Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Zacchaeus

zacchaeus-2016The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one, Jesus is coming to town and Zacchaeus wants to catch a glimpse, but he’s too short to see over the crowd and the people don’t move to let him in front, so he does the best he can: he climbs a tree to get above the crowd. We’re the same, when a dignitary comes to town everyone rushes down to watch the parade, if we don’t get a front-row seat then we do what we can to see. We put out kids on our shoulders; we shove our cellphones in the air to, hopefully, record the event; we try to get into a high rise and peek through a hall window. Anything to get a view of this remarkable person or event.

But, what about Zacchaeus’ status in the community? To be honest, this is going to be some conjecture using modern society when looking back, kind of the opposite of what I try to do here, but I think it bears scrutiny.

Luke’s gospel is the only place where Zacchaeus is introduced, and most churches spend little time on his tale. The Eastern church puts it at the very beginning of the pre-Lenten season, in fact, if the season is shortened because of the proximity to Christmas, the story is dropped entirely. Luke tells us three things about Zacchaeus, that he is a tax collector, that he is very wealthy, and that he is “short in stature”.

To be a tax collector (a Publican) in ancient Rome you had to be wealthy, very wealth. The reason is that the tax collector would buy the right to collect taxes for a particular region, the cost of this right is the estimated value of those taxes. If he collected more than the estimate that was his profit, if he collected less then it was his loss. Rome didn’t care because they go their money upfront, so the empire was assured of the money it wanted. To be sure, this was no the Jericho of OT times, that city had been nearly destroyed by the Persians, the new Jericho was built in the pre-Herodian era, under the rule of Alexander the Great, as a lush garden outside the royal estates. The people who lived there were neither wealthy nor influential, but they serviced the needs of those who lived and visited the estates. That made tax collection difficult, Rome expected much, but the people had little. To get the money Zacchaeus spent for his position he probably had to tax the wealthy of the city more than their fair share to make up for those who didn’t, or couldn’t, pay the tax. Add to that the Jewish people weren’t thrilled with the idea of paying Roman taxes at all, and Zacchaeus was both unpopular and ostracized from the Jewish community.

Now, let’s add to this the other thing that Luke tells us: “(RSV) he was small of stature”. According to archeological studied of 1st C skeletons in the region the average Jewish person was about 5′ 1″, to be so short that it would be worth noting in the story it is entirely possible he would be considered either a dwarf or a little person by today’s standards. This would make his life difficult, both physically and emotionally. Anyone who falls outside the “norms” are usually treated poorly by the “normal” people, especially in their youth (kids can be especially cruel).

To have grown up with some anger towards those who made his life miserable would not be unexpected, and to seek revenge in some way would be understandable. The best way for him to do this would have been through the taxation system by exaggerating the taxes a person owed. Did he do this? The people certainly thought so with their remark, “(RSV) He (Jesus) has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner (Zacchaeus).” Zacchaeus’ response can be seen two ways, a promised atonement of a wrong knowingly committed, or a claim that he never, intentionally, defrauded anyone and was, in fact, a good Jew, “(RSV) “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

Lent is a time for reflection, and the entire pre-Lenten season in the Eastern church is a time to prepare for that reflection by showing us the different ways in which we fall short of a perfect Christian life, along with how we should, ideally, respond in different situations. Zacchaeus, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, the Final Judgement, and Forgiveness, form the five weeks prior to the start of Great Lent. The purpose of Zacchaeus is to show us how we treat and judge other people, especially those who are different than us, whether in appearance or perceived behavior. Do we prejudge people we see/meet for the first time? Are we guilty of bullying (physically, emotionally, or, these days, on social media)? Do we dislike/hate others because of what we perceive them to be? Have we wronged anyone through our own prejudices? This is the time to make things right.

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Why are we here?

jesus-comforting-mary-of-bethanyThis is a question that has stumped scholars for thousands of years. I would like to offer an answer from an unexpected source, Read the rest of this entry »

Love Conquers All

Jesus asked that we love each other with the same love that he showed to us. Love demands two things: acceptance and forgiveness.

apologizingIf we are unwilling to accept that others may see/feel/believe different that we do then how can we truly love them? God accepts that we are different from each other, he made each of us as we were when we were born, and into the families into which we were born. He did not make us clones of each other, but made each of us different, and incomplete. With all due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, we were not made to be islands, but to need each other. Man needs woman, the hunter needs the gatherer, the warrior needs the diplomat, the liberal needs the conservative, and vice-versa. The Christian needs the Jew, the Muslim, and, yes, even the Hindu and Native American. It is only by seeing God in his Infinite Diversity that we can see God in everyone we encounter. And it is only by seeing God in others that we can accept each other fully.

forgiveness

Forgiveness is the other thing that love demands. We all make mistakes, it’s part of being human. Anyone who claims to not make mistakes has just made another. From Eve to Adam, down through the ages, man has made mistakes, but God has continued to love us. But you can’t forgive them unless you first love them, then accept that it is because of your differences that probably caused the disagreement in the first place. True forgiveness requires that we put the offense behind us, and not bring it up again. We cannot forget that it happened, but we can leave it in the past.

Acceptance and forgiveness aren’t easy, but for a Christian they are necessary. God forgave mankind for abandoning his will, then accepted that it was because of our free will that it happened. Jesus was the sign of that forgiveness, and our promised eternity with him is the sign of his acceptance.

Love, acceptance, and forgiveness. All are required of Christians, and all are the signs that we truly are followers of Christ.

John 13:35 (RSV) By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Will people know you are a Christian?

Love thy neighbor

love thy neighbor 3Do you have a Christian love for your neighbor? We all know the story of the Good Samaritan, and how to identify who your neighbor is: the one who treats you with love and compassion. But is that what it really means? Are we just to love those who love us back? Read the rest of this entry »

An Epiphany on Theophany?

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Epiphany

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Theophany

January 6, a holy day in West and East, but do we both celebrate the same thing? Not at all. It’s unusual for East and West to share a holy date, but to celebrate different events (especially when both churches celebrate the events) on that date tends to lead to confusion. So, what are Epiphany and Theophany, and how do they differ? Read the rest of this entry »

If you have no idea what this photo is, don’t ask, I feel old enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Birth of our Lord and Savior

nativity_icxc_005Today the world, like it or not, remembers the birth of Jesus some 2000 years ago. Remembers, though not necessarily celebrates. In rememberance of the Gift given to the world of God’s son we present gift to our loved ones. When I was young (and Moses was trying to tread water in the Nile) we gave gifts we felt expressed our feelings towards the other person. These days we give gifts that advertisers tell us we should give, and if we don’t give that Helzberg diamond then we really don’t love her. Read the rest of this entry »

Okay, not the 1987 Steve Martin move (not one of his best anyway). This post is about transportation in America. Most of the world thinks that Americans have a love of the automobile because of our independent spirit, not so. Americans love the automobile because, unlike most of the other civilized nations (and many others) American mass transit sucks the big one. Read the rest of this entry »

Afterlife – Our Link

Some Native American religions believe that as long as someone remembers you that your spirit will live on in the afterlife, and that (using ceremonies) contact with them is possible. It’s comforting for those, like Geronimo, whose names are written down in history and will be forever remembered, but for the average person? Even so, I find comfort in their concept of the afterlife where communication isn’t just possible, but also fairly easy.

stthomasxcJesus confirmed with his apostles that the spirit world exists, and that they continue their involvement with this world. Luke 24:36-39 “As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” It is because of this that we know those who have passed on can, on occasion, interact with those of us in the physical world. But the method isn’t so easy as the Native American way, and (so far as Scripture teaches) must be initiated from the other side, we cannot simple call upon them.

Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, acknowledges the ability to conjure spirits from beyond (necromancy) but explicitly forbids its practice. In the New Testament the ban is not explicitly stated, an understanding of 1st C. language is needed:

Galatians 5:19-20 (RSV) “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery…”

Revelation 21:8 (RSV) “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”

Sorcery covered a wide array of acts that were believed to originate in the spiritual world, such as: fortune telling, acts of magic, and the conjuring of spirits.

There are many attestations by noted people in church history (from St. Thomas’ exploits in India to the present day) that spirits can reach out to us, but it is always the spirit that initiates contact. From these contacts it is clear that they do hear us when we pray to them (pray used as “talking to” not to be confused with worshiping prayer) or for them, and that the remembrance is felt.

I remember, when I was a child, my grandmother appearing at the foot of my bed one night – something that startled me enough that I could not get back to sleep. I learned the next morning, from my mother, that she had passed during the night. This is something I have never shared before, something that is as real to me today as it was then. I can still picture her standing there and the words she always said to me still ringing in my ears. I have never experienced anything like that since, and I doubt that I ever will again.

The appearance of spirits is not to be confused with the apparitions known as ghosts. The spirits spoken of in church history appear for a reason and, when the task is completed, return to the heavens. Ghosts, on the other hand are always thought of as haunting a particular place, and stay on indefinately. The church has no proven examples of these types of spirits, and takes no position on their existance (neither does it prohibit belief).

Occasionally you come across a series of events that require such precise timing as to question if they could happen in a random universe. Such an event happened to me last week.

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I like to hike…a lot. I like to hike like Michael Jordan likes to play basketball. I do a hike of at least 6 miles every week, I’d do more but then I’d come home to find my clothes in the driveway. Last week I was on a 9 mile hike in one of my favorite areas – Ohiopyle, Pa. Ohiopyle has just about every summer outdoor activitiy there is – rafting, fishing, biking, hiking, camping, and probably a few things I can’t remember, but hiking is my main activitiy (okay, some rafting as well). On this particular hike a bunch of things came together in such a way as to enable me to help two other hikers, a timing that has to make you question if it could be anything other than a guided occurrence. Let me lay it out (this is only from my side of things, I have little idea what occurred on their end):

  • I left my house at 9:10, I wanted to leave at 8:30 but woke up late so my timing was off.
  • I wanted to update the music on my Jeep’s radio, so when I left I plugged in the USB drive and began the process of uploading over 1,800 songs (yes, this is part of it).
  • When I got off the turnpike in Donegal I decided not to follow my navigation system, so I turned left instead of right.
  • By turning left I came across a work zone and had to wait for my turn to drive through it.
  • My upload of the songs was taking longer than I thought, so I slowed down so that it would have more time to complete the upload (and I wouldn’t have to wait in the trailhead parking lot).
  • When I got to the lot the upload was still running (argh!) so I had to sit for 18 minutes for the upload to finish.
  • After the upload finished I loaded my daypack and my waterbottle, grabbed my hiking staff and headed off. I was trying out two new trail apps and had them running simultaneously on my cellphone. Because of this my hiking went slower than it normally would as I would periodically stop to check out both apps to see if they were faithfully tracking me.
  • I also stopped along the way to take pictures to see if they posted to the apps properly. Along with these were the normal stops for drinks and breaks to rest and enjoy the views.
  • At one point one of the apps was far off from where I should be, so I stopped for 5-8 minutes to check it out, see what was going on, and compare it to the other app. Since my phone battery was starting to run low (GPS apps use a lot of power) and the one app was already wrong, I turned that app off to save battery, then continued on.
  • At one point I had to make a decision on whether to follow a different trail further up the hill, or my original trail as it turned back down to Ohiopyle. I decided to go up the hill to Sugarloaf Knob.
  • When I reached the parking lot at Sugarloaf Knob I stopped for a quick lunch.
  • After lunch I decided to take the shortcut in front of the knob instead of the trail that goes around the knob, meeting up with the shortcut trail on the other side of the knob. I took the shortcut.
  • At the other side of the shortcut I started the trek down the hill into Ohiopyle (patience, we’re almost there).
  • Going down the hill you cross a service road, on the other side of the road the park had done some clearing of trees. It’s a normal process, but it made it hard to identify my trail from fake trails made by bikers. It took a few minutes to find the real trail and continue on my way.
  • After a half mile I came across a junction with another trail. I stopped to take a drink, at that point I heard the other hikers coming down the side trail. When they saw me they called out for some help, they were lost. They had talked with someone else when they first realized they were lost and he sent them down the trail that intersected with mine, with the instructions to turn left at the junction and follow the trail down to their car. He was wrong. Had they followed the advice they would have ended up on the trail I had just used to come down the hill, and would have been back up at Sugarloaf, or on one of the side trails that came off of that trail.
  • I told them to follow me and I would take them to the trail that would take them back to their car. They walked with me for about 2 miles when I sent them off on their trail, and I continued on mine to where I was parked.

Consider everything that had to come together, along walking speeds, to assure that the three of us would meet at just the right time and place. Even a minute later and I would have been out of their sight. A few minutes earlier and they would have turned left, they might have met up with me, or they might have ended up at the clearing and who knows where they would have gone from there, with all the fake trails (I say fake trails because they do not appear on any maps, with no idea where they lead).

Could all of this happen by sheer coincidence, or were we guided so that we would meet?

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