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When persons get out of prison, should we (A) welcome them with open arms back into society? Or (B) view them as pariahs for the rest of their lives?  Michelle Alexander basically asked that question last night at a lecture in St. Louis[i].  Jesus is asking a somewhat similar question tonight: If we know someone is a notorious evil doer should we (A) have dinner with them? Or should we (B) shun them?

Actually Jesus and Michelle Alexander are talking about somewhat different issues; but it is instructive to look at them together.  Both of them would choose the “open arms” and “have dinner” options; so it is also instructive to ask, “What drives Jesus and Michelle Alexander to see people the way they do?” 

What Happens when Jesus Takes a Look?

Jesus grew up reading and being influenced by things like tonight’s first reading.  The author of the book of Wisdom says that God loves the livingbecause God sees God’s own undying spirit in all living things.  Jesus saw, and we can see if we look closely and carefully enough, that all living things (including ourselves) are dependent on life coming from outside themselves.  Our life is not our own.  And the same pulsing reality of life that is in you is in me; we share a life which is beyond ourselves.  And as we experience the next pulse of life, we feel as loved as if a lover had touched us…because a Lover has.  God loves the living, Wisdom tells us (and told Jesus). 

When Jesus sees Zacheus, Jesus first of all sees a living human person and Jesus feels connected.  He knows that he does not breath air or drink water or eat food from a different source than Zacheus .  Jesus knows that the same Lover that touches him, touches Zacheus.  Presumably Jesus understood the further wisdom that once a person feels loved, she is able to love.  If Jesus didn’t know that, he certainly found it out when Zacheus started giving away his possessions to the poor.  So Jesus didn’t criticize the fact that he was a tax collector; he loved Zacheus and watched as the loving-Zacheus emerged.  All of this happened because Jesus was open to seeing things on a much deeper level.  Note too that this “seeing things” is not a philosophical understanding of things but a raw experience of looking closely at life as it is.  As someone said, the harder you look, the harder you look.  Because Jesus saw things deeply and saw that he was connected with Zacheus, he wanted to have dinner with him.

Looking Hard and Harder Still

Perhaps an example will help with this notion of looking hard and harder still.  Artists seem to be masters at this.  Monet painted a series of paintings with haystacks as the subject.  When I first viewed them, they appeared “unrealistic” to me.  They had these bursts of color coming out of each haystack.  In my mind the color of hay is sort of a nondescript beige or khaki.  It certainly isn’t rainbow-like.  But as the old adage goes, artists teach us to see what we are looking at.  One day I was in a rural area where there were rolls of hay under a bright sun.  The sun refracted off of the hay (it was not wet) forming a dazzling array of color.  All my life I had not looked hard enough because, well, I “knew” what the color of hay was.

Michelle Alexander Took a Deeper Look

Now let’s look at Michelle Alexander.  I don’t know enough to know why Michelle Alexander had the openness that she had.  She was upset that so many blacks were being pulled over by the police for no apparent reason—driving while black (DWB).  She was looking for people who had been harassed in this way to be the poster boys and girls for an organization in California committed to stopping DWBs.  When someone volunteered to be the poster boy, Ms. Alexander found out that he was a drug felon.  That nixed the deal for her.  He claimed to have drugs planted on his person.  She didn’t believe him or at least thought that no one else would believe him.  It turned out that he was telling the truth.  She had not looked hard enough.  She believed that if the law said he was guilty, he was guilty.  That was a turning point for her.  Her sense of justice moved her to look more closely at our whole justice system and how it has been disproportionately disadvantaging blacks over whites in startling ways since the end of the Jim Crow era.  The harder she looked, the harder she looked.  She began seeing for-profit prison systems selling stock on wall street, small predominantly white towns whose main source of income is the incarceration of predominantly black prisoners, she began seeing minority blacks arrested more often than whites, convicted more often than whites, put in prison with longer sentences than whites, put to death more often than whites, etc., etc.  But maybe most importantly she saw that when the prison system turned them out, there was nowhere for them to go because they had been branded as “felons.”  Society was no longer able to see them for the human beings that they were—and in many cases because of a brand they received unjustly. 

Jesus knew, and Michelle Alexander knows, how to look and to look hard.  We are not called to be a people who make quick exclusions; we are called to be a people who look hard and harder still. 

Sts. Clare & Francis
Saturday, November 2, 2013
31st Sunday of the Year
Wisdom 11:22- 12.1
2 Thessalonians 1:11 – 2:2
Luke 19:1-10
Homily by Frank Krebs

“Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer)” by Claude Monet via William Cromar on flickr.com


[i] Michelle Alexander is the author of , The New Jim Crow, a book which a number of us at SCF have been reading.

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