Americans are individualists. One way this has worked itself out is by keeping religion a private affair. This generally means: you believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want. But, there’s one big problem… the Bible goes out of its way to show that religion is much more than a private affair of what you believe. It’s a way of life that permeates everything we do. (Reflections on Zacchaeus Sunday.)
American individualism permeates more than our belief system. It also affects how we understand possession. We have that “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. And, once we’ve earned something, it’s ours. Hands off – and that includes you, IRS.
This combination of “religion-as-personal-belief” and “self-made-wealth” makes it hard for preachers to preach the gospel truth in an American setting. I take that back. It doesn’t make it hard, it makes it uncomfortable.
Perhaps there’s no better passage where these two things come together, and when preachers wonder whether they should preach on the epistle lesson instead, than the passage of a “certain young ruler.”
Told in Luke (chapter 18, verses 18-30), it’s the story of a ruler, who we are told, is extremely wealthy. He’s our kind of guy. In fact, he would make a very good American. Not only is he well-to-do, but he’s also a man of honor, following all the commandments to the last detail.
We also know he’s inquisitive, which implies smarts. However, he must have never heard of one particular American saying: curiosity killed the cat.
His question was a simple one,
“Good teacher, by doing what may I inherit life in the Age?”
We have to be careful, though, as to how we understand this. If we understand this as, “how am to be saved?” then we’ve misheard the question. Jesus wasn’t preaching an individual “me and Jesus” sort of faith. He wasn’t preaching a “believe-this-creed-in-your-head-and-you’ll-be-fine” gospel. Instead, he was preaching about the coming of the Kingdom, here and now – a kingdom at hand. He was preaching a “God’s will on earth as in heaven” message. The young ruler’s question, properly heard, is: how am I to be a part of this Kingdom movement? The one you’re inaugurating now?
This requires action. It would seem this young ruler thought his question was rhetorical. “Look at me, I’ve already got it right!” After all, he not only knows the commandments but actually follows them. Imagine that! What he wasn’t prepared for was his way of life to be challenged in a new sort of way.
It’s here that we all become uncomfortable.
Jesus responds, “One thing is still lacking in you; sell everything, whatever you have, and distribute it to the destitute, and you will have a treasury in the heavens, and follow me.”
Luke tells us that this young ruler “became very morose, for he was extremely rich.”
The whole episode ends on a downer.
Jesus said, “How hard for those possessing wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, for it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”
Peter responds that he’s given up everything, but Peter was probably just a poor fisherman. It’s easy to give up nothing.
It seems there is no answer… until Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a despised tax-collector. The worst of the worst. He was a Judean who had sold out his follow Judeans to collect their money and give it to the enemy: Caesar. And, this despicable man had gotten rich doing it. In other words, he was being rewarded for being a traitor.
But Jesus has a strange effect on people, Zacchaeus included. In order to see “who this Jesus was,” he climbs that famous sycamore tree, just to get a glimpse. A move that doesn’t go unnoticed by Jesus. He calls Zacchaeus out, calling him to come down from that tree. And, in boisterous fashion, he invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house.
Zacchaeus, in turn, does what our young ruler should have done.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half my possessions to the destitute, and if I have taken anything from anyone by falsehood I restore it fourfold.”
When this passage is read aloud and preached on, rooms usually go silent at this point. No eye contact is made. We’re uncomfortable with such radical behavior.
Perhaps we justify it by saying, well, he wasn’t such a good guy to begin with; he needed to change. Yet, the young ruler was an upstanding person and had the same challenge.
In a twist of irony, the man who knew – and followed – all the commandments couldn’t truly follow Christ, the Anointed King. Instead, it was a despised Judean traitor who was more faithful to Jesus.
There’s that uncomfortableness again. Why couldn’t Jesus have left religion alone? Why couldn’t he have left it to be simple belief? Why make religion a way of life? Why should religion touch our wallets?
Well, for one, the rewards are immense! Zacchaeus became a citizen of this new Kingdom of Heaven.
And 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 and to save what has been lost.”
Zacchaeus’s world was rocked. He, unlike the young ruler, is now a member of God’s family, a true Israelite. Whereas he was once called a “sinner” – a term usually reserved for Gentiles – now, he’s a “son of Abraham.” He has become an adopted son of God. Can you image? Not just a person whom God created, but God’s son: someone able to inherit the treasures’ belonging to God himself! Surely, an inheritance from God is worth possessing and pales in comparison to any other treasure we could obtain on this earth.
It may seem like the price that Zacchaeus paid was high; too high, in fact, for the young ruler. But, for Zacchaeus, the payoff was worth it. His life was transfigured and he became divine… he had found theosis.
In Zacchaeus’s case, having religion as a way of life was much better than a simple private belief system.
This may not sound like the American Christianity we’re used to, but then again, true Christianity was originally called, “The Way.”
P.S. Be a Radical Member of God’s Kingdom
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