Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Luke 19 1-10 Zacchaeus and the Day for the Lord

What sort of tree do you have in mind when you hear the word sycamore? Those stately trees that send their seed-heads spiralling into our rose beds every summer? The sycamore of the Bible is no such tree. It is in fact part of the fig-mulberry family. Amos the prophet is described as “a dresser of sycamore trees". The fig sycamore produced rather puny fruits that were used as fodder for cattle: unfortunately they were a little slow to ripen, so Amos’s job — for he was a herdsman — was to pinch the neck of the fruit to encourage it to ripen earlier so that it could ripen in time to be of use to the cattle he kept

That was his job as a prophet, too. His job was to pinch Israel, for its time to be picked off had nearly come. Amos was the great preacher of social justice among the prophets. He launched out at every redoubt of privilege: priests, princes, judges, rich farmers, merchants, all get a right old lashing from his tongue. I like to think of Amos, climbing along the branches of the sycamore trees, pinching these stalks, bringing to ripeness his sycamore figs, thinking every time he did it, ‘Ha! Zebulun the crooked corn merchant man, you’ll soon be getting the same treatment. Yes, Amaziah the priest, your time is coming too, you’ve corrupted the people long enough, you’ll soon be ripe for feeding to the cattle!’

It is nice to turn to the New Testament to see who the other habituĂ© of the sycamore trees was: what a contrast! Zacchaeus, the rich con-man, the swindling tax official who oppressed the poor, collaborated with the Roman government, shocked the town by his venality and sticky palmed corruption. In short, the very sort of person Amos preached against. What is he doing up in Amos’s favourite tree? I can only believe Luke has mentioned him being in that particular tree deliberately to make some significant theological point. Luke’s gospel is focussed on the role of Jesus as the spirit filled prophet. Right at the outset in Mary’s song the sort of programme that Amos proclaimed is affirmed: He has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

The centre piece of Luke’s gospel is the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. This incident in Jericho is the last before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem itself. It is also unique to Luke. It is clear, then, that Luke attaches particular significance to the story, especially when Luke ends the story with one of the crucial sayings of the gospel. ‘This day salvation has come to your house, Zacchaeus’, says Jesus.

Into which category did Zacchaeus come? The story of Zacchaeus suits Luke so well because it is so ambiguous: Zacchaeus is rich. He was a senior tax officer. But as a tax-collector he was also an outcast in the town: indeed he might have been up the tree not only because he was short, but also because he was afraid of being lynched by the crowd. He was, then, in one sense among the poor in that he was an outcast (like the lepers, prostitutes and gentiles); he was also, though, one of those who might be put down from his seat in that he was mighty, powerful, an oppressor. Zacchaeus does not neatly fit into the comfortable categories of the amateur sociologists who draw up evangelisation programmes. He is an odd-ball. But this story shows the transforming power of God in Jesus, the coming of the kingdom, the world turned upside down by the spirit, in graphic clarity.

First, Jesus sees the man, hidden though he is in the tree.

Second, Jesus invites himself under the man’s roof and into his life.

Third, the man responds to this invasion of his life willingly.

Fourth, the man is utterly transformed, from one who robs the poor to feather his own nest into one who is prepared to sell his house and give half the proceeds to the poor.

Fifth, by this action indeed the life of the poor in Jericho is transformed too.

Sixth, he will accept all the consequences of his life of crime and make restitution according to the law. Thus indeed law and prophets are fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. The day of salvation is declared. The Nazareth manifesto is finding fulfilment.

The first ripe sycamore fig has fallen from the tree, not to be destroyed but to be saved. Amos’s message was: Repent before it’s too late — the Day of the Lord is coming with dreadful consequences. Jesus’s message is also ‘Repent! Today is the day of Salvation’.

So Luke underlines the word of prophet and Lord: no-one is beyond the pale; salvation can come to any house; it was a message that Luke was to rub home in one more dramatic story unique to him. There were once two other robbers in a tree: not hiding from anyone; not there of their own choice; they were nailed up there in just punishment for their misdeeds. One says to Jesus, “If you are the Christ come down out of your tree and then save us as well”. But the other confessed his sin and asked that he be included in the kingdom.

‘This day’, Jesus said, ’you will be with me in paradise.’

Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to make the first move. He invited himself into his home.

When people responded to Jesus’s call, things happened. We are used to hearing that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk: the gospels are full of those stories. But here is a unique one: the poor are provided for. We, in the rich west, must remember that in some ways we are like Zacchaeus. We have become wealthy by robbing the poor in other lands. Of course we did not personally do it, and the whole business is extremely complex; but there is little doubt that our industrial and financial base was built on the swag of Empire; that the present world economy is organised for the benefit of the rich. It is of some comfort that Jesus came to Zacchaeus’s house: under the terms of the preaching of Amos the rich (especially the corrupt rich) might not have much hope. But Zacchaeus’s response to Jesus was to make restitution to those he had robbed. By so doing he made it clear to everyone that the transforming work of God was alive in his heart, and that the day of salvation was here.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Luke 18 1-8 The judge and the widow

We are told that this parable is about prayer. The suggestion seems to be that we are to be like that terrier of a widow woman snapping at the heels of the judge until he eventually gives her justice. We are to be persistent and nagging in prayer: God will finally, if reluctantly, relent and we will be vindicated. But such an interpretation would have terrible consequences: it would portray the church as a poor defenceless bereaved widow with no-one to plead for her: forced by circumstances to plead her own’ case: having no advocate. This hardly seems a biblical’ picture: for throughout the New Testament both Son and Spirit are described in precisely those terms as advocate that is what comforter means (one who is strong and comes alongside like a “friend” in a union dispute; one who pleads for the church. Indeed the church is not a widow but the bride of Christ. Secondly it portrays God in a poor light, too. He only gives in because he is afraid for his own reputation as judge.

But this parable is a typical bit of ancient logic: the Jews called it qal—wahomer we might say an argument from lesser to greater: the NT is full of it. Sometimes it is obvious and it says, “How much more...” Here we are left to work it out for ourselves.

On the one hand here is a poor widow pleading her case with a totally venal judge: despite her weakness. and his corruptness he eventually grants her request. On the other here is a lovely bride, whose eloquent husband is pleading her case before a judge whose mercy is unassailable, whose justice is unquestionable, whose power is irresistible. This is qal wahomer on a colossal scale.

The parable, then, is a great reassurance. Luke’s gospel is notable for its taking or board anxieties about the Lord’s delay.’ The old prayer ‘How Long so prevalent in the psalms and prophets was beginning to creep into the prayer life of the church too. It is surely significant that this parable is not reported by either Matthew or Mark. Luke places it right at the end of his discourse on the coming of the Son of Man. The book of Revelation describes the martyrs in heaven crying in desperation to their God, “How long Sovereign Lord before you judge the people of earth and avenge our death?” The widow’s request is couched in similar terms: “I want justice against my enemy”. The question How long is posed 15 times in the psalms alone! It is a question somewhat unfashionable in modern worship. But is that a reflection on our comfortable life style? The how long question has always been on the lips of martyrs and the oppressed - not the oppressors it was always the question of the widow not the well-off. Debtors longed for jubilee: creditors were glad that the steam had run out of jubilee theology. A desire for Christ’s coming burned bright in the church of Paul and Luke. It no longer burns with passion in our souls: where it is talked about it is more dreaded than welcomed. The How long, has become a Not quite yet Lord!

But the parable is notable for another echo of Revelation, too. The barbed question with which it ends: “But when the Son of Man comes will he find any faith on earth?” That is the other classic prophetic question. For the how long question could be posed of God’s people too! Thus it picks up the demand “Be thou faithful until death”. The question has now been turned inside out. God’s faithfulness is not in doubt - he will come and not be slow. The reason for his delay is not his injustice but his mercy. He is delaying to give man time to be faithful.

Thus this parable is less about prayer than it is about faithfulness. When his people are as passionate about justice as God is, then his kingdom will come. The parable comes at the end of a passage which begins with the observation: the kingdom of God is among you. Now perhaps we can begin to see that if it is about prayer at all it is about prayer in the sense that can be defined as an exploration of the will of God - a journey into his heart. It is about the most important petition prayer “Thy kingdom come — thy will be done”. The classic question

“Is not the judge of all the world just?” can only be answered affirmatively. “Will he find faithfulness on earth?” receives a more conditional response: only if his people become so committed to his will in prayer and action that they are bringing in his kingdom.

And so the parable turns on the hearers as they do so often. How much do you want God’s justice? On which side of the fence will we be? Are we among those who beg him to delay - or are we among those earnestly seeking his triumph? Are we enemies of the widow? They had no desire for the judge to act - indeed they might have been those bribing him not to intervene. They carry on living their lives content that the judge has been seen off with a few bribes of hymns and prayers; they marry, buy, sell, drink, eat, plant and build as if their time were all their own: widows, starving, poor, don’t enter into the equation: we are back in the same line of teaching as the parable of the rich fool: his error was not that he was rich - but that he thought he had all the time in the world and never let the coming of the kingdom enter his thinking.

Monday, 8 October 2007

10% Luke 17 11-19

This story can be read in at least three different ways, depending on our take on Luke’s gospel. First there are those for whom the important thing is trying to discover what relevance the story had to the early church. Under this view the gospels were written as source material for sermons; therefore every story had an immediate application.

So the story of the ten lepers might be told with tis application. In the church communities to which Luke was writing there was this problem: lots of people came forward to be baptised but few then went on to- regular attendance at the eucharist. And so Luke puts this story to show that Jesus had exactly the same problem in his ministry. Ten lepers were cleansed: or ten people experienced the washing away of sin in baptism; only one came back into the Lord’s presence to give thanks; or only one came to the thanksgiving service. The story then might be used either to console the church; we have problems keeping converts - don’t worry even Jesus found it the same; or it might be preached to the newly baptised as an encouragement to come regularly to the table to give thanks for salvation.

The second kind explanation places greater emphasis on the setting of the story within the gospel itself. One important ingredient of Luke’s gospel is that the underdog - the outsider, the foreigner is the one commended, and the favourites come nowhere in the race. Thus it is a prostitute who is commended for love, not a Pharisee: a runaway spendthrift of a son for whom the fatted calf is killed: a Samaritan who is shown as the model neighbour. Here, then, the emphasis should fall on the fact that it is a Samaritan who returns to give thanks. The others accepted their healing as no more than they deserved; they were after all members of God’s chosen people and if that was to mean anything concrete in their lives then they had a right to expect to be healed: the Samaritan could only stand amazed that a Jew had healed him, an enemy.

We, too, live in a society where people regard health, prosperity, happiness as rights. In the USA you don’t thank your doctor for healing you - you just sue if he doesn’t. This attitude also spills over into other areas of life. In prosperous Britain God is there to be sued when things go wrong not to be thanked for salvation. Why pick on me? is a question more asked than Why choose to heal me? We like the Jews have come to take God’s love for granted. It takes an outsider to teach us gratitude.

But it could be argued that both these approaches magnify small details of the story to fit into a scheme. Perhaps we should take the whole thrust of the story on its own merits. The story is about faith: the lepers exercised faith in three ways: first they asked for cleansing and then went out to live their lives believing they had received cleansing before there was any obvious sign; that was the limit of faith for the vast majority; but one man - one man without any preconceptions discovered two further aspects of faith which resulted in a scale of blessing the others had not experienced; humble praise, and mission.

Now this note of humility is particularly relevant given the previous passage which exhorts the disciples not to get too big for their boots. The man who throws himself to the ground in gratitude is told to stand up. Jesus does not keep us on our knees grovelling. The health he gives is total. We can stand up straight empowered by his grace. It is only after the man has stood up that Jesus pronounces his faith complete. Thus faith is born in that moment when we both recognise the truth of who we are and we begin to recognise the person God has called us to be. So we go forth with a new vision of God and ourselves.

The Jesus who accepts us as lepers, makes us fit, commissions us as servants and adopts us as sons. And so Jesus waits for those he has healed through his saving death to come to him in gratitude; that gratitude in itself opens channels for yet more tidal waves of grace to flood into our lives; grace that enables us to stand up; to take responsibility; and then to go out in mission.