Monthly Archives: October 2016

St. Zacchaeus – Luke 19: 1-10

Sometimes someone will say to me – I’d like to come to church but I=m really just not good enough. I don’t have enough faith. Some people think that you are not acceptable in church unless you meet some sort of list of requirements.

Any church that gives you that kind of impression, has, somewhere along the line, got something very wrong; for Jesus would have no truck with those kinds of ideas. Jesus was always to be found among those who thought they were beyond the reach of God’s love.

Jesus’ willingness to be with those rejected by society extended even to the quislings of the day, the stooges of the Roman occupying powers – the tax collectors. Our Gospel reading tells the story of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus is desperate to meet with Jesus and equally Jesus is delighted to meet with Zacchaeus, very happy to risk the scorn of the crowd for the sake of a man who clearly knows his own need to be changed.

Love, in Jesus, reaches out to this outcast and love changes him completely. All Zacchaeus did was to look out for Jesus and then welcome him when he came his way. That, ultimately, is what Christianity is all about – it is not about being good, although that may well result from an encounter with Jesus – for Zacchaeus was changed completely by his encounter with Jesus. No, being a Christian is not ultimately about being good. It’s not even about attending Church religiously every Sunday, although that is a real help to many – for it is good to be among people who are just as aware of their own shortcomings and their need of God’s love. And we really do all have shortcomings and we really do need God’s love and forgiveness, and each other’s love and forgiveness too.

No, being a Christian is not about being good, not about attending Church every Sunday – being a Christian is all about being real with ourselves and about meeting with God in Jesus. Zacchaeus was befriended by Jesus. As a result he saw himself as he really was and he was changed. In our churches each week, in those who make up our congregations, there’s a group of people who just like Zacchaeus have begun to see themselves as they really are and who have begun to acknowledge that they need God’s love in their lives. And on All Saints Sunday, we remind ourselves that people like this are called Saints.

Saints are people who are growing in their awareness that they need God’s love in their lives. Love that searches us out. Love that asks only that we come to him as we are, that we do not pretend that we are better than we are. Love, that by its very nature draws the best out of us. Love that transforms us. Love that chooses to call a sinner a saint, not because of some unreasonable blindness to their faults, but because that love is so strong, so overpowering, love unto death, that nothing can stand in its way.

catholic-cross-drawing-clipart-panda-free-clipart-images-x0wdhb-clipartHere is love, says the Bible, not that we first loved God but that God first loved us and sent his Son to die for us. The love of God comes to us at a cost – the death of Jesus. Come as you are, says Jesus and reaches out his arms wide on the cross. God dies at Easter so as to make reconciliation possible. We can come as we are because all that gets in the way between us and God was defeated in the death of Jesus. This is love, real vulnerable love, love which bore shame and rejection so as to bring reconciliation.

All we have to do is say, ‘Thank you, Jesus’. Jesus replies, ‘You’re welcome. You are welcome. Come as you are. Come just as you are.’

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Luke 18: 9-14 – A Pharisee and a Tax Collector went to the Temple to Pray …..

Pharisees have really had bad press. To call someone a Pharisee is to suggest that they’re stuck-up, sanctimonious, hypocritical, self-righteous, unable to bend. That they think that they’re always right.

And indeed this is the impression we get from reading the Gospels. Today’s Gospel a case in point – the Pharisee seems to be hard & self-righteous, not someone we’d want to spend time with – whereas the tax collector, by his very confession of guilt, is the warm approachable character, the one that we’d like to be associated with – a character that provokes our empathy.

Elsewhere Jesus reserves some of his most vitriolic language for the Pharisees. He calls them ‘white-washed sepulchres’, ‘hypocrites’

With the benefit of 2000 years of reading the Gospel story – almost anyone, non-churchgoers included will tell you that to call someone a Pharisee is to insult them.

Because of this we lose the real impact of the Gospel story. We’ve already type cast the characters and we know what the story is about. We associate with the tax collector and we encourage ourselves to greater personal repentance and humility – or we may even allow ourselves to think we behave in the same humble, self-deprecating way. ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee,’ we might pray!

If we really want to hear what Jesus was talking about, we need to try to understand how Pharisees and tax collectors were seen by the people to whom Jesus was speaking. So, for a moment, lets try to do that.

The Pharisees were part of a group in Israel called the ‘Hasidaeans’, which translates as ‘God’s loyal ones’, a group that tried really hard to follow the teaching of the OT. The name Pharisee means ‘the separated ones’, separate because of their desire to follow the OT teaching as faithfully as they could. There was a period when they were the dominant political force in Israel, but by the time of Jesus they had suffered persecution under Herod and had concluded that spiritual ends could not be attained by political means.

They were a group who believed that Israel had gone into exile in OT times because it had failed to keep God’s law, the Torah. They believed strongly in the unity and holiness of God and the absolute authority of the Torah. They stressed tithing, had very high ethical standards.

When seen like this, Pharisees are not the unattractive people that we believe them to be. In fact, dare I say it, we might even feel that it would be good if the Church was like them, maintaining high ethical standards in our society, giving at a level that means that God=s work is not constrained by resources. Perhaps we have something to learn from the Pharisees!!

When it comes to tax collectors we’ve perhaps a greater understanding. We still have a sense that the tax man takes from us what is rightfully ours. The feeling against tax collectors in Jesus’ time was a bit stronger. They were the quislings, the people who aided & abetted the occupying power, often using their position for personal gain. Roman stooges, worthy of contempt.

Now if this is what Pharisees were like, if this was how tax collectors were seen, what effect might Jesus’ story have had on his listeners? It would have been difficult for Jesus to find more distinctly opposite characters. The Pharisee loyal to Israel, persecuted, at times, by the Romans, faithful to the Torah … versus the tax collector, the bogie-man.

It is unlikely that people would have seen the Pharisee’s words in the story as presumptuous. Everything he said about himself was true. People would have believed that he was the one close to God. He was the faithful church attender of his day, he was the highest Sunday giver in the Church, he had great integrity in his business dealing, he didn’t fiddle his tax, he was to be commended above anyone else as an example of a truly religious person. We might say, A ‘good Christian!’

But Jesus makes it clear that the penitent tax collector is accepted by God when the faithful Pharisee is not.  We are not supposed to see ourselves in this story, in the person of the humble tax collector, but in the Pharisee, secure in his faith.

Just as Jesus warns the committed religious people of his day against complacency, so he challenges us, the faithful ones, the ones who go to church on a cold Sunday morning.

There’s no room, Jesus says, for sitting on our laurels, believing that we have got life sorted, believing that there is no more we need to do. For if we do this, the shocking challenge of the Gospel is that we may well watch the drug addict, the prostitute, the alcoholic, the gambler, the thief, … even a modern day tax collector, show evidence of real repentance and be accepted by God when we are left out in the cold.

Faith or Faithfulness? Luke 17: 5-10

What does it mean to ‘have faith’?

Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, ‘Be uprooted and plated in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

Jesus seems to be saying: “If you can screw up enough faith, if you pray hard enough, if you really believe, then you’ll be able to do powerful things. You’ll be in control of life and God will be able to work through you! If you are just prepared to leap across that chasm believing that I will miraculously get you to the other side, then you are my disciple!  ”

But is he really? ……  Or is it rather the case that we hear him saying what we think he is saying rather than listen to him properly. After all, what do we say when things go wrong for us? …… “What have I done to deserve this?” “Why is this illness happening to me?” … It is as though we do really believe that we have the power to make our circumstances right, just be being better people, by having more faith?

And so, when we hear the word ‘faith’ we so often think of something rather like the flexing of spiritual muscles, or determinedly screwing ourselves up to believe. “If only I had more faith,” we say. “If only I really believed.” … And so many of us fail to achieve this … and as a result so many turn their back on ‘faith’: “It does not work,” they say.

And so when we hear those verses in Luke 17 we hear Jesus saying something, perhaps quite sarcastic: “Faith, don’t talk to me about your faith, you have not even got enough to fill a mustard seed, if you had you’d be doing all sorts of marvellous things in my name.”

But when we do so, we miss the point.

called_chosen_-faithful_part3-680x300What Jesus is actually saying is something much more like this: “Faith is about trusting in an all powerful God, it is about living faithfully to what you believe, it is about faithful service. Just a tiny little bit of that kind of faithful living will change the world.”

Where is the evidence for reading the Gospel this way?

Firstly, there is the whole of the reading above. In the first two verses Jesus talks about faith – but then he goes on to talk about masters and slaves. He could be talking about the way in which the physical world should obey its masters, those masters being his followers who have faith. But I don’t think he is. Let’s just focus on Luke 17:10 which tells us so much about ‘faith’ …

Jesus says: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

‘Faith’  is all about being ‘faithful’. We are slaves, servants of our master, and the greatest and the best thing that we can say of ourselves is that we have lived faithful to that calling – we have served our master, we have lived faith-fully.

Second, there is that word ‘faith’; ‘pisteo‘ in the Greek. It is used consistently through the Greek version of the bible for being faithful, trustworthy, sure and true. Just here in Luke:

Luke 12:42                faithful and prudentfruitosp_faithfulness

Luke 16:10-12          faithful, faithful, faithful

Luke 19:17                trustworthy

In each of these cases, and throughout the New testament, it is the same root word,  ‘pisteo‘. So when Jesus uses the word ‘faith’, he is not asking us to screw ourselves up to believe, but he is asking us to live faithfully to what we believe, to be his trustworthy followers. To be faithful and prudent. “Those who live this way,” says Jesus, “Are people of faith. … And, (in the figurative language that he is using) it won’t just be a mulberry tree that is uprooted, even the gates of hell will not prevail against them.”gar-19