Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for November, 2013

Freedom in the New Life!

Luke 20:27-38 NRSV

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

You may have seen this video before or at least heard about this story. Certainly, sometimes things can get too much media coverage. This is just one story of many around the world related to someone showing compassion to someone left out.

But today we are bombarded with a lot of negative thought and rhetoric. And I’ve seen firsthand that some have chosen to believe all of that trash; some start to think that they are not capable of compassion or empathy. These Olivet middle school students did not save the world from itself. They just ran a football play called the “Keith special” for this certain kid. Keith had touched their lives in a special way and so they felt compelled to touch his life in a special way.

As the kid Justice said at the end of the video, he used to just think about himself.
Players and their parents are obsessed with first downs and touchdowns. In football, you don’t take a knee at the one yard line when you could score a touchdown. You don’t keep secrets from your coaches. But what happens when the rules of football are no longer important—no longer relevant? What happens when a kid is isn’t “normal” becomes your friend?

What happens when life is less about rules and norms and just about acting out of love and compassion?

Luke’s Gospel tells us a story about an obsession with rules and norms and a tendency to not love others. But in order to understand this story, we will have to know a little bit about the Sadducees. Who were the Sadducees?[1] They were a group of priestly Jews, part of a religious sect, who opposed another group of Jewish leaders, the Pharisees. The Sadducees were the ones who insisted on the literal interpretation of scripture. They looked at the first five books of the Old Testament [the Pentateuch, often called Torah or Books of Moses] as the only legitimate holy text. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the Oral Torah or the Talmud, which was all the traditions of Jews passed down from generation to generation since Moses received commandments on Mt. Sinai. So to sum up, the Sadducees rejected anything that was not specifically written down or literally applied from the printed text.

The Sadducees were also the elites. They had money, they had influence and power, and they had political clout. Which brings us to the conflict. The other Jewish sect, the Pharisees, believed that when a person died, he/she would be raised to life in both a physical and spiritual way. Jesus of Nazareth, however, taught that resurrection or new life was more than just a destination after death. Jesus talked about a resurrected life on earth. So the Sadducees were honestly testing Jesus to see if he aligned with the Pharisees, or if what he was teaching was something different. And always this question echoed in the Sadducee mind:

Is it consistent with what the scripture says?

The Sadducees’ example of a woman marrying seven brothers is a desperate attempt to hold onto what some call traditional family values.

You know where this is going, probably.

It is impossible to not find examples of this in our life today. The last couple of years, it seems that every news outlet, every political group, and many religious groups have used this phrase “traditional family values” to define their stance or to push an agenda. The raging debate about same-sex unions—legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples—has risen to ridiculous heights. Sadly, Christian denominations and sects have drawn theological, social, and organizational lines based on this issue alone. People leave churches; people start new denominations; people picket, write, and post hateful comments. What is going on?

And the most disappointing and embarrassing part is that there are still too many people who act in this way, all the while saying:

That’s what scripture says.

Really? Does it? Or are we making the same mistake that the Sadducees made? You see, they were convinced that their view of “family values” was scriptural. But in fact, their idea of “family values” and even marriage came from the Roman Empire—not God. Notice that Jesus referred to marriage as an institution of “this age.” Marriage was a practical solution for society. That way, when someone died, there would be a way to provide for any children still living. Marriage was not some kind of scriptural mandate that God ordained with a lightning bolt. Marriage and the cultural rules established by society were just that—cultural rules established by society. But some religious elites, like the Sadducees and like any today who obsess over a perceived “literal” interpretation of scripture—insist that Jesus would never approve of Bob marrying Jim or Sally marrying Kristina.

This story reminds us of how we can get caught up in theological debate or unwritten rules more than we get caught up in compassionate living.

The thing is, Jesus taught about a resurrected life on this earth.

The kingdom of God was not something to wait for or to discover when someone died.

The mustard seed, the yeast, the pearl of great price, the hidden treasures of God’s kingdom—they were here, in the flesh, and people were supposed to catch the spirit of that movement. And all were invited to the parade—not just an elite few.

But so often we are obsessed with dead debates and conversations that lead us to nothing but separation and hate. So I wonder: if we took this whole “following Christ” thing seriously, how would we reframe our thinking? And how would this affect our living?

I strongly suggest that the Sadducees were given an opportunity by Jesus. He was inviting them to find some freedom in the midst of their trapped and limited perspective. In short, stop being obsessed with the words in a book, and start living. And notice that the Sadducees didn’t argue with Jesus’ assessment. They stopped asking him questions after that. After all, what could they really say? Indeed, God is a God of the living!

So to reframe our perspective, we ought to act more compassionately and focus less on societal norms and written rules.

After all, aren’t people more important?

Keith is a kid with special needs. In many ways, Keith is an outsider. He’s not cool. He’s not someone you would expect to be hanging out with football players. In a society obsessed with competition, Keith doesn’t seem to have a place on a sports team. His hugs make people feel uncomfortable. But who is really “special needs” here? Keith inspired students who previously were selfish. Keith convinced parents, coaches, and players to care more about people than football. Keith is alive. He is a human being who deserves friendship, empathy, and compassion. He, above all the others on the team, deserves to score a touchdown.

But Keith is not the only one.

There are many left out of society just because we see them as different or not fitting into our rules or norms. There are many people who are marginalized just because of words in a book that we think we know how to interpret. We categorize people; we say who is in, popular, normal, and even holy. We see some as dead and dehumanize them.

But Jesus taught that God sees everyone as alive.

Chew on that for a moment.
God sees everyone as alive.

We should be speechless. Perhaps we can talk less and do more?

Friends, let’s reframe the conversation. Let’s stop arguing over literal interpretations of words or societal norms.
Let’s focus on real people—believing all of them deserve our compassion.

We have freedom to do this.
We have freedom to live as resurrected people.
For all of us are alive, too.
And we are capable of love, compassion, and grace.
We are capable of doing the kind thing when no one else will.
We are capable of forgiving past and even present hurts.
We are capable of embracing wisdom and then sharing it.

We are alive. And so, let’s live as resurrected, compassion-filled people. Amen.

 


[1] Tenney, Merrill (1998). Josephus Complete Works, Vancouver.

Small? So You Say…

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

nelsonandcoHave you ever been bullied?
I bet most people would answer yes.

Bullies can find any little thing to pick on, am I right? You wear glasses. You’re too skinny. You’re too chubby. Your feet are big. Your clothes are weird. You talk funny. Apparently, in Jesus’ time–the 1st century–bullying was like it is now. People got picked on just like they do today.

Zacchaeus was short. Zacchaeus was a tax collector; Zacchaeus was rich.

Three strikes and you’re out!

Tax collectors for the Roman Empire—yeah, they were pretty much disliked by everyone. Think about it. People did not like to pay taxes to the Romans. And they especially didn’t like someone who was not Roman coming to their house to collect taxes. People like Zacchaeus most likely had Roman soldiers for bodyguards just so they wouldn’t get beaten up. Add to this that many tax collectors skimmed off the top. They collected taxes for Rome, but kept some of the money for themselves.

It’s like the Beatles sing:
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.

Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman

But in spite of this, the taxman Zacchaeus really wanted to see this Jesus of Nazareth character. But there were a lot of people surrounding Jesus. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see him, on account of the important detail that he was short in stature. Our perception of this story makes us think that he climbed a tree just because he was short. Maybe. But don’t forget: Zacchaeus was a tax collector and he was rich. He ran ahead of the crowds because he did not want to get beaten up. Maybe he climbed the tree so that no one in the crowds would see him.
zaqueoBeing “short in stature” does not necessarily mean that he was 3 feet tall. Perhaps he could not see Jesus because the crowds wouldn’t let him. You see, people already assumed that Zacchaeus was a bad person just because of his title.

But for some reason, Jesus did not.
He saw Zacchaeus in that sycamore tree and talked to him.

Come down. Hurry. I must stay at your house today.

Really? With all the crowds watching? Zaccheus was so excited, he forgot about all this and welcomed Jesus’ request with open arms.
But the crowds grumbled:
Jesus will be the guest of a sinner. Humph.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus is eager to tell Jesus about himself.
Look, half of my material possessions I give to the poor. If I’ve cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times what I owe them.

Let’s pause here for a moment because there is something interesting to explore. The verb form of give to the poor in the original Greek language is in the present tense. But most of our English translations render it as will give. This makes a huge difference. If Zacchaeus will give to the poor, as our version says, then this is a conversion story. He was a bad guy and now he’s not. But if it is the present tense, then we’ve misinterpreted the story.

What if Zacchaeus was already giving to the poor and making sure that he didn’t cheat people? What if he never really was a bad dude to begin with? Was he generous? What if his title of tax collector and sinner was the only thing that stained his reputation!?!

I’m going with the present tense, because I think our Bible translations have tried to turn the Zacchaeus story into a conversion story when it is actually a last-first, small-tall story. What I mean is that just earlier in Luke, Jesus said that another tax collector who called himself a sinner in his own prayers was on his way home to find God’s mercy and that he was justified more than any religious leader who supposedly knew how to pray elegantly in public. And here we have another tax collector in Zacchaeus who is called a sinner by the crowds who have judged him without a reason to, other than his marginalized status in society.

Zacchaeus was not the bully.

He was being bullied! He was a generous man who was already doing the right thing. But nobody cared. He was a tax collector and therefore, according to the people, he was an awful sinner. Even though the name Zacchaeus means pure and righteous one, he’s painted as a cruel, selfish, greedy, businessman who must undergo a miraculous conversion in order to be saved.

I just don’t think that this is the point of the story.

Jesus already knew about Zacchaeus. This is consistent with Jesus’ movements in many Gospel stories. He saw him up in that tree and called him down because he wanted to show the people just how judgmental they really were. I mean, come on. Jesus knew exactly which tree Zacchaeus would climb and when he would be there. This is all a setup for a major teaching moment. Jesus was once again flipping over the assumptions of the crowds and calling out their prejudice.

And so the story should be for us.

Two perspectives jump out at me:

One: the crowds are full of prejudice. They have become bullies, even though they think that Zacchaeus is the bully.

Two: Zacchaeus, in his suffering, doesn’t give up; Jesus knows where he is, looks at him, calls him down from the tree, and goes to his house.

The story is a warning to all of us that we can become bullies. We cannot assume that certain people are lesser or undeserving of God’s grace. We just cannot do that. Ever. We should never bully someone—even if others do it and it seems popular. No matter what label or category exists for a person—we should never judge them.

Each person deserves our empathy.

We ought to accept people as they are without assuming things about them. Oh, how that is needed in our world!

Friends, Jesus chooses to hold up characters like Zacchaeus as shining examples, even though they have been despised and bullied for a long time. Zacchaeus is another unlikely hero, but exactly the kind of hero that Jesus lifts up. So this is good news.

This encourages us to keep doing the right thing, to keep spreading love and compassion to others, in spite of all the bullies out there who will try to tell us that we’re not worth it. Somehow, Zacchaeus still had hope even before he met Jesus.

He did not despair, even though people tried to push him down. That is why he ran ahead and climbed the tree. That is why he jumped down from the tree and had Jesus over to his house.

Zacchaeus, a wee little man? So we say…but not so much. Zacchaeus was not small, but tall.

He was bullied but did not despair.
He didn’t hesitate to show compassion and generosity even when no one noticed.
And he found out—as we can—that God doesn’t ignore our suffering. God knows about all the bullying going on. God sees us as we are. God calls us out of the tree, down into the world, and God meets us at our homes.

So don’t let the bullies discourage you from being generous and compassionate. God sees and accepts you as you are.

Now do the same for others. Amen.

 

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