Our Good Confession

“Our Good Confession”

1 Tim 6-12 good confession

1 Timothy 6:11-13 – September 29, 2019

Some people express their devotion to certain things so clearly, don’t they? Take sports teams. I am sure you know friends or acquaintances who devoutly follow a sports team in season and out. I have one particular friend who regularly wears the team jerseys (yes, he has several), plus team hats, team jackets, and team flags. All the official merchandise! Everyone knows who he supports!

I wonder, do many of us know people who express their belief or devotion to Jesus Christ with the same excited amount of fervor? Or, are people shy of expressing their belief in the Lord very loudly, lest they be considered weird or narrow-minded, or even extra judgmental?

We are looking at the letter to Timothy for the second week in a row. Here we sneak a look over Paul’s shoulder as he dictates this letter, and discover he is concerned about Timothy remembering what is really important. He tells Timothy what that is: remember when he made the good confession, when he openly told everyone he was on Team Jesus. Can you see him excitedly shouting, waving his arms and wearing his Team Jesus merchandise?

Perhaps that “Team Jesus” uniform and jersey analogy is going a bit overboard, even somewhat fanciful. However, Paul was quite sincere in reminding Timothy about the time he publicly confessed his faith in Jesus Christ. This time of baptism was an important time in any adult believer’s life, both early in the founding of the church as well as in later centuries.

I suspect we here in the United States have only an unclear idea of how much danger the first believers were in. They were outlaws, outcasts in the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was not particularly fond of Jews, but at least Judaism was allowed. However, Christians were getting rounded up by the authorities because Christianity was a new, outlaw religion.

Did Paul realize his friends would get in trouble if they told people they were on Team Jesus? Yes, of course he did. Sadly, he knew this very well. He himself was in prison for regularly testifying to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s take a closer look at the words Paul wrote to Timothy: “12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command.”

Almost everyone who became a believer in Jesus Christ at that time was converting as an adult from another kind of religion to Christianity. In other words, taking the step of a public baptism was part of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, publicly.

In many cases, the newly-baptized person put on a fresh, white robe, signifying new life in Christ. I want to emphasize—after baptism—putting on fresh, new clothes: a brand-new Team Jesus jersey, letting everyone know that the newly-baptized person was now an openly-professing Christian.

Just so we do not mistake exactly what this confession details, let me give an illustration from the book of Acts, chapter 16. Paul, Dr. Luke and their friends were on a missionary journey to a large city in Macedonia, Philippi. Paul—as usual—was getting in trouble for preaching, teaching and casting out evil spirits. Paul and his friend Silas get thrown into prison, and God sovereignly causes an earthquake to happen. The jailer (who has been hearing all about their good confession all day and into the night) gets convicted by God, Reading from Acts 16: 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.

That was the good confession. Right there. The confession made by the Philippian jailer, even though he knew what a commitment that confession might be.

But, wait—Paul does not stop there in his letter to Timothy. He then mentions the Rabbi Jesus, who after His arrest and during His trial makes the good confession before Pontius Pilate oly a few hours before His crucifixion. Moreover, Christ Jesus made this good confession before many hostile witnesses.

A professor of the New Testament Dr. A.K.M. Adam states “In this, Timothy followed the example of Jesus before Pilate, who did not deny God in order to secure his own safety (the letter identifies Jesus’ response to Pilate also as a “good confession”).” [1] Again, the apostle Paul is not shying away from openly stating that these people believe in the Christian God.

We here in the United States might think, Paul, are you crazy? Coming right out and telling hostile people you are a Christian? Wearing your Team Jesus jersey all the time, day and night?

Yes, Paul does mean that. He is faithful, and he confesses his faith in Christ on a regular basis. He wants to encourage Timothy to do the same, to live each day for Jesus.

I think most people who knew how hard the baseball player Joe DiMaggio played would say he gave his heart and soul to the game of baseball. Late in his career, when the New York Yankees were comfortably ahead in the pennant race, Joe DiMaggio was asked why he continued to play so hard. He said, “Because there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play.” Just so, the Christian should live every day as if someone will see him who has never seen a Christian before. [2]

So, Paul and Timothy are both wearing their Team Jesus jerseys, and maybe Team Jesus hats and jackets, too. The transformed Paul and Timothy let everyone who sees them know that they are Christians, showing love, compassion, and caring to all.

Paul even gives Timothy a run-down of all the attributes we ought to expect to show in our lives if—if we have this good confession, and before hostile witness, too! If we show this kind of sincere, persistent faithfulness, then our lives will start to show these Godly characteristics Paul mentions in verse 11. We will pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. That was the transformation that Paul told Timothy would happen. And, God does transform lives, even today!

Just like Timothy, we are encouraged to live like we mean it. Live as if someone who sees us has never seen a Christian before. Live the best life we can, for God’s glory. It’s not just with a spoken-confession, but it is also with a doing-confession. Not only show Christ by the words we say, but we show our belief by the actions we do. Yes, confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus, and also do the deeds that please God and glorify His name.

That is confessing the good confession, indeed. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=731

Commentary, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, A.K.M. Adam, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[2] https://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/faithful-all-the-time Source: Summer of 49, David Halberstam

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

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How to Worship?

“How to Worship?”

1 Tim 2-2 pray, message

1 Timothy 2:1-4 – September 22, 2019

Have you ever been to a different kind of worship service? A service where people prayed differently, sang different kinds of songs, played different instruments, and even spoke in different languages? I have attended a number of different kinds. Worship of God can be diverse and different, depending on where we live, what each of us grows up with, and what kind of faith tradition we come from.

In today’s reading from the first letter to Timothy, we hear about instructions for prayer and worship. This letter to Timothy is one of the pastoral letters from the New Testament. In other words, this letter contains instructions for a church leader on how to be a better pastor and leader of a congregation. Including—recommendations for corporate worship and prayer.

This is not like the instructions from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or the Sermon on the Plain from Luke, where our Lord Jesus gives specific instructions for personal, private prayer. No, this letter is from several decades later, when there were established groups of believers, and they needed structure and direction on corporate worship and prayer.

From 1 Timothy 2: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—” This sounds wonderful! I have experienced this aspect of prayer in practically every worship service I have ever attended. I suspect you have, too.

Whether prayer happens from the pulpit or lectern, or from the floor of the church, whether the prayer is offered by members of the congregation from the pews or seated in a circle, extemporaneously or written out, Paul’s recommendation of unified prayer is definitely one that has gone on as long as believers in Christ have gathered together.

However, the prayers we offer are not just generic prayers. I want to remind everyone (and I am reminding myself, too!), that we are encouraged to “offer prayers for all members of the human family during church services; prayer in the terms of: petitions (general requests to God), Intercessions (requests for those in need), supplications (requests for ourselves), and thanksgivings.” [1]  The apostle Paul is quite specific here! All of these different kinds of prayer!

I wonder: are your prayers—are my prayers—as far-ranging and thorough as these? Are these recommendations something we all can get on board with? Something we all follow?

Let’s continue with this reading from chapter 2. Who should we pray for? “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

We are not talking about good-tempered rulers. No, the kings, rulers and those in authority in the later half of the first century were not nice guys. What happens when we have mean rulers and cruel leaders, those in authority who do such wicked things as throw people out of their homes, put them in jail, even force them into exile, or even death?

Let’s take a look at the Roman emperors Tiberias, Caligula and Nero. None of them were particularly “good or nice,” several showed signs of mental instability, and these men were at the pinnacle of power in the Roman Empire for over 25 years. Yet, the apostle Paul recommended that his fellow believers pray for them, for other rulers, and “for those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

This was an instruction Timothy received for his regular worship services! What was the apostle thinking of? The Rev. Bryan Findlayson suggests “Such prayer seeks to restrain the powers of evil and so encourage peace and security. When society is in a state of peace, believers can freely serve both God and mankind.” [2]

Again, what about rulers and those in authority who persecute Christians? What about governments that destroy churches, jail church leaders and ministers, and make it impossible for Christians to live and raise families? What about those governments? Do we still need to pray for those wicked people? We are to pray for peace, but what kind of peace?

I would say, yes, especially for those wicked people in government who persecute Christians. “Most often our prayers for peace concern our own personal well-being. When society is at peace, life can go well for us and we can build that extra barn. Yet, the peace Paul has in mind is a positive environment for the proclamation and hearing of the gospel.” [3]

September 21st is the International Day of Peace. The website specifically for this day states: “Established in 1981 by unanimous United Nations resolution, Peace Day provides a globally shared date for all humanity to commit to Peace above all differences and to contribute to building a Culture of Peace.” [4] What a wonderful thing to contribute to building: peace.

Moreover, as the apostle Paul reminds us, peace in the world involves a positive environment for proclaiming and hearing the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is our government corrupt? We need to pray for the members of a wicked and corrupt administration, then. What matters even more is that we are safe to proclaim the Good News of the Lord, and to provide for a way to let everyone know the Good News of salvation through His name.

Division and divisiveness is not conducive to spreading the Good News. This current-day division and animosity between people who call themselves believers must make God very sad. Christians of all communities and all ethnicities ought to have their wonderful belief in Christ to unite them. But, no. Sadly, believers all over the world allow politics to divide them.

The Rev. J. Vernon McGee had this to say: “We need to pray for our country, and we need to pray for those who have authority over us. If you are a Republican and a Democrat is in office, pray for him. If you are a Democrat and a Republican is in office, pray for him.” [5]

We have been thinking about the unity of believers from all parts of the world for several weeks now. In our bible study, we are studying the book of Philippians, and talking about how the apostle Paul and his friends preached the Good News to a diverse and different population in the regional capital of Macedonia, Philippi. Diverse and different individuals came together to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, and God made it possible for them all to join in worship.

What a wonderful example to lift up! Can we do the same, here, now? We here at St. Luke’s Church can strive for the same unity and friendship, despite differences in our families, the languages we spoke as children, or the towns where we were born. We can also come together in worship, despite differences in worship styles, or singing, or prayer.

I pray at the beginning of most services here for God to bless our time in worship, and especially to aid us in lifting our vices in words, prayer and song. This is truly what God calls us all to do. Moreover, God looks upon every voice raised in prayer, praise, or song as legitimate worship, no matter what, no matter where, no matter how. We are all encouraged to do the same. We have God’s word on it!

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

 

[1] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday25ce.html    “Worship in the Church,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://internationaldayofpeace.org/

[5] McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible: 1 Corinthians through Revelation, Vol 5, (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1983) 436.

Who Searches for the Lost?

“Who Searches for the Lost?”

Luke 15 word cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 15, 2019

Are you familiar with a lost-and-found box? A box full of lost belongings, perhaps at the senior center near your house, or at the school your children or grandchildren attend? Or, at the YMCA near my husband’s and my condominium? All kinds of lost valuables can be found there—valuable to someone—lost things someone is diligently searching for.

Before we get to the lost things talked about in this bible reading, we need to set the scene. The Rabbi Jesus is again eating with those nasty social outcasts, the tax collectors, and other outcast people who are labelled “sinners.” We talked about them two weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector. I mentioned how horrified the “decent folks” in Jericho felt about a respectable Jewish Rabbi like Jesus eating with a tax collector like Zacchaeus.

Horrible! Outrageous! Simply scandalous! But, isn’t this just like Jesus? Always doing the unexpected? Always going out of His way to do the next loving thing?

Let’s see how Dr. Luke sets up this scene. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Here we have real outcasts—yes, racially and ethnically they might be Jewish, but the “decent folks” would not have anything to do with these Jewish tax collectors and other sinners. These outcasts were not even allowed into the synagogues, so they could not join with their communities in worship. Imagine, being forbidden to enter a house of worship because of who you are and how you make a living. How isolating, and how demeaning. But, that is not all. Verse 2 tells us the “righteous, decent folks” were outraged and upset that these outcasts and sinners were even listening to the Rabbi Jesus, much less eating with Him. Imagine, a respectable Rabbi eating dinner with the likes of them??

The very next verses show us Jesus telling a parable. We do not know whether Jesus was telling the parable gently and earnestly, or cynically, trying to make a challenging point. Sometimes we can tell, from context clues, but here we are not sure. These words are recorded by Dr. Luke: “Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

Here our trusty, loving, compassionate Rabbi tells a story about one hundred sheep. These sheep are not labelled “good” or “bad.” The lost sheep is doing just what sheep do – sheep wander.

This parable reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with my father-in-law, who is now deceased. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930’s, and his parents kept all kinds of animals: chickens, cattle, pigs, and…sheep.

My father-in-law told me a number of things about sheep. Sheep are timid and anxious, and they startle easily. Sheep are by turns stubborn and frightened, willful and easily led. Sheep are not particularly smart. Did I mention my father-in-law said sheep were stubborn, and they often wandered off and went their own way? The lost sheep is doing just what sheep habitually do – sheep wander.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament describe the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as sheep. I suspect that most everyone listening to the Rabbi Jesus understood these basic features of keeping sheep. (Not so much today, with the urbanization of people hearing the Gospel message, and the distance of people from a rural setting.)

In this parable, Jesus mentions a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. One out of one hundred is only one percent. In modern terms of data marketing and warehouse management, one percent is usually an acceptable percentage of shrinkage. After all, the shepherd has ninety-nine other sheep in front of him. One little sheep is an acceptable loss.

Except, this is not an acceptable loss to Jesus. The difference is this particular Good Shepherd.

Here is the end of Luke’s parable: “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

This parable has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to highlight the actions of the sheep. Sheep—I mean, people get lost. Sheep—I mean, people wander. People are human. It is human nature to wander away, sometimes, and get lost.

Jesus does not differentiate between sheep that are “sinner” or “outcast,” and “righteous” sheep—and neither should we.

Finally, the aftermath of this story, as told by Jesus: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Dr. Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary mentions “We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” ….Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy [and the church leaders] in our time.” [1]

Yet, Jesus classifies them all as sheep, both the decent, “righteous” folk as well as the tax collectors and sinners. Sheep are not particularly smart. Sometimes, these stubborn sheep willfully stray, and straggle on the path, and go their own way. That is what sheep—and humans—do. That is just built in, in the basic nature of sheep—and humans.

As Dr. Malcolm says, “The shepherd evokes images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine – but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).” [2]

The Rev. Alyce McKenzie relates “One Sunday morning several years ago, on my way into the church our family attended in Pennsylvania, I spotted the Lost and Found box in the entry way and decided to look through it to see if I could find my son’s missing blue mitten.

There was no blue mitten in it, but there was a pair of glasses in there. A set of keys. A watch. There is a lot that can show up in the lost and found box of your life lying in there unclaimed while you go about your ministry.” [3]

We can all thank God that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does come looking for us when we are lost, wherever we may be, even if it takes a long time. Getting lost is a very sheep-like—and human—thing to do. We can celebrate that our loving, caring Savior actively seeks us out, puts us on His shoulders, and restores us to the joy of our salvation.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1782

Commentary, Luke 15:1-10, Lois Malcolm, at WorkingPreacher.org, Luther Seminary, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lost-found-alyce-mckenzie-09-09-2013.html

“Lost and Found,” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

For God So Loved

“For God So Loved”

John 3-16 so loved, bible

John 3:16-17 – September 7, 2019

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one-and-only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

That verse is from the Gospel of John, verse 3:16. It is also one of the most familiar and beloved Scripture verses of all time, and that is no exaggeration.

When I asked Gladys what verse or Bible passage was one of her father’s favorites, she immediately spoke up and said: John 3:16. What is more, Bart had his three daughters memorize this verse when they were young. What a beautiful and precious Bible verse, and also a beautiful and precious memory of their father.

This verse has been called the Gospel in a nutshell, or a simple way to view the Good News of God come to earth to save sinners. A vast number of people throughout the world love John 3:16 and can quote it word for word. Yes, it is a valid way to be introduced of the God of the Bible, and to be introduced to the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But, don’t stop there. Bart and Rosevelita did not stop with just that verse. They taught their children not to stop there, either.

What kinds of problems do people discover if they just stop with that one verse and ignore the rest of the Bible? They might have an incomplete understanding of salvation.

After centuries of the Christian church and church history, humanity has ended up with hundreds of different denominations, and even more different ways of understanding how to worship God and to give God honor and glory. This kind of diversity in thinking about God is a reflection of the awesome and magnificent diversity and difference in God’s creation. But, there is still—or should I say, even more—of a sharp disagreement and discord between believers and denominations that say they follow Christ.

What about Jesus Himself? What do you think Jesus would do? Or, WWJD, as the trendy bracelets and bumper stickers of some years back might say? But, I am serious, asking a serious question. What do you think Jesus would do—or say—about all the division in His church?

I suspect our Lord Jesus would cry, grieve, and be very downhearted about all the division, dissention and disharmony among people who say that they follow Christ.

But what if some don’t follow Jesus Christ, or aren’t sure about belief in God? What if some people are not in the same place as others on their journey of faith? We forget that statements like John 3:16 can portray a kind of God I suspect, if pushed, many people would rather not have. “We forget that our certainties about salvation lead to or come from claims about God that might not even reflect the God we know, the God we want.” [1]

If we say that God loves the world, this is not just a pie-in-the-sky theory for salvation. John 3:16 is not like doing advanced mathematics on a chalkboard or a biology experiment in a lab. It is specific and real-life. Particular. As particular as the God coming to earth and becoming human, just as human as you and me. But, can we measure God’s particular, tangible love, in a concrete way?

Sure, we can say “God so loved the world.” But, that means God loves a hated Samaritan woman—from John chapter 4. Does God love people who look and act and worship in a different way than we do? Do we love them, too? God loves a man paralyzed his entire life—from Mark chapter 2. Does God love handicapped and disabled people today? Do we love them, too?  God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend Lazarus dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny his discipleship and deny being a friend of Jesus. [2]

Great calamities and difficult situations had happened to each of these people. God still loves them. God still loves you and me, and every other person, too. We may not be able to love all people, every person in the world. But, God does. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world. That means everyone. Every. Single. One.

Sometimes we use a measuring cup to measure things. When I made cookies a few days ago, I used a measuring cup and spoons to measure out the ingredients for cookies. Can we use a measuring cup to measure God’s love? If you or I were building something, we might use a measuring tape to measure the length and width of the wood properly. I wonder—could we use a tape measure to measure God’s love? Finally, we use a clock to measure the passage of time. Could we measure God’s love and find out how long it would last? Psalm 103 tells us that God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting, and that is pretty long, longer than we can humanly imagine. [3]

Do we have a better understanding of John 3:16 now?

We turn to another gracious promise from Scripture, from Romans 8, where the Apostle Paul tells us that he is convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Bart knows the blessed truth of this verse. He is in heaven with the risen Christ right now, looking down on us. I pray that we all might think of Bart Garcia with blessing, honor his memory, and celebrate his new life in Christ Jesus our Lord..

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4835

“John 3:16,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2017.

[2] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/lectionary-commentary-john-316-the-rest-of-the-story-for-sunday-march-18-2012/  “John 3:16 – The Rest of the Story,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2012.

[3] https://sermons4kids.com/measuring_gods_love.htm

“Measuring God’s Love,”  Charles Kirkpatrick, Sermons4kids.com.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jesus Seeks and Saves

Luke 19 zaccchaeus-the-publican

“Jesus Seeks and Saves”

Luke 19:1-10 – September 1, 2019

Do you know anyone who is really unpopular? I mean, so unpopular that people turn their backs and ignore them when they come around? That is just the sort of person we are going to talk about today: a particularly unpopular, even despised person.

The Gospel of Luke chapter 19 tells us of the tax collector Zacchaeus and the encounter he had with the Rabbi Jesus. Jesus had been in ministry for almost three years, and I suspect that He was a celebrity in the Jewish population. Perhaps even of rock-star-status, given Jesus had healed people, cast demons out of people, and performed all sorts of other miracles for the past three years. It’s no wonder Jesus attracted such a crowd wherever He went!

When you or I read about tax collectors during the first century, we might think they were simply unpleasant people tasked with an unfortunate job. Because, someone had to do it! The Roman Empire occupied a huge territory, including the region of what is now Israel and Palestine. The Roman army was the occupying force that policed the region. The conquered Jewish people were a subjugated people. But, that was not all.

No one likes to pay taxes. And, taxes are even worse when they are being collected by an occupying force, like the Romans. Except—the Romans were fiendishly clever. Some of the native population was used to collect taxes. Here’s what happened. The taxation system the Romans used was ripe for abuse. The Roman government farmed out the collection of taxes and sold off the right to do tax collection to the highest bidder. All that was necessary was that the Romans receive their assessed financial amount at the end of the year. Any money over that amount could be kept by the native-born tax collector. And, boy, did they collect the money! As I said before, this was a scheme sure to be abused. Talk about a shakedown racket!

Was it any wonder that these tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews? These Jewish shakedown artists collaborated with the Roman overlords, besides being seen as extortionists for collecting double, and even triple the amount stipulated by the Roman tax assessment.

Some people think the United States tax code is punishing. They haven’t seen anything, compared to these tax collectors who were backed up by the force of the occupying Romans. In other words, just in case any Jewish person was even thinking of not paying taxes, the Roman army could come knocking at the door and drag them off to prison for tax dereliction. What is more, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, in charge of all the other tax collectors in the region. He must have been simply rolling in dough.

There is more, in terms of social consequences. Even though he was very wealthy, Zacchaeus had lost his place in the local synagogue, was not permitted to attend worship services, and was totally ostracized from all “decent society” in town. I mention all this to let everyone know what a scandal it was.

On top of everything else, Zacchaeus was extremely short, and probably felt even worse because of his little stature. New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that “Zacchaeus wanted to stand out to gain recognition, but the result was that he was isolated and rejected. He felt compelled to set himself above people because, alongside them, he felt too small. So perhaps there was a vicious cycle of insecurity, exploitation of others, loneliness, and rejection at work in Zacchaeus’s relationships in the community, or, more accurately, his lack of relationships.” [1]

But, no matter what, this guy really wanted to see the Rabbi Jesus!

We know what happened. Reading from Luke 19, Zacchaeus “wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So, he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.” Can you just see Zacchaeus, his head and shoulders poking out between the branches of a sycamore tree? What about the Rabbi Jesus? He called Zacchaeus by name! Can you imagine? Calling a hated tax collector by name, and even proclaiming that He would eat dinner at that tax collector’s house that evening?

What a scandal! What a horrible thing for a respectable Jewish Rabbi to do! Can you imagine what all the “decent folk” in Jericho had to say about that?

Yet, isn’t this just like Jesus?

Again and again in the Gospels, especially in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus side with those on the margins, those who are the least of these, those who are disrespected and dismissed. Jesus comes alongside of the down and out and those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world. “While Zacchaeus is rich, he is nevertheless despised by his neighbors, counted as nothing, even as worse than nothing. Yet Jesus singles him out.” [2]

I follow the social media account Invisible People on Twitter. This account regularly posts articles and photos of those people who are invisible to society at large: the homeless. The vignettes and stories are heartbreaking, on a daily basis. The followers who read Invisible People meet person after person who had a job and lost it, or had a spouse and lost them, or had an extended health reversal and lost their apartment, or any one of a dozen other sad scenarios. These people teetering on the poverty line, or even below it, pull at anyone’s heart strings.

Yet, to many people across our country, any mention of the homeless or those in shelters or camping in the woods because they do not have any other place to stay is certainly similar to mentioning “tax collectors” in first century Palestine. These “invisible” friends are despised by many “decent folk,” many who have money, education, experience, or moderately good health.

These “invisible people” of today are on the margins of society, similar to the tax collectors of the first century. Reading from Luke 19, we get some indication of what the onlookers said: “Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?” 8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”

Jesus responds in typical, loving, caring Jesus-fashion: He lets everyone know that Zacchaeus is just as good as any of the “decent folk.” 9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”

Who has a corner on perfect righteousness and standing before God? Which of us is not lost and wandering, at times? Don’t we all need to be found and restored to God’s loving embrace? Jesus has come to seek and save the lost, the wandering, the people on the margins and the outskirts of society, as well as “decent folk.” Jesus has His arms open wide to welcome each of us, no matter what.

Surely it is God who saves me—God has arms open to save all of us. Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/power-persistence-alyce-mckenzie-10-28-2013.html

“The Power of Persistence, Part 3,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2968  October 30, 2016

David Lose

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!