking to Zacchaeus you need to notice. Flip the script. Look at Zacchaeus speaking with Jesus. You can’t track dialogue in a painting. It’s not like film or a narrative. From our picture we don’t know that Jesus spoke first. We take Luke’s word that Jesus said, “Come on down from the tree.” In reality, it’s not important who spoke first. In our painting, it’s the conversation itself that matters because that’s all we see.
And now, for the reason we missed in Bible school, rarely gets highlighted in Sunday School or Sermons, is a reason for greatness: our painting is great because Zacchaeus is talking to Jesus. He isn’t praying, begging, asking, or doing anything else other than having a normal conversation. How many times do you see that in scripture? Jesus and a normal person are simply talking about eating dinner. He’s usually dealing with sick people, angry people, begging people, hungry people. Here, it’s a guy glad to see him. Can you imagine; a regular person, a person like you and I having conversation with Jesus? That’s what makes this great!
What would your “real” conversation with Jesus look like? If you could talk to Jesus, from a tree, by the roadside, or across the dinner table; what would you say? Zacchaeus had a wonderful opportunity to talk with Jesus. We often use that same language “talk with Jesus” when describing prayer. However, this isn’t prayer. Zacchaeus is talking to Jesus the way we’re talking now. Here’s what I want you to think about, if given the chance to talk to Jesus, what would you say? What would your Zacchaeus moment be like? You might end up incorporating these ideas into your prayer life. Or, it may help you think more clearly about those great moments we might have missed from the great stories we’ve been taking for granted.