Preached Sunday 3rd November, 2019 at Turramurra Uniting Church
Series:Real People, Real Questions
Guest Speaker: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Luke 19:1-10
How does it feel to be excluded? Have you ever had the experience of being left out? How did it feel?
As you would know, I am somewhat of a confident person and self-esteem has never really been an issue for me. However, I have felt the pain of exclusion. One memory is of my first Boys Brigade overnight camp. We were staying at a campsite and I was so excited that as soon as I got my bag, I ran into the first room and chose a bed. Unfortunately, the room was inhabited by a bunch of older boys who didn’t want this little kid in their room and kicked me out. So, I ran down to find the room with my friends in it but by this stage there were no spare beds left in their room. I ended up in the last room with the other kids who didn’t have a room. I was too young to understand the emotions inside of me, I just remember crying because it felt horrible.
It is hard when you are excluded. And while, sometimes we are legitimately excluded as a result of something we have done … most of the time the exclusion is because of factors beyond ourselves such as our background, our social status, our race, gender, lifestyle, sexuality, personality, looks etc. And when this happens … it really hurts.
It was no different in Jesus day. There are loads of stories of people who were struggling because of exclusion…
The woman at the well, legion who had mental illness, the woman bleeding for 20 years, people with leprosy, women in general, tax collectors … which brings us to the story of Zacchaeus.
Zac was used to being excluded – not only because he was a tax collector but because he looked different. Scripture tells us was a short man. Some commentators wonder if Zac ended up in tax collecting because of a childhood of being teased and left out because of his physical appearance … he was already excluded, he might as well be a tax collector too.
I wonder, if you read between the lines in our bible reading, if Zac tried to move to the front of the crowd to see Jesus but the crowd purposely pushed him to the back, intentionally excluding him so he couldn’t see. And then laughed as he was forced to climb a tree to see.
Then Jesus does the unthinkable. Instead of going along with the crowd and laughing at Zacchaeus too, Jesus reaches out to him, and wants to share a meal with him. The crowd responses by muttering to each other, “He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner”, echoing the question that the Pharisees asked in Mark 2:16 and Luke 5:30, “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
This is the question that I wanted to wrestle with today? Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why does Jesus seem to be inclusive of people who are not Godly? Why, given the choice of eating with those who are doing their best to love God and follow God’s laws and those who are sinners – why does Jesus more often choose the later?
I said at the beginning of this series that can be helpful to sit with the questions instead of rushing to an answer … so I am going to unpack the question a little … which will result in more questions. I will share some of my thoughts and am really interested in hearing your thoughts too.
But let’s break open this whole issue of Jesus and inclusiveness.
If we read the gospels, we see that Jesus was very inclusive. He did not seem to be concerned with the society labels or boundaries of what was acceptable or not. His disciples included fisherman, tax collectors and zealots. He had no problem with women being part of his travelling companions – even though that was unheard of in his time. He reached out to all people – crossing boundaries of race, gender, background, and social standing. He did not seem to care when people told him that he shouldn’t be eating with them or letting her touch his feet or associated with that person.
One commentator summed it up that Jesus first and foremost saw the person as a person – not the labels that society had put on them. When Jesus reached out to the woman at the well, he primarily saw a person who was thirsty for living water, rather than a Samaritan woman who was living in a complicated relationship.
So … we might conclude that if Jesus welcomed and included everyone, then so should we? But it is not always that simple. Here is another story… Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus has travelled outside Israel into region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and begs for help for her sick daughter.
Just to be clear, she is a foreigner, a woman and probably poor (if she is risking asking Jesus for help) … all things that would normally exclude her. So, what does Jesus do?
Matthew 15:24, Jesus answered, “I cannot help you as I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. Yep, Jesus excludes her too.
She is persistent. She kneels before Jesus and pleads, “Lord, help me!”. And if you know the story, Jesus responds with the very difficult line, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”.
What is going on here? This is not inclusive type behaviour? Yes, the woman goes on to give an insightful response and Jesus does heal her daughter but still … it does raise some questions and speaks to some larger questions regarding gospel statements from Jesus that speak of exclusion.
For example, John 14:6 where Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Yes, we can read this verse as a wonderful affirmation that through Jesus we can have access to God, to be made right with God. But if we flip this around it says that unless you come through Jesus, you will be excluded from God. And there are other references to back that up, including the wide road and narrow road, the wide gate and narrow gate, and most of the apostle Paul’s writing. The Gospel message has a built into it an exclusionary message … if you are with Jesus, you are in, if you are not with Jesus, you are out.
Matthew 7:23 takes this a step further. Jesus is talking about the end time and give the image of people pleading with him, “Lord, we did all these good things in your name – we taught, we prophesied, we did miracles?” and Jesus will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me you evil-doers”.
How do we
hold these two things together?
On one hand you have Jesus in his actions being very inclusive, brushing past the things that people use to label and openly accepting and including the person … and on the other hand we some of Jesus teaching, and the heart of the Pauline Gospel message, having a distinct exclusionary feel about it. You must fulfil these requirements to be accepted.
And you can see these two sides being played out in the life of the modern church. There are people who place more weight on the examples of Jesus being loving and inclusive and advocating for a more inclusive approach in the church – and there are other people who place more weight of the requirements or responses need to made right with God and advocating that we can’t too accepting.
And then we can also throw into the mix the question of whether or not we should be “eating with sinners”. Was the Pharisees correct in saying that Jesus was being unwise socialising with people who are not of the faith.
There is many verses in scripture that advise against mingling with the ungodly – Don’t sit in the company of sinner (Psalm 1:1), Don’t be yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14), Bad company ruins good morals (1 Cor 15:33), don’t invite into your home those who don’t follow Jesus teaching (2 John 1:10), Don’t associate with anyone who [long list of sins] (1 Cor 5:9-13) … you get the idea. So, in the light of these verse you would say that the Pharisee were correct in asking why Jesus was eating with sinners.
But there is an equal number of verses that say that we should be reaching out and welcoming all people – go into all the world (Matthew 28:19), I have not come to call the righteous but the sinner (Luke 5:32), it is not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick (Matthew 9:12), the lost sheep/coin (Luke 10), the good Samaritan (Luke 10), live in harmony with all people (Romans 12:16), whoever welcomes the least of these welcomes me (Matthew 25).
So, which is it? Do we welcome and associate with all people or just those who follow Jesus?
See how wrestling with the question often just raises more and more questions … but I think it is healthy to look at things from different perspectives. Like last time, I am keen to hear your thoughts on this as I learn and grow from your insights. I will, however, share some of my thoughts with you.
I think we need to be careful to not assume that if we are being welcoming and being inclusive that means we are also condone the thoughts and actions of those we are welcoming. These are two separate things.
Jesus was incredibly welcoming and inclusive, but Jesus did not lower God’s standards in doing so. But as mentioned before, first and foremost, Jesus addressed the person as a person and when relationship had been built, he worked on any issues that needed to be worked on.
I heard a great story that reflects this idea. A guest preacher was invited to a church to preach at the youth service. As he preached he noticed a young person in the front who was obvious high on something.
Afterwards over supper, this young person approached the preacher and asked… “Do you think that I would have to give up smoking dope to be accepted by Jesus?” The whole room sort of when quiet as they listened to the answer.
The preacher said, “No”. The young person continued, “I don’t think you understand … would I have to give up smoking marijuana to be accepted by Jesus?”
Again, the preacher said, “No”. The young person tried a third time, “I don’t think you understand. Would I have to give up smoking this …” as he pulled out a huge joint and waved it in the air, “to be accepted by Jesus”.
The preacher said, “For the third time … NO”.
The young person said, “I don’t think I understand”.
The preacher explained, “you don’t have to do anything to be accepted by Jesus. That is what Grace is. Jesus loves you and is ready to accept you as you are. If we had to wait until we were good enough, none of us would have been accepted by Jesus. So, no, you don’t have to give up smoking dope.”
“However”, the preacher continued, “you will find that the more you get to know Jesus, the more that Jesus will begin to work in your life, you may find that Jesus might want to address the issue of why you are smoking dope. But for now, Jesus accepts you as you are”.
I love that story because I think it reflects Jesus approach in the gospels. Include first, shower them with acceptance and love and then if it is necessary begin to work and address issues. Find the lost sheep, celebrate their inclusion and then help them not to get lost again.
We see this reflected in our reading with Zacchaeus.
Did Jesus say, “If you stop your cheating, and your deceiving and your disregard of the poor … then I would like to have dinner with you”. No, Jesus first included Zacchaeus and it was the act of inclusion that spurred Zacchaeus life change. Let me say this again. It was not the demand that Zacchaeus clean up his life that changed him, but the act of inclusion that spurred his life change.
Actually, this links with the last thought that I had on this. If we zoom in on one verse in our bible reading – Luke 19:5 – the words of Jesus to Zacchaeus up the tree. What does Jesus say?
Jesus says, “I MUST stay at your house”. The Greek word for must in this verse is dei (deh-on) which means “it is absolutely necessary” or “it is God’s will” or … and this is the interesting one … “it is a necessary action brought on by the circumstances or conduct of others”
This word is implying that Jesus purposely included Zacchaeus because others were excluding him. Think about that? That Jesus had a bias to include people and welcome people – especially those who have been excluded.
I wonder how this word might speak to our church.
We live in a word that seems to be more and more divided. Much of today’s politics is about stirring fear of those who are different and excluding those who scare us. There are even laws being considered which will give people the right to exclude others. Maybe we need as a church to embrace the Greek word deh-on and see that our welcome and inclusion is a necessary action in response to what is happening around us.
Maybe we need to go over and above to make sure that – if people are feeling excluded for whatever reason – that they are welcomed and loved and included here.
Once again, I am not saying by accepting people we need to condone all behaviour – I am sure that as people draw close to Jesus, Jesus will work in their lives on those things – what I am talking about making sure that no matter what people have done, or what they look like, or their background, or their choices or their lifestyle or their theology or their actions and practices … all are welcome here.
May our church be so naturally inclusive that we can say to anyone … but especially to those who have experienced the pain of being excluded … that it is absolutely necessary that I – as Jesus representative – have a meal with you so we can get to know each other.
Anyway, these are my thoughts … what are yours?