That Deep Desire

Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV)

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


Hmmmm. Another tax collector.

Last week, we heard Jesus’ parable about a righteous Pharisee and a deeply penitent tax collector. As you may recall, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were often rich, but also were considered by their fellow Jews to be traitors, doing the work of an occupying empire. Today, we hear of an actual encounter Jesus had with one of these tax collectors—a chief tax collector, no less.

We know for certain this one, Zacchaeus, was rich, likely because his position allowed him to take a cut of the thievery enforced by the tax collectors under him. He was wanting something more, however, something he could not buy.

This man Jesus, a prophet and healer, a speaker of words of love and grace, intrigued the little tax collector. As you may recall from the old Bible school song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man,” unable to see Jesus for the crowd following. So he climbed up in a sycamore tree, “to see what he could see.”

As I think of Zacchaeus scrambling upward with searching eyes, I imagine him as one of the great examples of the power of desire. Desire is a feeling God actually encourages us to have, assuming we can learn to desire what is right.

We of course often desire the wrong things: money, possessions and status are good examples. We’ll just call those desires “worldly,” as they are for objects, people or ideas that are of this world and remain in this world. They are possessions we are sure to lose even if someone stuffs them in our graves.

What’s interesting about Zacchaeus is he already knew worldly pleasures. He at some point had disregarded fidelity to his God and people to pursue the things of this world he thought could make him happy. And yet, he was not happy. Otherwise, he would not have been looking for answers from a penniless prophet being followed by the rabble Zacchaeus routinely taxed.

I’ve known other people who have traveled down the path of “more, more, more” only to find themselves more lost than ever. For a couple of years, I wrote a newspaper column detailing the career-ending antics of Georgia lawyers who had been disbarred, meaning they had done something so bad they lost their licenses to practice law.

You would think they would not speak to a reporter after such an experience, but I was always surprised at how open many of them were when I called for a comment. Some of them had simply fallen into addiction, certainly a misguided desire. I’ll always remember the one lawyer who told me, “It’s not my fault! It was my partners, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.”

Others told me stories that followed a surprisingly similar pattern built from greed. Despite earning very good livings, often $300,000 or $400,000 a year, they worked for and circulated among people who made millions a year, and felt like they somehow needed to keep up.

So they lifted money from trust funds and escrow accounts, investing it for their personal gain, thinking they would keep the profit and put the “borrowed” money back. I was talking to the ones who had seen their schemes come crashing down, and they were deeply, deeply chagrined. And yes, having hit bottom, some of them had turned or returned to God, seeking forgiveness and trying to make amends.

Zacchaeus still had all his money and stuff, but he must have felt as empty as those disbarred lawyers I interviewed. I suppose one way or another, the meaninglessness of money and possessions either owned or desired must dawn on everyone.

Perhaps we are like the lawyers and feel foolish at how hotly we have pursued wealth; perhaps we are like Zacchaeus and simply realize the money and stuff won’t fill the empty place in our souls.

Certainly, the futility of worldly desires must dawn on us when we are near death, that moment we realize we cannot take with us even the sheets to which we cling, no matter how nice the thread count.

Our deepest desire can be fulfilled only by Christ, through the simple faith-based relationship our savior promises us. And here’s the most fulfilling aspect of the good news I preach today—this is not some sort of delayed gratification, offered to you only at death. The sense of fulfillment can be experienced now. The joy is for now, as well as for eternity.

This promise is in the Zacchaeus story. The grace Jesus extended by simply going to Zacchaeus’ house changed the man, and his happiness and gratitude came bubbling out.

Half of what he had went to the poor. The other half was put completely at risk, as Zacchaeus promised to radically overcompensate anyone he had defrauded. We see a man who no longer cared about the worldly things, knowing that through Jesus he had found something better, something for now and all time.

The featured image is “Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus,” James Tissot, painted between 1886 and 1894.


Those Bigger Barns

Luke 12:13-21

I saw an update in the news last week about the two scientists who made a bet regarding the first person to live to be 150. Steven Austad, a researcher at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, bet the person was already alive when the year 2000 began; Jay Olshansky of the University of Chicago bet the person had not been born at 2000’s onset.

Each man put down $150, which went into an investment account. The bet, of course, won’t be resolved until as late as Jan. 1, 2150, and the two scientists don’t expect one of them to collect it. The winner’s heirs or designees will benefit from the proceeds.

Oh, one additional detail about the bet—that 150-year-old person has to be lucid enough to hold a conversation.

I know what I thought when I read this. Hey, I was alive in 2000. Could it be me? Could the pill, the injection, the treatment that makes the difference come along in time for me and my loved ones to make it to 150, happy and in good health?

I suspect I’m not alone. If we think about death, we prefer to think we’ll beat the odds, keeping the Grim Reaper at arm’s length until we’re ready to depart on our terms. (The morning after delivering this sermon, I found a story about lifespan extension even odder than the the Austad-Olshansky bet.)

Denial about death can be even more extreme. Before I entered ministry, I  twice had people casually tell me they didn’t expect to die, and neither person was speaking in the context of Jesus returning first. Both times I just stood there and blinked in astonishment. By the way, one of them is now dead, taken relatively early in life by cancer.

In today’s parable, Jesus is telling us how spiritually dangerous it is to fool ourselves in such a way.

Usually when we hear this parable, our first thought goes to the rich man’s hoarding. The rich man does have a problem with his love of money and possessions, but even his greed is tied to his foolishness regarding the fragility of life. His collection of grain and goods simply amplifies his sense that he has everything under control, that nothing can disturb his sense of well-being and happiness.

The Bible, even with its early Old Testament characters reportedly living beyond the age of 900, describes life as fleeting. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” says the Prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring,” writes the author of the Epistle of James, traditionally thought to be the brother of Jesus. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

I realize it’s kind of a depressing message. A psychologist friend of mine once pointed out that people don’t like it when I remind them they will die. “I know,” I replied. “But in a way, it’s my job.”

And yet, there is much joy in my vocation. There is much joy in the Christian message. When we hear what the Bible says about life being a fleeting event, barely a flicker in the cosmos, we are being set up, but in a good way. Like the people who heard Peter’s first sermon, we should be cut to the heart, crying out, “What should we do?”

First of all, hear the good news. Because Jesus has died for our sins, the withered grass has been restored, given eternal life. The mist is allowed to take on solid form and last forever. Believe and be baptized.

Then, believers, live this life with your eyes set on what really matters. We still have to live in the world of money and stuff, but keep possessions in perspective, using them according to God’s will.

And quit worrying! That’s the guidance Jesus gave his disciples after he told this parable. The God who provides eternal life certainly will provide what we need now. Worrying interferes with the experience of God in this life.

Stop worrying and you’ll also stop thinking of yourself first. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Philippians 2:4 tells us. When we live in Christ, the focus moves from self and even the slightly larger circle drawn around family to a much larger community, a group of people living in joy now and ultimately transcending this world.

Community also is the antidote to something I think afflicted the rich man. Jesus wants us to sense the rich man was lonely. Look at the conversation the man has as he considers his bigger barns. He has it with himself!

“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

Which sounds better to you? Dining alone on prime rib and foie gras while toasting your possessions with the finest wine, or sharing a big pot of soup with friends, knowing we walk toward eternity together?

I think the answer is obvious, even if we all live to be 200, our barns full.

The featured image is a Cornish Griffin round barn in Steuben County, Indiana. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

What Would You Uproot?

Luke 17:5-10

There are a couple of messages in Jesus’ words we’ve heard today that may puzzle us or even disturb our souls. Just remember, when the Bible does that to us, we’re growing.

I feel the need to preach this sermon backward relative to the text. By first exploring what Jesus said about the slave who had just come in from the fields, I think we can better understand what Jesus said about faith and its tremendous power.

Slaves of God

I initially don’t like the example of the slave coming in from the field. First of all, the idea of slavery is foreign to us now, so it’s hard to get into the right frame of mind to hear the example. Slavery was not uncommon in Jesus’ day, however, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus used the relationship as a metaphor.

The real source of my reaction, however, stems from the self-assured American in me. The line of questioning starts out okay: How would you handle your slave? Would you just let him plop down at the table before he finishes his last task of the day, which is to feed you? We as hearers of the story are in a position of power, a position any ambitious American seeks.

Jesus was setting us up, though. In the end, he flipped the story on us. Suddenly, we are the slaves, subservient to God. Even if we do everything we are supposed to do as God’s creation, we can at best say at the end of our lives, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

Those of us living in a world where we equate our success with our own genius or hard work may flinch at such a message. It strikes at our egos, at our sense that we can climb the ladder in God’s kingdom through sheer hard work. It is a message designed to humble us, to remind us of God’s infinite vastness and power and our inability to match him in any way.

When we find ourselves appropriately humbled, we’re at a point where we can at least begin to hear what Jesus had to say earlier about faith.

The Source of Faith

The disciples had been hearing some hard words from Jesus. He had warned them about the extreme danger of being the cause of other people’s sin. He also had talked about his powerful demand that we learn to forgive those who offend us, particularly if they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if one of them were to sin against us seven times a day, and then repent, we would be called to forgive that person seven times a day.

The disciples clearly felt they weren’t up to the task. “Increase our faith!” they cried out. Jesus told them they first might want to find faith.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—that’s a very tiny seed—”you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Faith is faith, Jesus was saying. It has great power.

It has great power not because of anything we do, but because of what God can do. Our faith is largely a matter of trusting in God’s power and plan. As far as the uprooting of mulberry trees, which have very large root balls, Jesus was using hyperbole. Mark and Matthew record Jesus teaching a similar message when he described a kind of faith that can move a mountain to take a swim, too.

Jesus’ point was not that the faithful would make great landscapers. It was that the faithful know anything can happen where God wants it to happen. He can change us into people who do no harm, people overflowing with forgiveness. He can change the world into what he would have it be. And we can participate in all of that by aligning our wills with God’s will.

As far as great miracles are concerned, sea-going mulberry trees and mountains are nothing compared with what Jesus ultimately did on the cross. The power of God crushed death; the gates of heaven were flung open to what previously could not approach God, unholy, sin-stained humanity. Christ’s resurrection and the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today prove it to every generation.

Ultimately, our faith is about believing that what is wrong will be set right. Maybe the transformation happens in part now; certainly it happens in full at the end of time.

Pray On This

There are some things I would like to see uprooted and flung away now. I lift these up as a prayer:

Blindness to God’s plan. May the scales be flung from the eyes of those who cannot see Jesus because of the world’s distractions.

Greed. A sense that we have to have all of ours, whatever we think “ours” is, before we consider what others may need. May that sense dissolve.

Self-interest. It drives both parties of the U.S. government right now, and it frightens the rest of us into thinking we have to behave in similar ways. Someone, please read Philippians 2:4-11.

Meanness. I know, it sounds kindergarten-ish. “Stop being mean.” There sure are a lot of people in the world who seem to delight in cutting remarks and deliberate antagonism of others, though. May God rip away the meanness we find in ourselves.

That’s just the start of a list. What would you add? And do you believe your desires are aligned with God’s?

If so, have faith, and with God’s power working in you, you might make a difference.