“The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost”

When we judge others we condemn them to the lost. In Luke 19:1-10, Jesus shows us the power of love to save the lost.

At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”

This is the story of the sinner who is lost, not because he was irreconcilable, but because others had given up on him: “When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the house of the sinner,'” the Gospel tells us. Zacchaeus’ “neighbors” had given up on him because they judged him unworthy. He likely had also given up on himself because of the judgment of others.

But then enters Jesus, who turns this into the story of the redeemed man. Jesus knows what is in Zacchaeus’ heart. It is here that Zaccaeus’ life turns around, for now there is no one to condemn him. Zacchaeus’ heart opens and he is able to be the man he seeks to be and whom Jesus knows him to be.

Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus – “the Son of Man has come to seek” – to save him from condemnation — “and to save what was lost.”

Society, culture too often judges and condemns people, gives up on them, as the people in this story have done to Zacchaeus. The condemned become lost during that judgment. But Jesus shows us that everyone is redeemable, savable given the chance. And that surprises us.

Looking at it from Zacchaeus’ perspective, he is a tax collector and a wealthy man. He is looked down upon, seen as a scourge in society. His practices to exact taxes may well have been unscrupulous, leading to the people disliking him. But by their judging and shunning him, he likely felt unworthy and unsalvageable. Lost and lonely. Apart. Then along comes Jesus, who refuses to condemn Zacchaeus — rather, He embraces his soul. Moreover, Jesus seeks him out!  And like a child, Zacchaeus is giddy at his redemption. We who feel abandoned or unworthy need that acceptance, that unconditional love, which Jesus gives.

Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor, that other person, as if they were ourselves. It is the second most important commandment, next to loving God. He also teaches us not to judge others, not to condemn them. In this story, He lives out that teaching and in doing so saves what or who was lost.

When Jesus lives in our heart, we can save what is lost by loving the condemned. Not for what they did but for who they are — a child of God.  And as a child of God, we can accept that love when it is extended to us. No one is beyond the reach of redemption. That is the power of God. That is the power of God’s love.

Seek. Love. Save.

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“Strive to enter through the narrow gate”

When you walk the streets, do you ever wonder who is worthy of entering Heaven? In Luke 13:22-30, Jesus teaches us the gate to Heaven narrow. But what does that mean?

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.’
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

Now there is an interesting beginning for this reading, Jesus saying, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”

When Jesus said those words, where do you think He put the emphasis in His voice – on the verb “strive” or on the adjective “narrow”? If it was on strive, it seems like he is saying “try really hard, because you may have great difficulty or, you may not make it at all. If it was on narrow, it seems like He is saying there are other gates but this is the better one.

Jesus continues on saying, “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” And He is speaking of entering the kingdom of Heaven. So maybe what Jesus is saying here is that there is a narrow opportunity to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or perhaps there will be a big throng of souls wishing to enter through a narrow gate and few will make it through. Only the strong will enter.

This looks like a metaphor. A metaphor for how difficult it is to get into the kingdom of God compared to how many think they will enter.

As a metaphor, Jesus isn’t being literal. When you get to the gates of Heaven, there may be a throng waiting to enter but there won’t be small gate with a shoving match or a crushing mass fighting for dominance. There will be God deciding to gets in and who doesn’t. And that’s what the rest of the reading is about.

As to the metaphor, then, Jesus wants us to strive to meet His expectations as souls, before we get to the heavenly gate. He wants us to have heard his message of love and compassion, to be humble and act for others. To place others first so that when our time comes before the gates of Heaven, we may rightly come first. Our just reward.

Many there are who see themselves as righteous and just and assume they have a place reserved in Heaven. They lord themselves over others and judge who is a sinner and who is righteous and, thus, who is condemned and who will see the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus teaches us not to be self-righteous, not to judge, not to condemn. And these evildoers may be very surprised when they reach the gates of Heaven.

Listen to Jesus and heed his words. His words. Strive to live as he teaches. For narrow is the gate. The decision of who enters isn’t up to us but up to God.

“The one who humbles himself will be exalted”

Today we learn  the value in being humble and its reward, reading Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The lesson here is simple. Never look down on another. Love your neighbor, whose heart you do not know, whose place in God’s heart you do not know. Let God do the judging.

Be humble. Be loving. Be exalted. For God loves you and your neighbor, whoever he or she is.

From Jesus’ lips to our hearts. Amen.

“Take care to guard against all greed”

Take care to guard against all greed, says Jesus in Luke 12:13-21. But what is greed?

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus,
“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”
He replied to him,
“Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”
Then he said to the crowd,
Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich,
one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Then he told them a parable.
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do,
for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.
There I shall store all my grain and other goods
and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you,
you have so many good things stored up for many years,
rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’
But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself
but is not rich in what matters to God.”

You would think it would be just for the man to ask that his brother share the inheritance with him. Probably it was. But that wasn’t the issue. The issue was caring about treasure at all. Greed in any form. “Take care to guard against all greed,” Jesus teaches. “Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” The attachment to possessions, to material things, is greed.

Then Jesus teaches through the parable of the rich man with the bountiful harvest. The harvest is so good, he is thinking of tearing down his existing barns and building bigger ones. He will have so much at hand he can spend his time making merry instead of being productive. But Jesus cautions through the voice of God that the man’s life is forfeit and all those possessions will no longer be his: The one who stores up treasure for himself is not rich in what matters to God.  A brief summation of Jesus’ story.

A lot of emphasis in our modern day culture is put on building wealth, living lavishly, garnering possessions. There has been a movement lately on simple living, even buying tiny houses, but even that emphasizes ownership. Any of it benefits you now, but how does it benefit you when you will stand before God?

Riches, possessions, and power are earthly matters. But they don’t matter to God. God is the almighty. He is unimpressed by any of it. And quite frankly, when you stand before God you will stand alone without a sign of your wealth or your possessions. Everything you have on earth remains on earth. And all you will have before you when you face God will be your soul and what it treasured on earth.

How will you account for your life before God? “I ate steak and lobster every night” or “I fed the hungry”? “I built a  21-room mansion” or “I housed the homeless”? “I had a closet full of shoes” or “I clothed the poor”? “I didn’t worry about health insurance, I could afford my own health care” or “I took care of the sick”? “I vacationed a month in Tuscany” or “I helped with the recovery in Haiti”?

Can you have both? God grants us wealth to share. I don’t believe He ever said that wealth was bad. It is greed that Jesus says to avoid. It’s that attachment to wealth, possessions, that Jesus cautions us against. For, as Jesus tells us in another passage of the Gospels, it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

So, you can have wealth and take care of the poor. You can have possessions and share them with the needy. You can live well and make provision that others live well, too. You can be dedicated to others whom Jesus would call the least among us. Greed is seeking possessions and keeping them to yourself. And Jesus says, take care to guard against them for they are not what matters to God.

“Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones”

When you pray, do you wonder if your call to God gets through? In Luke 18:1-8, we learn to be patient and persistent in prayer.

Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.’”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This is an interesting reading from the Gospel of Luke. It is about the value of persistence in prayer and having the faith that God both hears you and will act for you.

Obviously God doesn’t fear that we will strike Him, as in the case of the judge to which Jesus refers. Rather, God doesn’t want us to lose faith or hope in Him. For whatever reason – and we can never know what that is, however hard we try to figure it out – God acts in His own good time. But we must not ever think that God doesn’t listen or doesn’t hear or isn’t aware of our prayers. There are many moving pieces in God’s plans and He moves them as He needs to make the world work as it needs to. So when you pray in need, also pray in good faith, pray with passion, and pray unceasingly. And most of all, pray with love. And know that God is listening and hearing and setting in motion an answer for you.

Prayer is a form of communion with God. It is acting soul to holy spirit. Don’t become weary or despondent in prayer. For when we pray to God he sees and accepts our faith. When you feel weary, pray. For then you are connected to the almighty, who will give you solace or energy or peace. And when we need it, He will secure the rights of His chosen ones. So says Jesus the Christ.

We hear often how Jesus taught us how to pray with the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer. And two postings before He showed us how to praise the Father in a brief prayer. Now here, Jesus teaches us to pray often and without becoming weary. When we think of the many wonderful ways we can interact with God, prayer is something that is within our control, something we can do at any moment — when we are happy, when we are sad, when we are in fear, when we are in need, when we are grateful, even when we are angry (called a prayer of lamentation), and of course, when we love God. He is there for us always.

“There is something greater than Jonah here”

Things don’t change much over the generations. As we see in Luke 11:29-32, there is one power greater than those who are obstinate.

While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them,
“This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.
Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.
At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

Everywhere, people look for signs from God.

There is a hurricane devastating Haiti, the Bahamas, Florida and along the eastern coast of the United States, and voices claim it is a sign from God, retribution for the evil deeds of man.

No, says Jesus, “no sign will be given it.”

Men look for signs of the apocalypse foretold in Revelations and even try to force God’s hand by bringing on division and revolution.

“This generation is an evil generation.”

No, says Jesus, “no sign will be given…except the sign of Jonah.”

What was the sign of Jonah? God sent Jonah to warn the Ninevites that unless they repented they would be destroyed. Jonah didn’t want to warn the Ninevites, who were the most brutal of Israel’s enemies. He even ran away from God, which is how he ended up in the belly of a whale. The whale spit out Jonah before the Ninevites and he delivered God’s message. And you know what? The Ninevites repented. Now there was a sign! And no hurricanes, no division, no revolution. No forcing God’s hand — in fact, just the opposite, God forced Jonah’s hand.

“Men of God” preach repentance but like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, their voices are hollow. Their purpose is vain. They gather riches as the sow discord. They twist the Word of God to their own purpose. It is an evil generation.

People, we have to stop looking for signs and trying to bring on destruction, and we must instead listen to Jesus, for he is greater than Jonah. Jesus brings on love. Jesus brings on peace. And when we repent through love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus us brings us eternal life.

There is something greater than Jonah here. Through love, Jesus overpowers the evil generation.

 

“Stand up and go; your faith has saved you”

Do we presume too much about our faith? In Luke 17:11-19, we learn how easy it is to act on it rather than to talk about it.

As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.

In Jesus’ time, Samaritans were despised as not being equal worshipers of Yahweh. Jews went out of their way to avoid Samaria and Samaritans. In the Gospels, Jesus often goes out of His way to embrace Samaritans and even in this reading, he traveled through Samaria to go to Galilee and to Jerusalem. Of course, Jesus always teaches us to love our neighbor — the “other” among us.

Here we have ten lepers who seek Jesus’ help. Jesus gives it to them and among those ten who receive it, only one returns to give thanks to God. “Where are the other nine?” Jesus asks. The one who is returned is a foreigner, an other. “Your faith has saved you.”

It’s not uncommon for the presumed faithful to think they’re saved. Like the child who presumes he can come home anytime and eat from the refrigerator, bring his laundry home for Mom to do, borrow cash, and throw a party or two at Mom and Dad’s expense, the self-righteous presume a familiarity and an entitlement. The other nine apparently felt no need to thank Jesus or Yahweh for their healing. We don’t know, perhaps they glorified God when they showed themselves to the priests. But Jesus seemed fairly certain the nine took their healing for granted. Or maybe they weren’t the faithful at all. Maybe they had heard of Jesus’ healings and being desperate thought they would give asking for healing a shot — and bingo! Now go celebrate. Maybe they didn’t even show themselves to the priests. We can’t know (or presume) from the reading. What we do know is that one stayed behind to thank God.

It’s easy to say we believe. It’s easy to say we have been saved. It’s harder to act on our actual belief, to be the Christians we say we are. The simplest act is to love God and show our thanks.

Now, Jesus tells us not to be showy in our prayers, not to make a big public display out of them. But this one healed leper who was grateful to God didn’t make a public display; he merely fell at Jesus’ feet in relief and thanked him. How easy it is to praise God and thank Him for His compassion, His mercy, and His love. Even in a whisper. Even if we say, “Thank God,” to mean it rather to merely express it as an interjection. “Oh my God!” doesn’t have to be said in vain, it can be an expression of admiration and gratitude.

Thanking God isn’t about meeting God’s need to be thanked. It’s about meeting our need to commit to our faith. It shouldn’t take  a “foreigner” to show us the way. “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” God loves us deeply. Let us love God deeply back.