By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 17, 2019
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Luke 21:5–19 (ESV)
5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 7 And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 8 And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. 9 And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.
There are several themes that seem to make the rounds in Christian circles. As the calendar approaches the last month of the year, the Advent of Christ is the theme most of us remember. And then there is the passion and resurrection of Christ. But the third most popular theme is usually the second coming of Christ. This is not surprising, because the story of the second coming really attracts our attention. We want to know when that day is. We anticipate that day with either fear or hope.
If you have noticed I am not one to place a great deal of attention on the second coming of Christ. I believe the day will come but I do not focus on it. That might annoy some people, but I have my reasons. The first and most important is that I do not feel that fear is spiritually healthy, and much of the eschatological discussion often focuses on fear. The other reason that I do not focus on the various end times theological discussions is because many of the stances seem to stretch scripture in ways that I do not feel are the most honest. In many ways it almost feels as if many of those that promote the end times theologies are more interested in selling books or tickets to movies than encouraging a true relationship with God. This is my opinion and I know that at times my opinion is not popular and that is fine, because theology is something that can have different perspectives, as long as the central theme remains that same. The central theme should always be focused on the Gospel. Which is that the kingdom of God is at hand, and the access to the kingdom is provided through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today’s passage is one that most people associate with eschatology, or the theology of end times. It is not surprising since the language used by Jesus is very apocalyptic. This style of communication is one that is filled with extreme symbolism, and hyperbole. This was often used by the ancient prophets as well as many first century disciples to cause us to stop and think. Even today people use apocalyptic themes when they discuss aspect of current events that they would like to see changed. Those that listen to the message can see the seeming exaggerations and decide to disregard the message because they see the one carrying the message as being less than truthful. But apocalyptic language is to point out the extreme consequences that might result from inaction. If we were to watch the news, we can hear the use of apocalyptic language frequently. The danger of this type of language is that it can be overused, and people can become desensitized to the message.
We often look at these sorts of passages through lenses based on our own perception and we forget that during the time that the words were written the perception might have been different. In the first century, they had not yet experienced many of the things we take for granted. As the days shorten and the night lengthen, they were not making Christmas lists, because they had not yet realized that God had come to live among them. They were instead preparing for the feast of dedication, that week-long celebration focusing on the temple of God and the miracle of God providing hope in the middle of the darkness.
After our two thousand years of history since Jesus walked among mankind, we can take a jaded view of religious life in the first century. We might fail to see that they were passionate about their faith. The religion of Israel was probably at its peak during the time of Jesus. For centuries we have regarded this time as the dark ages of Jewish history, we often think of it as being the end of four hundred years of silence. This is not really the truth, just as saying that the dark ages in western history is not the most honest representation of history. The medieval period of European history was some of the most impressive eras especially for the church. It was during the Dark Age that the great cathedrals were constructed, and it was during this time frame where the Church had the greatest influence in the lives of the people. The first century was like that in Jewish history.
Today’s passage begins with admiration of the temple of God. It is difficult for us to image the greatness of the temple. Josephus, one of the Jewish historians from the era of the Roman occupation explained the temple in this way:
The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.
I have never seen a building covered in gold. The idea of a building with golden siding seems almost unimaginable. I am unable to even wrap my head around the wealth within a religious organization to finance such a structure. For this to happen or to even be possible would mean that this building was very important to those within that culture. And it was extremely important. Their lives revolved around this structure, because it was this place where God and humanity communed. It was in this place where it was believed that God himself sat between the wings of the angels upon the lid of the Ark. We could debate if the Ark of the Covenant was actually in the holy of holies or if it was lost to history, but they believed that it was there and because of that belief they literally thought this was the one place the one and only true God dwelled on Earth.
Every day offering and sacrifices were brought through the gates, to be placed upon the alter. The smoke from these offerings could be seen rising into the sky. That smoke was filled with the acrid smell of burning flesh and the sweet aroma of the incense reminding all that approach of sin and grace. This one structure held the attention of the Empire.
This time in Hebrew history was probably the golden age. People cherished their temple; it was a beacon of hope and promise. But even during this religious golden era, there was an undercurrent of corruption that cause many to pause. There was a reason that John the Baptist was out in the wilderness crying to the people to repent. There was a reason that there was such a curiosity of the people asking for signs for the coming kingdom. They were anticipating the day when God would reveal the ultimate plan. Some believed that that day was at hand, so they studied scripture looking for what to expect so they would be ready for the advent of their coming king.
When Jesus was teaching, many believed that that day had come. They believed that at last they would see God lead them into the greatest era of history where Israel would be the light to the world, the hope of nations. Yet there was one problem, they were not free. They lived under the heavy-handed rule of overlords. They could worship freely, but how could Israel be the light to the gentiles if they did not have authority?
Apocalyptic language flowed, because no matter what people believed they knew that things were going to have to change. And that change would not come easy. What are the signs, how will we know what to expect? But Jesus took this beyond anyone else. Many anticipated the coming age would have war, but very few considered that the temple itself would be central to the battle. That structure was the beacon of hope, yet Jesus claimed that it would be utterly destroyed.
This got people’s attention, because how could something so massive and spectacular cease to exist? New questions began to be asked, at first what were the signs of the messiah, now suddenly they wanted to know the signs of the coming end of all they held dear? Jesus says:
See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.
And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” 
Very comforting right? What is Jesus really saying? There are going to be people that are going to use language to excite and terrify you. There are going to be people that will urge you to be driven by raw and blind emotion. Do not listen to them, do not go after them. Do not let your lives be so driven by emotion that you forget the most important things. Do not be terrified.
He goes on to say that nations will rise against nations, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences. There will be terrors, and people will even be taken before officials and imprisoned. In short Jesus is saying life is going to royally suck. You will experience things that will make you question every aspect of your life and your faith, and this will happen because of Him. He says all of this, and then he says the most important thing, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.”
This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Jesus speaks of these things as if they are good. He speaks about it as if it is something to look forward to. Is he raving mad or do we need to change our perspective? Just this week a meme has been going around the internet again that I have seen before. It is a simple statement that says, “Faith is not about everything turning out okay. Faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out.” That statement is something that has stuck with me as I was studying this week, because I think that is at the core of what Jesus is speaking about.
The people of Israel in Jesus’ day may not have had everything they wanted but they were not that bad off. They had their faith, and their faith was very efficient. Their temple was the envy of the empire and it was extremely profitable. They were in a place where they could worry about luxuries instead of survival. They were looking for signs of the coming kingdom, not because they were desperate of hope, but because they were comfortable and desired more. And when their comfort was challenged like Rome taxing them more than they would like, they began to speak of rebellion and separation instead of how to attract people to faith. They desired judgement on those that opposed them instead of grace.
They stood at a crossroad where they could choose which direction to turn. No matter which way they walked there would be consequences. There were people on one side saying we must do this, and they were trying to convince others to support their position. Jesus said do not listen to them. Then they were people on the other side of the road saying do that, and Jesus says do not follow them. What exactly were they supposed to do? Like so many things we assume that the answer lies within this or that, either/or. Jesus is saying, this will be your opportunity to bear witness.
The witness is something beyond human understanding, of left or right. It is on a different plain altogether. The answer is to follow Him. Within every great movement of church history there was a decision made to not listen to the status quo at the time. It could be the rise of the monastic movements, the reformation, or even the beginning of our own faith tradition of Friends. People were given an either-or choice, and they chose something altogether different. When St. Francis began his movement, he could either become a priest or join the family business, he stripped down and rejected both and took a different opportunity. When Martin Luther was presented with a choice, he said that he must listen to the word of scripture and walk accordingly. When George Fox in his spiritual seeking was presented with the choices of the Church of England or the Congregationalists he went out to the field with his book of scripture and he listened to a different voice.
We each, at this moment, have a choice. We each stand at a crossroad in life. We are each looking at the future before us with some sort of dread. If we choose this way this might happen. If we chose that something else might happen. What should we do? The answer is neither. The answer is to seek God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength. The answer is to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others. The answer is not left or right, it is not black or white, it is not this or that. The answer is to follow Christ.
We can look at the theologies of the end as something to fear or something to hope for. We can look at our world as something to dread. We can listen to the news and think all is lost or we can see it as times have never been better. I ask where is your faith? In what are you placing your hope? Is your faith in the things of this world or is it in the one that overcomes the world? Do we live in terror or do we see our day as an opportunity to bear witness of Christ who came and lived among mankind, who taught us about life with God, who took on our sin and shame and died on the cross. Do we today as an opportunity to be buried with Christ in the grave, and to rise again when all hope is seemingly gone? Today is an opportunity to live not in fear, but in faith. Will you take hold of that opportunity?
 Culpepper, R. A. (1994–2004). The Gospel of Luke. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 9, p. 399). Nashville: Abingdon Press.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Lk 21:8–9). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 10, 2019
Luke 20:27–38 (ESV)
27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
What are the most important things in your life? Have you ever really thought about this? Yesterday after watching a YouTube video during one of my breaks at work, that question really came to mind. And that question really comes to mind when I consider this passage of scripture.
The things that are important to us are the things we talk about. You do not have to be in conversation with someone for very long before you get a glimpse into the most important things to them. There are very few people within my circle of acquaintances that have not mentioned one of their children, within minutes of the beginning of our conversation, unless they do not have children. For others I will hear about the Chiefs at least once within a conversation, usually it is the first thing mentioned. Many will talk about their career and others will talk about their hobbies. I have heard about restaurants, movies, games, comic books, TV series, pets, politics, pretty much anything you can think of they have entered a conversation. These are things that we are passionate about, and we love to talk about them. We devote time to these things. We will even devote hours within our weeks researching and learning more about the things we are passionate about.
I watched a YouTube video yesterday and I heard a guy talk about his church in the same way that I hear Kansas City Chiefs fans talk about the game. This guy was passionate about his faith, he was excited and the most interesting thing about it was he was not a pastor of a mega church with an awesome worship band and stage lights. He was a pastor of a Lutheran Church just outside of St. Louis. It floored me, to hear someone talk about theology and Church with the enthusiasm of a football fan. But this man loved his church, he lived church, to him everything was about church. At one point the guy that was talking to this man made a reference to a Marvel movie and the pastor did not even know what he was talking about because to him a movie had no significance. You might think this guy was out of touch, but to be honest in course of that thirty-minute video I almost wanted to go talk to him myself.
We talk about the things that are most important to us. If it is something that you find important in your life you cannot keep yourself from talking about it. That man could not hold a conversation about a popular movie but could speak for hours about gospel. And in that hour, he never once cast judgement on anyone, he did not condemn anyone, he did not even come across as offensive, because he spoke with genuine passion, and that passion was infectious.
Today we find Jesus speaking to people within one of the Jewish religious orders of the first century, the Sadducees. We hear of three distinctive religious orders within the Gospel. The Pharisees are the ones we are most common, next would be the Sadducees, and the Herodians. There was at least one more group that was not mentioned directly in the Gospel, the Essenes. Within these groups there are rabbis and scribes that teach and interpret scripture. But of all those groups we know the least about the second most mentioned group within, the Sadducees. I find this very interesting, especially since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given us more knowledge of the group not even directly mentioned in scripture.
The Sadducees were a significant group within the Jewish community, but they were different than the Pharisees. Often people try to explain the differences between the two groups by comparing them to the two major political parties in the United States, but this is really a very poor comparison, because the only religious group that really made a significant political stance one way or the other were the Herodians, because their name pretty much says it all they wanted to restore the Herodian rule over the nation, because Herod married into the family that gave Israel freedom from Greek influence, and they saw that family as being the legitimate heir to the kingdom.
From what we do know the Pharisees were the religious leaders among the common people, and the Sadducees were often seen as the leaders within upper classes. Even that fails to some degree, but the Sadducees were more focused on the temple and the priests, and the Pharisees were more evangelical taking the teaching out instead of bringing the people in. Since the Sadducees were more connected with the temple than the pharisees, most of the information that we probably could have learned from them was probably destroyed with the temple. But we do know some about them, like this passage says they do not believe in the resurrection. From what we do know about the Sadducees we have an understanding that they only regarded the books of Moses as being scripture, so they did not accept the teaching of the Prophets as having any real value. Since they were more focused on the priestly class of people, they were also considered more aligned to Rome than the Pharisees.
These Sadducees came to Jesus and they asked him a question. I find the question very odd because they ask a question about something that they really do not believe. And that is the first thing that I contemplated as I interacted with the passage. They give this long-winded account about a man that gets married and he dies, and the widow and married by one of the brothers. There were seven brothers in total and each of them married the widow and then died without having a child. After they gave this account, they then ask to which brother is this woman a wife of in the resurrection since she had been the wife of all the brothers.
They do not believe in the resurrection, so why do the care about the opinion of Jesus in this regard? This then made we wonder what they thought about marriage. The parable that they use to ask their question revolves around the teachings of the books of Moses. In the law if a woman was a childless widow, it was the responsibility of the next oldest brother to take the woman into his home as a wife and the children born to this union would be considered the children of the woman’s first husband. And because the children would be considered the older brothers’ children they were legally entitled to the inheritance before their biological father.
There are many interpretations as to why this was part of the law within the teachings of Moses. And often we read our own cultural understanding into the passage. If we were to really take this law at face value, there is not an exception to the law, the next brother will marry the woman and if he does not the family name will be regarded poorly. These brothers would marry the woman even if they already had a wife, because it was their responsibility to care and protect their brother’s name. Yes, that is correct this law supported the practice of polygamy.
It is important to know that the Sadducees approached marriage in this manner. In their view of the law, it dealt mainly with the land promised to the descendants of Israel. There view of a life beyond was not through resurrection but the unbroken transfer of land to each successive generation. We might find this a bit odd in our cultural understanding, but if we are honest it is still very much a part of who we are. Who will inherit our property when we move from life to death? Is your will in order?
Family and marriage were very important to these people. You might even say that they were focused on the family. They devoted their lives to passing their inheritance on to the next generation and preserving the family name. When we look at this passage through those eyes their question does not really seem as odd. It just does not sound very religious because their faith is attached to the world.
The next aspect of the story that I stopped at was the number of brothers, seven. Seven is a significant number in the ancient world. Even today we have seven days to the week and we often connect that understanding to the creation story. But I found it interesting as I read about seven this week, that that number was not only significant to the Jewish people, but to most ancient cultures, and was significant for the similar reasons.
Across the nation, many families that have children are working their way through piles of candy, because we celebrated Halloween. There are many interpretations of this holiday. And if you were to visit our Facebook page you would notice that within the Christian community there are different understandings of that day. It is a day filled with pagan superstition. Many want to condemn the holiday because of these pagan roots. That is fine if that is what you want to do, but my one statement to that is if you condemn that day you should condemn every day, and you should also condemn the calendar as well as the Sabbath day. Because in every ancient culture they tracked time using the same thing, the moon. We have seven days in the week because we have seven days with each phase of the moon. The complete lunar cycle determined the months.
Every ancient culture could see the moon and used the lunar cycle to mark time. The cycles of the moon can tell us when the seasons will change, and they assist us in remembering special dates. Even the church uses the moon to determine the date of Easter, which is Sunday after the first full moon after the March ecclesiastical Equinox, which the church says is March 21. This means if the full moon happens on a Thursday March 21 then Easter would the next Sunday March 24th. If the full moon in March happened on the 20th then the next full moon would be in April. So, the date of Easter can be anywhere from March 22 to April 25th. You might ask why we use the equinox to determine holy day for the church, and the reason is because that is what the Hebrew people used to determine their Feast days.
All this goes back to seven. Seven days in each phase of the moon, seven days of the week, seven days of creation, the seventh day is a day devoted to God. Seven represents completion. But what does seven have to do with the story? Probably nothing. But since these are religious leaders and seven is significant to them, they chose the number seven because it was in their mind.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of the story. These seven brothers all die and so does the wife, which of the brothers can claim her as wife in the resurrection? Jesus’s response is that none of them will be married to her, because no one is married in the resurrection. Usually I do not focus on this unless I am speaking out against religious groups that claim eternal marriage. I tend to not focus on it because I love marriage. It is one of the most meaningful aspects of our religious and human experience. If something is so significant in our lives how can it not be important in the life after death?
Marriage is at best a testimony or a sign of the ultimate relationship. It represents honor and loyalty, persistence and grace. It is important because it should show us an aspect of our relationship with God. In marriage life extends. Your life extends to include a spouse and that united life extend to others, even the creation of new life. Marriage is a shadow or a symbol of something even greater. We often celebrate marriage and it is good to do so, but do we not see that marriage is also a sign of sin? In marriage ceremonies we often hear of Adam and Eve being joined by God, and God commands them to be fruitful and multiply. But marriage entered human existence because Adam began to turn from God. Poor Eve gets blamed for the first sin, but Adam was turning from God before even was pulled from his side. Adam desired more, Adam thought that he was alone. Marriage is a sign that we are not alone, but the intimacy it points to is the grace of God.
Marriage is important to the world because it ensures the continuation of life in a devoted unit of care. It should be enjoyed and cherished, but marriage will not save us. Marriages will end, then what? This is what Jesus focuses on. Once our lives cease, we have no control. All we leave behind will go to others and they will do whatever they see fit. The family farm that great grandparents sacrificed and devoted their lives to obtain, can be sold by the next generation and the heritage is no more. The company you build, once you are gone is no longer yours and it may not even resemble what it once was, because your children may not have the same passion you had in building it. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection so all they had to hope in was their children learning their ways and passing them on to the next generation. But we all know that all we build can become dust.
Jesus then says, ” But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
What is most important to us? What gets us excited? What drives our passions? Are they things of the world or are they the things of God? I love my family, I love my heritage, I love my country, and I love my community. But all those things are in the world. They are great and wonderful things yes, but they are dust just as I am, just one breath from extinction. But what if my passion is God? There is no past tense with God. At the time this verbal exchange occurred the bones of Abraham had been lost to time yet to this day we God is the present tense God of Abraham. With God there is life, because God is creator of life. With God we have life and hope, no death because death is the wage of sin. We have life if we believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only son not to condemn the world but to save it through his life, death, and resurrection. And we have life if we turn from the things of this world and focus on Him. What is your passion? What gives you life?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 3, 2019
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Luke 19:1–10 (ESV)
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And 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.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The story of Zacchaeus has been one of my favorites from a very early age. As a child, I remember our pastor calling the kids up to the front so we could all sing, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man a wee little man was he.” There is something about those early years in a little country church that continue to keep me going. In that little church we did so much, it was not about making the services more relevant or attracting the attention of the community, but they encouraged each of us to learn about God in a fun way. We sang old hymns, and a few choruses, we did Christmas plays, we participated in Easter sunrise plays, and we learned. I fell in love with Jesus in a little country church. Each person in that church encouraged me. My great uncle spoke out of silence every Sunday morning, like clockwork. And every Sunday he said, “I thank the Lord for what he has done for me.” It used to annoy me, until one day I bought a game that depicted World War II, and he looked at the map and pointed out the places he was and what he did in those areas. He told me that he thanked God every day for keeping him alive when so many did not make it home. When my great uncle passed away, I missed hearing him say, “I thank the Lord for what he has done for me.” And sometimes I find myself thinking those words and voicing them in my head at the time he would have said them.
A few weeks ago, at the funeral service of my Aunt Belita, we shared our several memories. My aunt played the organ for our church. I loved listening to her play, and I loved singing the hymns with people that loved to sing them. My aunt was one of those people that got excited about things. She got a camcorder once and decided that the best thing to do was to make a movie about the birth of Christ. So, for several weeks all the kids in our church would run around the church yard acting like shepherds, angels, and a bunch of wise guys. The movie itself was terrible, but I remember the excitement of my aunt as she inspired us to try something different.
And then there was Edith our pastor for several years. Edith inspired me to love the Friends Church. She was a saint because she would keep all us kids after worship, and she taught us about the history and the practices of Friends. And she encouraged us each to participate even more. To make it even better Edith would play the accordion at times. We laughed at her for that at the time, but oddly enough when I hear the accordion, I am again transported back to a little church out in the country.
I think we forget a great deal about what church really is at times. We go around trying to make it into something, we work hard to do what other people are doing, but we forget what is important. We are a community of friends. Each person in a church can inspire and encourage those around them. It is interesting to me that a little story about a little man can cause memories to flow. But I think that is part of the beauty of this story.
Zacchaeus is a government official that lived in the city of Jericho. He is not only an official stationed in this city to collect taxes, he is a chief tax collector, meaning that he is the manager over the other tax collectors. I often wonder if he might have been Matthew’s boss as I think about this story, it is not something that is important, but it is one of those things that goes through my head. As I studied this week, I wondered why a chief tax collector would be in Jericho and not Jerusalem. I found that some people would say that tax collector was not the best description of the job this man, but toll collector might have been the more accurate description. They say this because Jericho would have been one of the first cities caravans would have pass through as they made their way across the Jordan into Israel, before you made your way into Jerusalem. Since this was one of the first places you would come to as you made your way to Jerusalem it makes sense that they would collect the tolls there so that as traffic increase closer to the city the tax collection would not be causing greater trouble. And Jericho is also an important community in trade as well. Several times as I read about Jericho and Zacchaeus’s job the production of Balsam was mentioned. Balsam is a plant from which a resin is extracted that can be mixed with olive oil that can be used to make medicines and perfumes. As the use of essential oils becomes more common in our society, we can understand how this might have been an important crop to the Hebrew people. It is said that it was used in many medicines and balms and is really where the term balm comes from. Zacchaeus might have been a toll collector, but he might have also been the governmental overseer of the production of medicinal herbs as well.
We are not told what exactly he did for the government, but we know that he was not well liked in the Jewish community. As Jesus was passing through this town, Zacchaeus hear about it, but he, being a small individual, could not get into a position to see Jesus. So, we are told that he ran around the crowd, he made his way up ahead of the multitude and he found a tree to climb up.
This story has many descriptions that catch the attention of those that read it. Rarely do we know the size of any of the characters within the gospel, yet we know that Zacchaeus was small in stature. I find that very interesting. The size of this man was something important to the people. We often hear derogatory statements about those of small size, things like small man syndrome, or a Napoleon complex. The Napoleon complex one does not really make much sense because Napoleon was not actually that small, but for some reason history has made him the patron of people of small stature trying to do big things. Zacchaeus was a small man, but very important to the government, and he obviously worked his way up to be the most important official in the area. Because of his position and the way this story plays, I would venture to say that his size was probably a topic of discussion and disdain to this community. It was probably the punch line of jeers and jokes, and Zacchaeus probably faced his fair share of abuse because of this. Even two thousand years later we sing songs about his small stature.
This man faced ridicule from the community for his size, and for his profession. He was different from the others and his difference annoyed people. When the crowds gathered, he was there, and people knew he was there, they watched as he ran. We know they watched because we know that he ran. For an adult man to run was socially unacceptable in this culture, it lacks dignity and was unprofessional. Yet, here Zacchaeus a chief tax collector of this city was running to get ahead of the multitude. To make matters even worse, he still could not see, so he climbed up a tree, which again is something men did not do.
This story is filled with humor, not politically correct humor, but humor all the same. Zacchaeus is climbing up the tree, but not just any tree, a sycamore tree. Even the variety of tree is mentioned in the story. But I do need to mention that the sycamore tree in Israel is not the same that we see here. Our tree was called a sycamore, because the leaf was similarly shaped to the one Zacchaeus climbed. And that is about extent of the similarities. The tree in this story is a sycamore fig tree, or the poor man’s fig tree. It is a fig tree, but the fruit it produces is not commercial grade, it is smaller, and poorer quality. It is a tree that is basically wild, and anyone can come and get the fruit from it.
The image of a government official running and climbing a sycamore tree is filled with symbolism. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and he made a fool of himself to do it. He, being small, could not participate so he ran around the crowd, and he, being rich, climbed the poor man’s tree. You can almost hear the people laughing at him as they approach the tree. You can almost hear the people make derogatory comments each step of the way.
There is always more to the story than meets the eye. Zacchaeus means clean or innocent. It was a strong name during this era, because it was a name of one of the officers of Judas Maccabees and the name of a famous rabbi. It is a name that was given to patriots and the faithful, so a tax collector by this name is offensive. Tax collectors were often regarded as thieves and unclean. They were sinners in the eyes of the religious. This man represented everything wrong in the world, according to the religious elite. Yet Jesus comes to the tree Zacchaeus has climbed and he looks up and calls directly to him. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Imagine the scandal. This little man with a big title, this tax collector, this chief tax collector is being addressed by Jesus. There is grumbling among the crowd, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Imagine yourself in the story, consider the perspective of the crowd and that of Zacchaeus. Imagine living your life constantly being belittled for your features and your job, never being accepted and facing constant rejection everywhere you turn. Your one desire at that moment is to simply get one glimpse at this famous teacher but being reduced to running and climbing a tree just to do that. Then in a moment you are seen and called to. You are sought instead of avoided. And in that moment of joy you hear grumbling.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt as if nothing in your life seems to go as you expected, and then in one moment you get a glimpse of joy only to have those around you grumble, attempting to take the joy from you?
There is much that this story can teach us. One of the greatest things our faith tradition promotes is the concept of “that of God in all people.” This simple phrase should remind us that everyone around us is created in the image of God, and because they bear that image they should be treated with a certain amount of respect. This manner of thinking leads into our testimony of equality. If all people bear the image of God, then all people are equal in the eyes of God, all are loved, and all should have the same opportunity. That is one of those things my pastor, Edith, taught me as a child. I never realized that there were faith traditions that did not view equality in this way until I was older. I had no problem with a female pastor, and I never considered it odd. But then I got older and heard grumblings. I loved the church, yet I listened to grumblings around me causing me to question and some of those grumblings even said I was wrong. How could a woman teach men they said, yet I learned to love God’s church through the teaching of a woman. I found joy in the very place they said I could not.
Those grumblings try to limit God. The grumblings are humanity’s attempt to control what God can and cannot do. Those grumblings often divide and exclude, they accept and reject, and ration the grace of God. Those grumblings say that some people are and are not acceptable. They say some people have value and others do not. Those grumblings deny God’s love.
Zacchaeus listened to the grumblings, and he looked at the face of Jesus. He heard the people all around him call him a sinner, and Jesus looked him straight in the eye and said, “I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus listened to the crowd as they cried out that he was a sinner, and he looked back at Jesus and he speaks. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
We do not often see beneath the surface of this statement. Most translations give the impression that this is something that Zacchaeus will do in the future, but the English standard version and some of the newer translations indicate that the verbs used are present tense and not future tense. Meaning that it is something Zacchaeus is already doing. He already gives half of his goods to the poor and he already restores any injustice. We often see this as a sign of Zacchaeus’ repentance, but it could actually be Zacchaeus telling Jesus, they call me a sinner but what they are judging me for has no basis in reality that is not who I am. Zacchaeus in that statement is crying out to Jesus to accept him to love him not for the man others see, but for who he really is.
Who is Zacchaeus really? He is a man that would run and climb a tree just to see Jesus. He is a man that would take the teacher to his house even if it would cause people to grumble. He is a man willing to live the life he is in, to the glory of God.
I grew up in a little country church. While I attended that church, I saw the same faces for over eighteen years. I heard the same testimonies and sang old songs. I am a pastor today because some of those people did something that amazed me. They told me what God had done for them. They got excited about how they could use a new camcorder to encourage people to remember the gospel story. They encouraged me to sing and to read in front of them. They saw me sin, and they did not grumble but instead they shared their stories again. They saw me fail and they did not let me identify as that failure but accepted me as a child of God.
That little church showed the love of God, but they were not the only one. This little church was just as instrumental in my journey of faith. Both saw beyond the surface and encouraged something greater. Both did not care what others would say but promoted what God could do. We only have this one little story about the man named Zacchaeus in scripture, but tradition says that this wee little man would go on to be bigger. Some historians have said that Zacchaeus became the Bishop of Caesarea appointed by Peter. Some even say that he was Matthias the apostle the disciples chose to replace Judas. All we know is he wanted to see Jesus, and Jesus sought him too. And from this wee little man we can learn that we only see part of the story playing out in the lives of those around us. Even though we only see part there is much more than we know. Listen and encourage, give space to learn more, and share our lives with others. Because we might not realize that sinner, we see today might become a champion of faith tomorrow, if we were to show them how to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others.