The Lost Man and the Tree

I came outside to an almost empty street.  A large crowd stood at the gates of Jericho, cheering and praising God.   The crowd began moving slowly inside of the gates, and a small girl came running by me.  “Pardon me, Talitha.   What is happening?”

Breathlessly she stopped and said, “Jesus!  Jesus of Nazareth!  He has come to Jericho!  And he has made Blind Bartimaus see!!” 

Before I could question the girl further, her mother swiftly walked up and grabbed her by the arm, dragging her away.  I could hear her spit my name like a curse, fussing at her daughter, “That’s Zacchaeus. Don’t ever talk to him.”

That sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me, but this was inconvenient because I wanted more information.  I had heard murmurings around town that Jesus would be coming, and everyone had plans to go out and meet him and guide him to Simon’s house.  Simon was the head Rabbi at the synagogue, so it only made sense that this rumored prophet of God stay at his house. 

How I wished that I could have gone out with the crowd to meet Jesus!  I had heard so many marvelous things about the man, and to think that he actually did a miracle outside our city gates made me heartsick because I missed it!  What was he like?   Seeing him in the crowd would be my only possibility of seeing Jesus, but even that was a slim possibility for me.  I’m short, so standing at the back of a crowd would do me no good.  But going into the crowd is way too risky. A quick flash of steel, and I could fall, with no one to step out and aid me.

I’m not liked much in Jericho.  I’m a tax collector; “wretched collaborator with Rome,” or so the people say.  I never meant to be that.  I needed work, and one day a Roman official came to Jericho seeking a man for the job.  Of course, no one wanted to do it!  Collaborating with Gentile Romans caused instant defilement.  My mistake was making eye contact with the official.  Before I knew it, he had pointed me out and assigned me the job.  It didn’t seem as much a request as a demand, and before I could think about resisting, the townspeople made the decision for me.  They began spitting at me and cursing me until the Roman official had a soldier draw a sword to restore order.  The official looked at me and said I could charge as much over as I needed to cover my own expenses, and that I should consider adding a surcharge for every time I was spit and cursed at.  He shoved a bag with a ledger in it and walked off laughing.  After a few months it became clear to me I was the town pariah, as no one would dare step foot into my house since it too was defiled because of me. 

At first I did start charging more, out of spite.  But then, I got used to the extravagant way of living.  If I was going to be hated, I might as well be able to buy anything I could imagine.  But even Blind Bartimaus had it better than me socially, and that’s not a lot – but now look at him!  If what I just heard was true – he can see!  And he got to see and talk to Jesus!  Of course, a man like him deserves that.  He’s been oppressed his whole life.   I don’t deserve that kind of mercy from God  – not after what I’ve become; an oppressor to God’s people. 

I know I won’t be permitted to go to Rabbi Simon’s house.  He hasn’t spoken to me in over a decade.  I look back towards the crowd, and am surprised to see that the crowd has moved past Simon’s house, and is getting closer to where I stand.  That must mean that Jesus is not staying in Jericho, which means I may just have a chance to get a glance of him, if I move quickly!

I run as fast as I can to the Sycamore tree just outside of town.  It has wide branches for climbing, and the leaves are so large, I should be able to remain hidden once I have settled in.  This is the perfect spot for me to get an unhindered view of Jesus. 

I hold my breath as the crowd starts emerging from the backside of the city.  I’m straining to figure out which one is Jesus, and just as I think I’ve figured out which one he is, I hear a child yell, “Look Papa!  There’s a man in that tree! Look at that silly man!”

I sigh.  Middle Eastern men do not climb trees.  I’m not going to be able to go unnoticed after all.  People start straining to look my way, and I hear my name.  “It’s Zacchaeus, the filthy collaborator!”  That brings forth an anonymous onslaught of insults and curses.  I even feel a rock or two bounce off my legs.  I close my eyes and hold my breath, praying for mercy, that the crowd will move on and that Jesus won’t notice the small ruckus I have created. 

As I’m wishing that the earth would just open up and swallow me, I notice that a hush has fallen over the crowd.  For a moment I think they must have moved on, but when I open my eyes, I almost fall out of the tree.  Just below is Jesus, looking right at me! I see the smirks on everyone else’s face, and I brace myself for a strong condemnation from this man of God.

“Zacchaeus! You need to come down from that tree!  I must stay at your house today!” It was the first time in a long time that I had heard my name spoken with love and such delight.  He seemed excited!   Shock and joy burst in my heart and I practically fell out of the tree getting to the ground so that I could take him to my house. 

As we walked along, I could hear the crowd murmuring against Jesus.  He had taken the heat off of me.  It didn’t matter though.  I was taken in by his love.  I couldn’t stop staring at him in wonder.  He didn’t seem put off by the crowd’s disdain at all, and smiled and winked at me for reassurance.  I still couldn’t believe he had rejected the offer of staying at the Rabbi’s house (or Jericho at all), but changed his mind when he saw me!  He had to have heard the curses being thrown at me.  He knew who I am – an oppressor, and yet, he has seen me and has given me such a great mercy!   He is going to stay at my house, at risk of being defiled by me, and it doesn’t seem to bother him.  I am filled to the brim with his acceptance of me, and I burst. “Lord!  I will give away half of my income to the poor, and anyone I have cheated, I will restore four times worth of damages!” 

He smiles long at me, and addresses the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this home, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

In that moment, I knew I wasn’t lost to God anymore, no matter how anyone labeled me.  Salvation indeed had come to me, in the form of Jesus, and through his full acceptance of me.  And I was changed because of it.

The Healing

A few Sundays ago, the gospel reading in the lectionary told the story of 10 lepers being healed by Jesus.  The story goes that 10 lepers were far away from Jesus and cried out for him to have mercy on them.  He said to them, “Go show yourselves to the Priest” and as they went along their way, they were cleansed.  One, a Samaritan, seeing that he had been cleansed, ran back to Jesus and thanked him for healing him.  Jesus wondered at where the others were, but turned to the man and said, “Get up and go. Your faith has made you well.”

I have been chewing on this story for a couple of weeks now.  I have been wondering about the nine lepers who did not return to Jesus to thank him for their healing, and what reasons they may have had. And I’ve been pondering the man that did return to Jesus and the statement that Jesus made to him upon his return.

I imagine myself in the group of lepers, crying out to Jesus, “Jesus, have mercy on us!”  I hear him say clearly, “Go, show yourselves to the Priest.”  And I imagine on any given day I could have a myriad of responses.

Response 1: I look at Jesus as he turns towards someone that’s closer to him, that can touch him.  All he said was to go show myself to the priest.  What good is that going to do?  I thought he would come over here and touch me to heal me, or at least call me over.  I have heard that he has touched others.  Why wouldn’t he do that for me too? It’s not even worth going to the priest, because Jesus obviously isn’t going to heal me.  In my sulking, I don’t even notice that I’ve been healed.

Response 2: I look down and notice that my skin seems to be clear. I’m in disbelief!  How is this possible?   Jesus didn’t say I was healed though.  Maybe it’s just the way the sun is shining on my skin.  After all, wouldn’t he do something more than just tell us to go to the priest to check our skin?  I bet it’s only my arms and face that have cleared, but I probably am still leprous on my stomach.  Is that itchiness I feel?  I scratch my belly through my ragged cloaks and think about going home instead.  Don’t want to embarrass myself.

Response 3:  As soon as Jesus instructs us to go to the Priest, I realize, my skin has cleared!  Yes!  I’m definitely going to the Priest so that I can get clearance to go see my family and friends again. As I go on my way, I start worrying.  But what if it doesn’t stay healed?  What if it comes back after I go see the Priest?  Worse, what if it comes back before I can even get to the Priest?  I study my skin closely.  Is it itching again?  Is that a spot?  Should I even go to the Priest if the spots are just going to come right back?  I guess I will, but I worry all the way there, and can’t stop worrying that my healing isn’t permanent.

Response 4:   I look down and my skin is clear.  I have a slight moment of excitement but then shake my head and think, No, this is too good to be true. Jesus wouldn’t heal me.  I don’t deserve his favor. I’m sure he will find out what a lousy person I really am and withdraw his goodwill towards me. I’ve probably only been sent to the Priest to be reminded of my unworthiness. I slink back towards my lonely tent in shame.

Response 5:  As soon as Jesus tells us to go to the Priest, I look down and notice that I’ve been cleansed!  That’s great!  Well I mean, of course I would be healed.  I’ve always done the right thing.  It seemed totally unfair that I should get this wretched disease in the first place when I’m such a good person.   And of course God answered my prayer and that proves what a great person I am!  I skip towards the Temple to see the Priest thinking only of myself.

Response 6:  Jesus tells us to go see the Priest.  I look around. Everyone else is looking down at themselves in wonder.  It’s obvious they’ve been healed.  I’m afraid to look.  I just don’t believe that it could happen for me.  I’ve been this way for so long.  It was they that had cried out for mercy.  Not me.  I just can’t look and face another huge disappointment.

Response 7:  I hear the command, “Go show yourselves to the Priest.”  I look around.  There’s one guy that starts jumping for joy and starts running back towards Jesus. There’s a few others that start walking doubtfully towards the Temple grounds.  Some of the others look like they are just going back to our camp.  What should I do?  What’s the right thing to do?  Obviously some of my friends don’t actually think we’ve been healed, so maybe what I’m seeing isn’t real.  But then there are some that are going to the Priest – maybe I should too.   I’m definitely not following that Samaritan.  He couldn’t possibly have it right.  But I just really don’t know what to do.  I flounder between just going back home or following the others to the Priest. I just wish everyone was doing the same thing so that I could know what to do.

Response 8:  I am amazed! My skin is clear!  But I better go to the Priest and get it checked out for sure.  I mean, it looks to me like I’m clean, but what if I’m not?  I’ll just have to trust the Priest to let me know if this is certain healing or not.

Response 9:  I am astonished.  I look around as we all admire each other’s clear skin. Okay, so Jesus told us to go to the Priest.  That’s what I’m going to do.  Sheesh there are some people here who aren’t going to the Priest.  They won’t stay healed.  You have to follow the directions if you’re going to get and stay healed.  I chuckle and roll my eyes at the Samaritan who is running back in the direction of Jesus.  I feel sure that Jesus is going to rebuke him and tell him to go to the Priest like he said to in the first place.   Well, that’s what I’m going to do and my healing will be sure.

Response 10:  I swear Jesus looked right at me when he said, “Go show yourselves to the priest.”  He saw me, and I felt no shame being seen as a Samaritan or a Leper.  As soon as he said the words, I turned to do as he said, but then felt such a relief in my body that I had to look at and touch my skin.  It was smooth and clear!  Such joy burst from my heart, I could only praise God, and that I did at the top of my lungs.  I must thank this man that offered God’s healing to me.  I must go to him!!  How can I not? So, I turned and ran back towards him, lest I lose sight of him.  Out of breath, I threw myself at his feet, kissing them and thanking him for healing me.  I looked up at him and he asked me where the others were that had been healed.  I honestly didn’t know.  All my thoughts had gone to Jesus, and He was all I wanted to know.  He turned his face towards me and smiled.  I fell deeply into his gaze as he said, “Get up and go.  Your faith has made you well.”   And in that moment, taking in my deliverer, whatever suspended disbelief I may have carried melted away, and I believed him fully. 

The story tells us that when Jesus instructed the Lepers to go to the Priest, they all were cleansed.  Even when he spoke to the Samaritan at the end of the story, he says “Were not 10 healed? Where are the other 9?”   I believe that all the men were healed physically. Some may argue that perhaps they lost their healing because they didn’t come back and express gratitude, but it doesn’t say that.  And that goes against the stories Jesus had been telling of the compassionate and merciful masters, and the father who takes back a prodigal son. I believe they kept their physical healing, but missed out on experiencing the love God had for each of them.

This story reminds us that God’s mercy is bound only by our lack of belief.  The healing and love was there for all of them in abundance. But it took faith to accept and believe it – and that faith drove the Samaritan straight back to Jesus. This is no less true for us today then it was for all 10 of the lepers in that day. God’s love is unimaginably huge, and we all are welcomed into it, if we would only dare to look in His eyes and believe Him.

Silencing Demons

I had a rough weekend.  We are having a pretty challenging time with one of the kiddos.  I found myself at a point where I just felt done.  Done with experiencing all of the anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness and crazy that comes along with this particular situation.  And so I turned back to old coping mechanisms, dancing with my demons, aiming to dull the feelings and attain some semblance of control.

But then Saturday night, I was faced with the Gospel reading for Sunday, and found myself in the story.

Mark 1:21-28 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”   But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”   At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The Gospel story is interesting, because Jesus had not called the man to him, nor had anyone shoved him forward to be healed.   But he cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are…” bringing attention to himself, whether he wanted it or not.  He could have just left the synagogue, without speaking to Jesus, but there had to have been something about being in the presence and authority of Jesus that drew the man out.

I relate to the man with the unclean spirit. When I hold hands with my demons, God is always right there, waiting for me to engage with Him, so that He can heal me.  But it can be a struggle.  His presence draws me, and yet, my demons whisper to me, “Why would God want anything to do with you? If anything, he’s here to destroy you. I know who He is….too holy for you!”

And so, with my demons, I hear myself cry out in distrust, “Why are you here?  You’re going to destroy me! I know who You are, but I want to be in control!”

So I’ve engaged with Him, me and my demons, and as the demons continue yelling their lies, God says, “Silence!” and calls me to Himself, away from them.  And in their silence, my feelings rush in and I feel utterly out of control.  He is destroying me – my self-will and fear and shame and addiction and the untrue things I have been told and believed about myself.  He destroys my self-reliance and the control I try to maintain for dealing with the hard things in my life, and that feels like death to me.  But He’s freeing me. I can’t look at Him at first.  But He sweetly calls, “Jennifer, my dear one.”  And I can’t resist the way He says my name, so I look at Him through my tears.  And I find nothing but gentle compassion.

I know who He is – the one with authority over life and death, feelings, and my very breath.

I know who He is – the One who has called me His Beloved, silencing my demons once more.   So, I walk on in recovery and life, hand-in-hand with the One who loves me through it all.