Before I begin this gospel reflection, there is one thing that you should know about me: I am not height challenged – in fact I am much more likely to be asked to move out of the way so that others standing in a crowd behind me are able to see the action. So the story that is told only in chapter 19 in the Gospel of Luke about this height-challenged bloke Zacchaeus having to climb up a tree to see Jesus doesn’t really connect with me.
I’ve also sometimes joked that the bible may well be sexist, but it is also heightist – it is the little runt of a kid David who wins over the tall Goliath, and is chosen by the Lord in preference to the tall king Saul. But I guess you can’t win them all.
The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus stands fittingly as the last episode of the long journey that Jesus and his disciples have been taking from Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus has been mocked as a friend of tax collectors and sinners, so it is appropriate that the final act of Jesus is to eat in the house of not just a tax collector, but a chief or senior tax collector. These characters were really entrepreneurs – they were required to pay the contract amount in advance, and then employ others to help them to collect all the taxes, with a tidy profit built into the collection system. While all tax collectors right across history have never been the winners of the most popular awards, these chief tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews. The other people in the town no doubt had watched as Zacchaeus walked around town in ever finer clothes, with more servants at his beck-and-call, attending to his every need in his ever more beautifully furnished and grander house – and all at their expense.
Luke carefully weaves this story into the ones that have gone just before it. In the Gospel that we heard last Sunday – of the Pharisee and another tax collector – Jesus had declared that “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Today we see this very thing in the person of Zacchaeus. He casts aside all regard for his own dignity by climbing a tree in order to be able to see Jesus. Also in the previous chapter, Jesus had challenged the rich ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, but that man went away sad.
Here, as soon as the eyes of Jesus met the eyes of Zacchaeus, there was a meeting of souls. Jesus had seen that look in many others that he had encountered before, and he knew that it revealed a sickness in the heart of Zacchaeus that only Jesus could touch and heal. But rather than providing the opportunity for a parable as the people in the crowd complain and groan about this meeting, we hear Zacchaeus himself speak to us in front of Jesus and the whole crowd, bearing witness to the extraordinary and extravagant repentance that has happened in this instance. Zacchaeus knows that words alone are not enough – so he makes a lavish offer to make amends. His offer to sell half his property and to make a four-fold restitution will impact his fortunes deeply. But he knows that in the person of Jesus he has found something of untold value – because today, salvation has come to this house. Now he is restored where he is as part of the renewed Israel. For the son of man has come to seek and save what was lost.
Recorded for Journey Radio Program (3 mins)
Sunday 31, Year C. Luke 19:1-10.
In order to be able to live simply, sometimes a bit of perspective is going to be helpful – so we need to go on a journey today into the vastness of the universe – which scientists just last week announced was even bigger than previously known.
Unless we are in the legal profession, it is unlikely that either you or I would have been in a law court very often. Yet we are very familiar with the goings on from the numerous TV shows and movies that are either set in and around courtrooms and trials, or that include a trial as a key theme. Sometimes legal cases become so significant that they are reported widely in the media and in their own way become part of our common history.
If we want to understand the parable that lies at the heart of our Gospel this week, from Luke chapter 18, we should hold the image of a lawsuit in mind, even though it seems at first glance to be describing a religious event. In reality, like the parable that begins chapter 18 which we heard last Sunday – the one about the widow and the corrupt judge – this parable also is really another lawsuit. Another way of saying this is that the Pharisee in the Temple has turned what should be an encounter with God into a contest. His ‘prayer’ – if we can call it that – consists simply of letting God know all about his various good points where he exalts himself by dumping on the tax collector. We shouldn’t entirely belittle the Pharisee who is clearly holding his religious values dearly – fasting twice a week and tithing on all that he earns. Yet Jesus wants us to know that we are always more than a set of external actions and habits.
The tax collector, on the other hand, because of his small and simple faith is able to see right through to the very heart of a great God, as he casts himself on the divine mercy. Jesus reveals what the divine judge would say about this: it is the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, who returns home ‘at rights with God.’ In other words, he was vindicated before the judge. God finds in his favour. The wider context of these two parables is the final law court, in which God’s chosen people will be vindicated after their life of suffering, holiness and service. Although each of us may have many enemies – both outside and inside – these parables declare that God will act to show us who his people truly are. At the present moment it is not enough to simply look for the outward badges of virtue or the observance of the small details of God’s law.
God’s intention is to put all the wrongs of the world to rights. If you want to see where this final vindication is anticipated in the present world, look for where there is genuine repentance, and a genuine placing of oneself on the mercy of God. ‘This one went home at rights with God’ – those are among the most comforting words in the whole gospel.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (14 mins 35)
Sunday 30, Year C. Luke 18:9-14
“In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.” Peter Drucker
If we are trying to move from a unholy muddle and mess in our lives to a place of simplicity and order, then there are various things that we need to do. If we want to focus on what is essential for our lives, then we need to go through a process to (1) evaluate and explore; (2) eliminate; and (3) execute our decision. Whenever we are faced with a choice we need to answer three basic questions: what? why? and when?
A problem is that we so often answer these questions in the wrong way. If we say what? and answer everything; if we say why? and say because it is popular; and if we say when do we want it? and answer now – then the only result to our decision-making process is frustration and stress. If however we answer these same three questions with the focus that Moses offers in our first reading (Exodus 17) when he continued to pray and intercede for Joshua as he fought against the Amalekites, or that Jesus invites us to have in our prayers before God – then we will ask different questions. Rather than saying everything to the question of what, we will begin to identify the right thing; rather than saying ‘because it is popular’ to the question of why, but saying, ‘because it is the right reason’; and saying ‘when it is the right time” rather than saying ‘now’ to the question of when – we will discover that sweet spot which offers our highest point of contribution. One of the great problems that we meet in this is that pursuing less takes discipline – something that we are not very good at as a society! This is why fitness levels are falling and obesity levels are rising – because it takes discipline to say no to more time on the couch and no to a second serve of desert. But we need to evaluate by asking the right questions – things like “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” or “What really frustrates / angers / annoys me in the world?”; “What am I particularly talented at?”; “What meets a significant need in the world?” – it is only when we take the time to really consider questions like these that we can move beyond the trivial many things to find the vital few things that are worth giving our whole lives to. Only then will we live the truth that “Less is more” and that “Stress is bad”.
As a challenge for this week, let us all take a positive step towards de-cluttering our lives by finding 50 things that we can give away or get rid of – or choices that we can begin to make that will lead us towards that more positive future.
Recorded at St Paul’s (13 mins)
Sunday 29, Year C. Luke 18:1-8.
When you look at the Gospels and the ministry of Jesus, there are many things that strike you. But one thing that is not present is any sense of Jesus being distracted and worried about so many things all happening at once. Somehow he manages to keep this focus on the thing that is happening at the present moment. We see it in the opening line of the Gospel today as Luke reminds us what Jesus is doing, and has been doing since the end of chapter nine – he is travelling to Jerusalem. He is living simply, with a focus on the single priority that lies before him – rather than a dozen other good things.
Recorded at St Paul’s 9.30am (9 minutes)
Sunday 28, Year C. Luke 17:11-19
Is there anything better than a blazing log fire on a cold winter’s morning? Clearly the answer is no – but what is better is if someone else gets the fire going for you – especially when you are a little child and you have no clue as to how to get a fire going. When I was very small, our family had a wood fire in the lounge-room (it was eventually replaced by a much easier to light, control and clean gas heater) and it was a very magical item for a small boy already showing minor signs of pyromania. But in the early mornings, the fire from the previous night would have died down, and I lacked the knowledge or permission to get the fire going again. But thankfully dad would come to the rescue and transform the smallest and dullest of dying embers into a raging fire once again with only the know-how of a wizard and the gift of a few pieces of paper, small kindling and a few gentle breaths. The image that St Paul uses in his encouraging message to his young disciple Timothy is inspired by a similar scene. Each of us has already received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives – at least sacramentally, if not experientially – but so often we allow such a precious gift to diminish, dwindle and all too often die. Paul encourages us – like he encourages Timothy – to fan this gift into a flame once again – because this was the point of the gift in the first place.
In the Gospel, the disciples no doubt thought they were being very bold and courageous to cry out to Jesus to “increase our faith”. You would expect that Jesus would honour their desire and gladly grant their request with greater faith. But his answer can take us by surprise if we think that faith is all about us. What Jesus reminds his apostles is that faith is never about us – even faith of the smallest size is able to do the most amazing things. It is not the size of our faith that matters – but the greatness of the God that we believe in.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (6mins)
Sunday 27, Year C. 2 Tim 1:6-8,13-14. Luke 17:5-10