I once had a friend in high school and we were very close. We signed each other’s yearbooks “friends 4 ever!” We were both in music classes together. He was highly skilled at playing the piano. He had been playing since he was four years old. He could also play the organ quite well, and that’s a difficult instrument to play. He lived with his dad very close to the high school. His father was a tax accountant. Although, I was never invited to his house. I was too much of a hippy, and he didn’t think his dad would approve of me.
He was also very religious. He went to church every Sunday at the same church where my music teacher was in charge of the music ministry. Naturally, my friend did a lot of things for the church. He was very involved. And nearly every day, he had a new dirty joke to tell. He had a huge list of them in his wallet. He had the first line and the punch line of hundreds of jokes on a ragged, folded-up, piece of paper.
After high school we remained friends. When I was a senior in high school, my parents had to move, so they rented me a little single apartment so that I could finish the year at my high school. I was eighteen. It was legal, and fun. Anyway, my friend used to rent my apartment on Friday nights for $10 so he could “entertain” his girlfriend. I cannot say how entertaining he was, however. I just know that on Friday nights I had to stay away from my apartment until midnight.
Later on, he got married, not to the girl he was entertaining in my apartment of course, but to some other nice, innocent girl from his church. And that is when he made a special trip to my apartment to see me to tell me that I would not be seeing him anymore. As much as he and I were friends, he did not want his new wife to associate with people like me. And thus, I never saw him again. I understand that today he is the music minister of that same church. I found this out a few years ago. I got his email from one of the people who attends that church, so I dropped him a line. He never returned it. Funny how people are. But what, you ask, does this have to do with the Gospel According to Luke?
The gospel of Luke gives us an interesting contrast between two wealthy people. In Chapter eighteen, after Jesus has told the crowd about the Pharisee who thinks so highly of himself and the tax collector, an official walks up to him and says, “Good master, what do I have to do to have eternal life?”
Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good. Nobody is good, except for God. You know what they say, don’t cheat on your wife, don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lie, be good to your parent.”
“But I’ve done all that stuff all my life!” the official says.
And when Jesus hears this he says, “You still have one thing left to do. Sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.”
This made the official very sad, for he was pretty damn rich.
This is when Jesus tells everybody that it is really hard for the wealthy to find God and he makes his “easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle” statement that we’ve all heard a million times. And no, I don’t think he was talking about that gate in Jerusalem called “The Eye of the Needle” because he wasn’t in Jerusalem when he made the comment and people there wouldn’t have recognized that reference. I think he really meant it was nearly freaking impossible for rich people to find God, plain and simple. I mean, it’s hard to worry about poor people when you’re trying to decide which shoes to bring on your Mediterranean Cruise. It is nearly freaking impossible for the rich to find God, but not totally freaking impossible. Notice the contrast in the next story from chapter 19.
Jesus and his homies are passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. The Greek word is very clear on this. They are NOT planning on staying. They were headed for Jerusalem. According to the story, there’s this rich, tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus who wants to get a glimpse of Jesus, but being a remarkably short dude, cannot see above the crowd, so he climbs a sycamore tree to get a better look Zacchaeus means righteous one, but there is nothing righteous about him. He is a tax collector and allied with the Romans. All the people hated him, and for good reason. Tax collectors, as you learned last week, were really the scum of the earth in first century Judea (we don’t like them much now, either).
As he is passing under, Jesus looks up and sees Zacchaeus up in the tree and says, “Zacchaeus, come down here quickly, because today I must stay at your house!: And the Greek is very specific here. The word quickly really means immediately, at once. And the ´must´ is emphatic. Jesus MUST stay at this guy’s house, although he never says why.
Well, when everybody sees this they get rightly bent out of shape. What the hell is this holy Joe doing staying at the house of a son of a bitch like this? But Zacaahaeus hears them and says, “Look, everybody, I will give half of all I own to the poor! And to all the people I have extorted (that’s what the Greek says), I will repay them four times over!”
And Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this house, for this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
So here is this interesting contrast again. First we had the contrast (two weeks ago) of the corrupt judge and God. Then we had the contrast of the Pharisee and the tax collector. And now we have the contrast of the rich temple official and the rich tax collector. The temple official, wealthy as he was, was unable to bring himself to give away his riches. This wicked sinner of a man abruptly offers half of all he owns and to make good to all he has wronged. And this tax collector `could never make the claim to have lived his life so righteously as the temple official.
But to me, of more interest, is that Jesus sought out this tax collector. He already knew him by name. Moreover, he said that he HAD to stay in that house. And again, it doesn’t matter if the story is true. It doesn’t have to be. The message is that God doesn’t always wait around for you to come to Him/Her. Sometimes God comes to you. Jesus doesn’t have any problems staying in the house of a tax collector. He seeks out the tax collector, and, moreover, when he had no plans on even staying in that town. He points out to everybody that salvation has come to the house of Zacchaeus, and, in spite of what they may think, that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, just as they are all his sons also. In other words, Zacchaeus is no worse than they are.
And Zacchaeus never says he’s going to stop being a tax collector either. Remember, what made tax collectors so bad was that they extorted much more than the Romans were demanding for taxes. That was how they made their profit, how they got rich. I suppose Zacchaeus went on collecting taxes, just in a more equitable manner. Zacchaeus proved himself in his fervor to see Jesus, to the degree that he climbed a tree just to get a look. The temple official already felt himself to be a holy guy. Zacchaeus had no such illusion about himself, and again, it is the unchurchy person who is closer to God than the religious one.
Apparently, my “Christian” friend failed to see what Christ saw, that we are all worthy children of God. My buddy was a regular, church-going, God-fearing guy, and he saw me as unworthy of his friendship to the point of not wanting his bride-to-be to ever meet me. Now I; m not saying I’m any closer to God than he was/is, but there is no one that I would shun because of what they believe. Who am I to judge anybody else? Who knows what I may offer them, or, just as important, what they may have to offer me? You can learn something from just about everybody, I think.
I had a hard time trying to think of what I could tell you all with this story that might have some meaning for you. And as I read it and re-read it, and re-read it in Greek, I could see that powerful contrast with all the “good” church-going people and those upon whom the church looks down. We are all good people. And as is clear from the story, God is calling all of us. God is coming to our town and asking to stay in our house, for we are all his children. And all God is asking is what we are willing to give. That is the message of this particular story, factual or not. My pal wasn’t too holy to rent my apartment for the night to be with some girl he never intended to marry, but he was too holy to hang with me . I’m sure lucky God isn’t too holy to hang with me, or you.