If you’ve been keeping up with this blog over the last month or so you’ve been following a series we’ve been looking at on how to have a proper approach to reading the Bible. There are still a couple of entries I need to make on that topic but with all of the things going on in our nation right now I felt that there was a matter I might be able to address. If nothing else, it’s my two cents for what it may be worth to you.
When I was working on my undergraduate degree I had the pleasure of taking a British Literature class. It was a neat experience learning that I actually enjoyed a class I thought I would hate. As part of the class we had to write a 20 page analysis of one of the major traits displayed in British Literature during a particular timespan. This project was large part of our grade and I spent most of the semester working on it. Needless to say, it was a big deal.
This was back when computers were available but most people did not have a computer in their homes. We used floppy disks and dial up modems and still thought portable CD players were incredibly advanced. After spending a big work session at the college library I finally finished the paper. I saved my work, packed up my books, and (with a great sense of relief) headed back home to relax for the weekend. Sadly, I would not realize until Monday that my work did not actually save on my floppy disk.
As I tried to open my saved file on the library computer on Monday morning I was appalled to see that my paper did not save the final 5 pages as well as many of my sources. The paper was due in just a couple of days and I did not have the time to write the paper and prepare for the rest of my semester exams. Thankfully, as I looked back at my notes I had an outline to guide my reconstruction of the previous pages and, after a very long day and night work, I completed the paper and submitted it on time (I even got an A on it).
The past few days have shown me a nation torn into three groups: those thankful for who was elected to be the next President of the United States, those who are appalled at this idea, and those who could really care less. What I have observed is that those who are upset at what will take place in the upcoming few months and years are largely disconnected from those who are excited and supportive of the upcoming changing of the presidential guard. There seems to be a huge chasm between the two groups with a struggle to understand their views. In the midst of this stands the Christian church in America.
Much like my essay from my early college days, I have awoken to find a large piece of the puzzle missing in how Christians should react in this situation. From my experience, I have seen a very poor outpouring of love for the very people God loves. It seems as if the last two decades (if not longer) have created a huge divide between two major groups in America and in the midst of this struggle is the Church trying to find a way to bring the Kingdom of God from Heaven into Earth. Having waded into some of these waters I think I have diagnosed the problem: the Christian Church in America has failed to love what God loves and failed to be angry about what makes God angry.
To illustrate my point I think we should go back to the basics. The Bible is the greatest vantage point from which we can see how God sees. Jesus is the very image of the invisible God (cf. Colossians 1:15) and when we see his actions we see those of the Father (cf. John 14:9). This is because Jesus was God in skin (cf. John 1:14) and is the very essence of God (cf. John 10:30). So when we see how Jesus treats people and how he values those who disagree with him we can find a principle from which we can derive a life model.
Perhaps my favorite example of this is when we look at how Jesus interacted with the famous (or perhaps infamous) man named Zacchaeus. You probably know the story of Zacchaeus and you also probably sing the Bible School song in your head every time you hear his name (if you don’t you should definitely do an internet search for it). In this story, we see Jesus come into contact with a man who lived a life that was completely opposite to that of Jesus. Yet, we see Jesus respond not just with kindness and compassion but also with understanding. If you’ve never read it before check it out below:
Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town.  There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich.  He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd.  So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way.
 When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”
 Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy.  But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled.
 Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!”
 Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” (Luke 19:1-10 NLT)
Perhaps you know this already, but just in case I’ll key you in on some of the contextual details. The text tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector (or publican) and the chief tax collector at that. To be a tax collector in the Roman Empire during this time you had to purchase a license to collect taxes from the people and then deliver these taxes back to the proper representatives. They were allowed to collect extra taxes from the people on top of the required ones and keep that money for themselves which made them very rich. As a chief tax collector Zacchaeus would receive a cut of what the other tax collectors had collected as well as the extra from his own collections (David Potter, A Companion to the Roman Empire, 2009, pg. 187).
You would think this would be enough for any person to dislike a tax collector, right? However, on top of all of this Zacchaeus was also a Jew. The Jews mostly felt that the Roman Empire had enslaved them and that forcing them to pay taxes was insult to injury. For a fellow Jew to become a tax collector was to become a sellout and to turn your back on your own people (Ibid, 188). This is why Jews during Jesus’ day classified tax collectors as the lowest of the low. You will often see in the Bible that the writers referred to tax collectors as a totally different category of sinner when they talk about different groups of people.
As a Jewish tax collector Zacchaeus would have been caught between two worlds: a traitor to his own people but too Jewish to be a Roman. Hated by his own people and not fitting in with his new crowd would have left him lonely and searching. It is my opinion that he sought out Jesus because he had experienced what this world had to offer and, as it always does, it left him empty. He was so desperate to see Jesus and try to find something to give him acceptance that he was willing to climb a tree and make a scene.
It is in this situation that we find Zacchaeus. Seeing Jesus coming through but unable to see him due to his small stature he climbs into the tree. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher and a holy man. According to Jewish law, he would have been made unclean if he went into a Gentile house, touched the belongings of a Gentile, or even touched the person much less ate their food (Spangler, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, 2009, 16). The Book of Jubilees, which was written 1-2 centuries before Jesus lived, taught that Jews should not even have contact with Gentiles if they could help it. Rabbis were called to a standard higher than regular Jews and would often cross the street if they were going to even walk past a Gentile (Ibid, 17).
At this point we get to see the heartbeat of Jesus and, as a result, the heartbeat of God when it comes to people. Jesus, a famous rabbi and radical teacher, comes straight up to Zacchaeus and tells him that He is going to have dinner with him that very day! Jesus broke with all of the manmade tradition and showed the crowds that followed him, the other religious leaders of the day, and us 2,000 years later how God feels about people who do not believe in God or follow his code of morality. Jesus showed kindness, compassion, and a desire to build a relationship with Zacchaeus. He placed the value of people above the value of following a code of ethics.
During the dinner Zacchaeus has with Jesus we see the end result of Jesus’ actions: Zacchaeus completely repents of his lifestyle and genuinely seeks after God’s way of doing things. He goes above the Law of Moses in regards to setting right theft by giving four times as much as he had taken. The Law of Moses commanded thieves to pay back double what they had taken (cf. Exodus 22:7) but Zacchaeus takes it to an HNL (a ‘hole notha level’) by giving back double the requirements of the Law. Can you imagine the dent this put into his bank account?
Here we see the evidence of a heart change in Zacchaeus. The point here is not salvation through works; we know that isn’t how salvation works. Salvation comes through faith alone and nothing we could ever do could possibly pay back our sin debt to God (cf. Ephesians 2:8). However, there is always fruit when a heart is changed. The Book of James tell us that “…faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (James 2:17 NLT) This, along with many other passages of Scripture, shows us that when there is true repentance there is always action that displays the change of heart.
Yet, the other people were upset that Jesus went to go hang out with a ‘notorious sinner’. I can just see the self-righteous people sneering and gossiping to themselves about how Jesus, this supposedly godly rabbi, was going to break the ‘rules’ and spend time with a social outcast. Other examples of Scripture show that oftentimes the religious leaders were also part of this gossip group (Luke 5 for example). In the midst of this gossip and ridicule Jesus breaks with social norms and befriends a ‘sinner’ and we see his entire life was changed.
I have often thought about what Zacchaeus’ life as like after that encounter with Jesus. According to Church tradition he went on to become the Bishop of Caesarea (cf. The Apostolic Constitutions 7.46). There is not much else out there to say what the life of Zacchaeus did to impact the Kingdom of God. What we do know came from Jesus’ own words, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham.”
To me, this is the blank space I see missing in the Christian Church in America. We have become much more like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day than we have become like Jesus. We, like them, have our man-made traditions of what a Christian should look like, act like, and be like. Yet, we have missed the pivotal point of what Jesus’ earthly ministry was all about. He goes on in the very next sentence to tell the reader, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”
This should be what our heartbeat is as well; we should be about Jesus’ business which was to seek those who are lost. God will do the saving, the Holy Spirit will do the drawing, but we must do the seeking. It’s just that simple. We must get out of our own heads, our own homes, and our own perspectives to seek to see the way others do. Then, we when have built relationships and gained trust, we can tell them the wonderful news about Jesus and his saving grace. Without us going, however, it is unlikely that people will hear about the Gospel other than what the television documentaries have to say.
Like my paper in my British Literature class all those years ago, we have the blueprint but we have lost some of the important parts. Thankfully, we can go back to the outline and see what we have missed and then add it back in. We can begin again to be the salt and light to our lost and dying world. We can be the city on the hill that beckons to the weary travelers of the world to come to us and we will give them (like Jesus taught) rest and hope for their souls. This will not happen, however, without us getting off our laurels and into the lives of others.
What does this have to do with the recent election? Absolutely everything. We have to react with kindness to those who view differently than we do. We have to share love to those in need. We have to go beyond our own computer screens to befriend those who think differently than we do, act differently than we do, and believe differently than we do. Then we can build those bridges to share the Gospel in a real and powerful way. Who the President of the U.S. is definitely matters; what matters even more, however, is who is King of our lives. With that in place we can, as the Apostles and Church Fathers did, turn this nation upside down with the love of Christ.