Why Did Jesus Stay with Him?

Zacchaeus wasn’t the kind of person most folks would go out of their way to save. He was a tax collector, which meant that his job was to take money from his Jewish neighbors and give it to the Roman government that had them under its heel. Imagine how fond you would be of someone who was a combination of traitor, mugger, and telemarketer, and you’ll have an idea of Zacchaeus’ approval ratings in his hometown of Jericho. Tax collectors were lucky if their moms and their dogs still loved them. And Luke tells us he was a “chief” tax collector, which meant he was even higher in the pyramid scheme than the typical scummy tax collector. Luke also tells us he was wealthy; that means he had been taking even more from his neighbors than Rome required and keeping the extra to buy himself high def TV screens and gourmet coffee beans.

Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through town, and he wanted to see him. Luke doesn’t tell us why; perhaps Zacchaeus had heard that Jesus was not like other rabbis and that one of his closest disciples was actually a tax collector. But crowds were gathered around Jesus, and Zacchaeus had two things working against him: his height and his unpopularity. Zacchaeus was short (If the song is stuck in your head like it is in mine, you no doubt recall that he was a “wee little man” – I prefer the term “vertically challenged.”) And his neighbors weren’t exactly itching to give the little thief a boost or let him slide up to the front row. But he REALLY wanted to see Jesus, so he did two things that would have been very undignified for a man in the ancient near east – he ran, and he climbed a tree.

When Jesus and the crowd arrived at the base of Zacchaeus’ perch, we can only imagine the laughing, pointing, and name-calling that must have taken place. No doubt the crowd was ready for Jesus to blast their notorious neighbor, expecting Jesus to lecture him for betraying his country and his God, and certain that Jesus would call him to repent and take early retirement from his despicable career. Instead, here’s what Jesus said:

“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”  – Luke 19:5

That statement required some serious audacity. First, it was incredibly impolite for Jesus to invite himself to someone’s house. Such an action would be considered rude in our modern western world; it would have been completely unthinkable in first century Palestine. Second, it was scandalous that Jesus invited himself to THAT house. Jericho had hundreds of homes with nicer, holier people – couldn’t he have found a more appropriate spot to crash? Why would he choose to eat Zacchaeus’ polluted food and sleep in his defiled guest bed?

I’m sure nobody was more shocked by Jesus’ choice of lodging than Zacchaeus. He didn’t even have time to worry about whether his house was presentable or if he had left dirty socks on the floor – he was too busy being amazed that someone like Jesus would want to spend time with someone like him. And Jesus didn’t even say, “If you’ll clean up your life, I’ll come to your house.” He insisted on befriending the tax collector before he became respectable.

The people of Jericho were also shocked by Jesus’ actions, and as soon as he entered the home of that despised collaborator, tongues started wagging:

“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”  – Luke 19:7

Notice what Jesus did: he shifted the hostility of the crowd from Zacchaeus to himself. The town’s venom toward the tax collector became venom toward the teacher who would dare to associate with him. Jesus stepped in front of the arrows that were aimed at Zacchaeus. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering… By his wounds, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Zacchaeus received selfless, sacrificial love from Jesus. And he responded by making a pledge to love selflessly and sacrificially. He vowed to give away half of his money to the poor, and to use the rest to make generous amends with the people he had cheated. Then Jesus declared:

“Salvation has come to this house.”  – Luke 19:9

Salvation had come because Jesus, salvation personified, had come. And it had come to THIS HOUSE – the house of a despised traitor and thief.

Jesus’ love for the oppressed is well known. He regularly uplifted widows, the poor, women, children, the disabled, and others who were accustomed to being stepped on by society. But the encounter with Zacchaeus shows us that Jesus also loved the oppressor. He loved those being squashed by the system; he also had the audacity to love those who were cogs in the system that was doing the squashing. Instead of offering brimstone to the tax collector, he offered salvation. That love for the oppressor showed up in another scene in which Jesus encountered a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). The centurion was Caesar’s fist, the commanding officer of a goon squad sent from Rome to keep oppressed people in line. Centurions enforced the will of Rome with beatings and crucifixions. But when Jesus met the centurion, he didn’t condemn him or lecture him – he healed the centurion’s servant and bragged on the centurion’s faith. The two most visible symbols of the tyranny of Rome were the tax collector and the centurion, and Jesus offered grace to both. He apparently really meant that stuff he said about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.

Jesus wrapped up his time with Zacchaeus by declaring his personal mission statement:

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”  – Luke 19:10

To seek. To save. Those were his twin objectives. He came looking for messed up folks like Zacchaeus and you and me. And he stepped in front of the arrows aimed at us so that we could be saved.

Want to explore further?

1. Read Matthew 8:5-13 and notice the surprisingly positive tone of Jesus’ interaction with the Roman centurion.

2. Examine Jesus’ interaction with Matthew and other tax collectors in Matthew 9:9-13. Notice the reaction of the religious leaders to his scandalous acceptance of them.

3. In today’s world, who might be the equivalent of a tax collector? How might Jesus respond to them?

Why Was Jesus Talking to Her?

There was a Jewish scholar named Ben Sirach who lived a couple of centuries before Jesus. He wasn’t exactly a women’s libber. He wrote that it was a disaster to have a daughter, that it was shameful for a man to be financially supported by a woman, and that a man should never sit with a woman because spite continually comes out of her. He stated his overall gender view succinctly: “Women give rise to shame and reproach” (Sir 42:14).

Ben Sirach wasn’t likely to be invited to serve as a guest host on The View. But his opinions about women were almost universally shared by rabbis in the first century.

I say “almost” because Jesus had an entirely different perspective. He had the audacity to obliterate the chauvinism that dominated his day.

In a world that assumed that only men were worth teaching, Jesus had women disciples. Matthew 12:49-50 says Jesus pointed to his disciples and called them his brothers AND SISTERS. Luke 8:1-3 says Jesus’ traveling band of disciples included women (which would have been considered scandalous), and that those women were the ones bankrolling Jesus’ ministry (which would have made ol’ Ben Sirach shake his head with disgust). Luke 10:38-42 tells the story of Jesus’ friend Mary sitting at his feet in the posture of a disciple; when her sister Martha told Jesus to send her to the kitchen where she belonged, he said she was right where she was supposed to be. A Y-chromosome was not a pre-requisite for disciples of Jesus.

In a world that viewed women as the source of everything wrong in the world, Jesus regularly pointed to female heroes as examples to follow. He used a poor woman as a pattern for generosity (Mark 12:41-44) and a woman with a sketchy past as a model for gratitude (Luke 7:36-50) . He told stories celebrating a persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) and wise bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13). No other rabbi would have the nerve to tell his disciples, “be like this woman.” But Jesus did it all the time. He even told a story comparing God to a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).

In a world that viewed a woman’s testimony as invalid for any legal proceeding, Jesus charged women to be the first messengers of his resurrection. He picked women to be the first to share the best news of all time to their male-dominated world.

Perhaps the scene in which Jesus’ audacious attitude about women comes into sharpest focus is his conversation with the woman at the well recorded in John 4. He breaks every conceivable social taboo in an encounter that produces the first woman preacher in Christian history. The woman is shocked that Jesus, a Jewish man, would talk to her, a Samaritan woman (v.9). When Jesus’ male disciples walk up on the conversation in progress, they are shocked to find him talking to a woman (v.27). Jesus is breaking all the rules.

Not only does he speak to the woman, but he puts himself in a position of weakness and elevates her by telling her that he needs her assistance – he asks her for a drink. And any other self-respecting rabbi would have considered her Samaritan drinking bucket to be unclean; Jesus is like a white guy in the Jim Crow south asking a Black stranger for a sip from a fountain labeled “colored.”

The conversation with the woman is full of audacious claims. Jesus calls himself “the gift of God.” He says he is qualified to quench spiritual thirst and to provide eternal life. He claims to have supernatural knowledge of the woman’s past. He declares the temple in Jerusalem to be obsolete. He says he’s the Messiah. He applies the divine name, “I AM,” to himself.

But we shouldn’t just be shocked about what Jesus said. We should be shocked to realize to whom he said it. The woman’s gender, her ethnicity, and her past moral failures would have been three strikes against her in the eyes of any other teacher. But Jesus treats her as someone competent to have a deep theological conversation. By John’s reckoning, Jesus chooses her to be the first person he tells that he is the Messiah, and the first person with whom he shares one of his remarkable “I AM” sayings that fill John’s Gospel.

Jesus commissions the woman to go and bear witness to her husband, a man, and bring him to Jesus. She expands the mandate and becomes a missionary to her whole town. Her testimony persuades many Samaritans to believe in Jesus. She convinces others to hear Jesus for themselves, and that does the trick for them. John summarizes the results of the woman’s missionary endeavor like this:

“They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” – John 4:42

He’s the Savior of THE WORLD. Not just Jews, but Samaritans, too. Not just men, but women, too.

Want to explore further?

1. Read each of the passages referenced above, and notice the positive portrayal of women in each of them.

2. From your perspective, what is the most surprising thing Jesus does in John 4? What is the most surprising thing he says?

3. Read Galatians 3:28 and ponder how it captures the attitudes Jesus demonstrated with the woman at the well.

Fixing the Sabbath

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Here is the Cliffs Notes version of the story from Jesus’ life that we will explore today: Jesus’ disciples had a snack, then Jesus healed a guy with a disability, so the religious leaders started making plans to kill Jesus.

I certainly understand if you think murder is a bit of an over-reaction to the offense of munchies and a miracle. But things will make a little more sense if you pay attention to what Jesus said while those things were happening, as well as noticing what the calendar said while those things were happening.

The story is found in Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11. The three writers agree on the basics of the day’s events, but each highlights different parts of the story.

Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield. Some of his disciples were hungry, so they plucked some heads of grain to enjoy as they walked along. Some Pharisees, key religious leaders of the day, saw what the disciples were doing. They got themselves good and offended and said, “JESUS! YOUR DISCIPLES ARE BREAKING THE RULES! THEY ARE DOING WHAT IS UNLAWFUL!” (I’m pretty sure the Pharisees would be the kind of people who would type their comments in all caps). The disciples’ actions might offend some of us because of their reckless disregard for the gluten contained in their choice of snack. Or maybe we would be bothered by the fact that they are eating grain that does not belong to them (though actually it was an expected act of generosity and care for the poor to allow people to do what the disciples did – see Deuteronomy 23:25, which basically says it is ok to grab a handful of your neighbor’s grain as long as you don’t drive your John Deere onto his land and start harvesting). But what bothered the Pharisees was the day on which the disciples were doing their nibbling. It was the Sabbath.

God had commanded his people not to work on the Sabbath. It was part of the original Top Ten list. First century religious leaders then spilled countless gallons of ink making lists of things not to do on that day, and then spent lots of time saying “gotcha” to people they caught doing those things. They were appalled by the fact that Jesus was letting his disciples get away with their Sabbath snacking, so they took it upon themselves to lecture him.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ lecture with a series of audacious statements.

First, he blasted their legalism. He reminded them that David broke the rules by entering the tabernacle and eating consecrated bread, and that priests in the temple broke the rules by working on the Sabbath. He implied that the Pharisees were more obsessed with “the rules” than God was, and that they needed to get over themselves and quit trying to out-holy the Holy One. Jesus told the Pharisees that they had it upside down when they valued rules more than they valued people.

Second, Jesus told them that their interpretation of the Sabbath was backwards. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God knew that we would be unable to live the life he wanted us to live if we were frantic and frazzled and worn out and wiped out from whirling around 24/7. So he gave us a gift: he told us to take a day off every week. The Pharisees had taken a day God intended for burdens to be released and made it into a day of carrying the huge burden of obsessing over how many steps we could take or how many ounces we could carry without making God mad. God’s vision for Sabbath was not that if we disobediently did yardwork that day, fire would fall from heaven and consume us and our mulch. God’s vision for Sabbath was that he loved us enough to give us the opportunity to rest. The Sabbath was a comfortable recliner given to us by God; the Pharisees insisted that people carry it on their backs. Jesus informed them that by their attempts to transform a lavish blessing into a legalistic burden, they were the ones who had actually broken the Sabbath.

Third, Jesus declared that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28). Wow! He had the nerve to claim that on the heavenly organizational chart, he was higher than God’s law (in the same conversation he also announced that he was higher on the org chart than the temple – see Matthew 12:6). So if he wanted his disciples to have a bite to eat on the Sabbath, that was his prerogative to allow them to do so, no matter how badly it offended the Pharisees.

Just in case the Pharisees weren’t furious enough, Jesus walked straight from the grainfield to their synagogue. He spotted a man with a shriveled hand that needed healing. He could have just whispered to the guy and asked him to clandestinely touch his cloak and receive a cure, but he wanted to keep provoking the religious leaders, so he had the guy stand up in front of God and everybody. Jesus again challenged the backwards value system of the religious leaders, reminding them that though they were appalled by the thought of healing the man on the Sabbath, they wouldn’t hesitate to pull their sheep out of a pit if it fell in on the Sabbath. Then Jesus did the “work” of healing the man and making him as good as new. By then the Pharisees had had enough of Jesus’ audacity, and they went out and started plotting his execution.

Those Sabbath adventures help us to keep our priorities in line with reality:

People > sheep.

People > Sabbath.

People > rules.

Jesus > everything.

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read the three different Gospel accounts of the Sabbath controversy (Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11). What is unique about each account?
  2. Search for the word “Sabbath” in the Gospels on biblegateway.com. Read some of the other passages that describe Jesus breaking the rules of the religious leaders.
  3. What would it look like for you to prioritize people over rules today?