Friday, October 29, 2010

Running Ahead to Rise Above

He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. (Luke 19.3-4)

Climber of a Different Sort

All we know of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who scampers up a tree, is squeezed into 10 verses from Luke 19. We don’t know why his story doesn’t appear in other gospels. Perhaps the writers deem it non-essential—one of so many life-changing encounters with Christ that occur on His travels—or they’re squeamish about reporting it because it’s politically loaded. That Matthew, a former tax collector, omits it leans toward the latter explanation. Today, this little tale of a little man endears us. Children especially love Zacchaeus; they relate to his vertical challenges. And if we first hear of him when we're little, lifelong fondness for him makes us reticent to plow under the storybook sheen to dig out ugly bits Luke plants to justify its inclusion. What we have to work at uncovering in the tale ancient readers automatically grasp. The situation is highly charged for them, making Zacchaeus’s stature a minor detail explaining why he’s up a tree. Whether he’s four-six or six-four, they see him as a climber of a different sort—a politically wired, morally bankrupt, social deviant with no right even attempting to mix among faith seekers. He’s a huge problem his community can’t eliminate, as he typifies one of many irreligious, insensitive policies Rome shoves down its conquests’ throats.

Little Big Man

Luke’s deft peeling of layered information results in a masterwork of suspense. He intentionally plays on his readers’ prejudices so they’ll blindly follow him down a path that ends in two startling twists sure to test their perceptions of Jesus and Zacchaeus. He starts with the scriptural equivalent of “It was a sunny day in Spain:” “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.” (v1) All is calm and quiet. No Pharisees and lawyers confront Christ at the gates. No demoniacs or lepers rush Him. He has no agenda. Jesus is just passing through. We assume there’s a crowd, since one always forms wherever Jesus goes. But letting us infer this suggests it’s unremarkable. Then verse 2 indicates trouble afoot when Luke spots Zacchaeus, a wealthy chief tax collector. What’s so unusual about that? Jesus often draws tax collectors, social outcasts, and religious pariahs. He even hangs out with them. “Chief” is the tip-off. Zacchaeus isn’t your garden-variety traitor breaking his countrymen’s backs with Roman taxes while lining his pockets with overcharges. He’s the boss, a political appointee. And since Jericho’s a big town, height notwithstanding, he’s a big man who brings home a big paycheck. One doesn’t land a lucrative job like his without serious connections and cunning—which Luke confirms straightaway.

What brings the little big man out of his corner office? “He wanted to see who Jesus was.” (v3) Christ’s reputation precedes Him as a Friend to all and Zacchaeus is very interested in this rabbi who bucks popular opinion. He doesn’t need anything from Jesus. He wants to gauge Christ’s usefulness to him. Now is when Luke discloses Zacchaeus’s diminutive size. It’s a perverse joke—the pipsqueak publican sizing up the supreme Savior—and Luke pays it off after reinforcing his readers’ disdain for the tax man’s shameless cunning: “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Him.” (v4) Zacchaeus runs ahead to get ahead. He climbs the tree because he’s a climber. He’s unconcerned how he’s seen as long as he can see.

Zacchaeus discovers Jesus sees him unlike everyone else. Before he can explore whether or not knowing the famous Preacher is useful to him, Jesus calls him by name and orders him out of the tree for His benefit. “I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says. (v5) The joke's on Zacchaeus. The climber comes down. The political beast heels. And the berated pariah watches in awe as his surprise Houseguest brushes off criticism to socialize with an undesirable. Every prejudice against Zacchaeus is debunked. The short man reduces his tall fortune by half, with the balance going to the poor. And on the chance he’s cheated anyone—which is unlikely, given his position and pay—he promises to quadruple repayment. The story ends with a truly uplifting coda. Jesus restores Zacchaeus’s status as a valuable member of society and reveals why finding the little big man in the tree caused Him to stop: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (v9-10)

Our Best Option

It’s a neat little story for kids because their lesson is easy: you’re never too small. But when we read it as adults, the neatness goes away and it’s not at all easy. Luke constructs it to require two readings. On the first go-round, he lures us into the popular mindset to view Zacchaeus as he’s seen. Then, after showing how Jesus sees Zacchaeus—that is, as he truly is—we reread the story and realize how quickly we misjudged him. What looked like cunning is resourcefulness. What appeared to be calculated ambition is intuitive courage. Zacchaeus could have leveraged his status to reach the front of the crowd; a big reason why they hate him is for holding that kind of power. Being part of the crowd, however, isn’t useful to him. He just wants to see Jesus. So he runs ahead of the rest to rise above them. It looks silly to others. But their opinions are irrelevant. His needs are what matter. His honesty—if you will, his shamelessness—recommends him.

Those of us misjudged as problems in our communities can learn from Zacchaeus. Being part of the crowd isn’t the objective. Seeing Jesus and being seen by Him are the goals. Running ahead to rise above those who disdain us is our best option. We advance our knowledge of Christ through His Word, not leveraging influence to access Him. We don’t wait for the crowd to part. By the time they come to understand Christ is a Friend to all, we’re there. Prayer is our tree. It lifts us to see the Living Word and positions us to answer His call. He knows us by name. He needs us. When we lower ourselves to honor His desire to reside with us, He makes the truth of who we are evident. We are valuable to society. We are vital to Him. Jesus came to seek and save us. Running ahead of the crowd to rise above it is how we're found and redeemed.

Running ahead to discover Jesus through His Word and lifting ourselves in prayer may look silly to those who disdain us. But that’s how we're found and redeemed.

Postscript: Sunday School Nostalgia

In a previous Zacchaeus post, Out on a Limb, I mentioned a Sunday school ditty many of us learned to seal his story in memory. One comment and a couple emails remarked on it as well and I imagine some of us reading today’s post felt a twinge of Sunday school nostalgia. So, here’s the song, delightfully rendered by Reuel.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Run Out and Run Down

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. (1 Kings 19.3-4)

The Yahweh Alone Movement

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong, is a must-read for any believer eager to understand the roots of our faith. Ms. Armstrong, a former nun, now theological historian par excellence, tracks the near-simultaneous evolution of Western and Eastern creeds during the Axial Age (900-200 BCE), when the advent of horsepower, farming, and centralized government gave rise to communal beliefs meant to counteract violence and injustice. Overall, her book is stunning in how it parallels the ways ancient religions independently arrived at irrefutably similar conclusions. Christians, of course, find its chronicle of Judaism’s early years especially intriguing—often breathtaking, as Ms. Armstrong documents many lost details that were well known to the Old Testament’s first readers. With these facts restored, it’s fairly obvious why they’ve gone missing. They’re terribly inconvenient to anyone seeking a clean-cut, eternally established theological through-line. Judaism, like the people to whom it was given, took a while to get its bearings. Reintroducing that side of the story mucks the whole thing up.

Chapter one delivers the first wallop by verifying the Jews weren't inherently monotheistic. At first, like their neighbors, they revere and pray to numerous gods, many borrowed from other cultures. The major departure lay in Israel’s belief in a God (Yahweh) above and apart from other gods that vacates any need for intricate myths about multiple deities. Thus, when God declares, “You shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20.3) Israel hears something unlike what we hear today. The First Commandment acknowledges other gods by setting the celestial house in order. Then, to maintain order, the Second bans depiction of other gods to prevent idolatrous cults from challenging God’s supremacy. The “Yahweh Alone Movement”—as scholars refer to the reformation that discarded all but one God, and worshiped Him as All-in-All—doesn’t emerge until 700 years after Moses. It peaks at a crucial time, when devotion splits between Yahweh and Baal, a lesser deity preferred by Israel’s foreign-born queen, Jezebel. To the average Hebrew, Baal’s ascent isn’t a big deal; the god has been a fixture in Jewish life longer than anyone can recall. Elijah, a prophet on the cusp of the Movement, won’t tolerate the tilt to Baal, however. And he’s not a guy who moans privately to friends about what has to change. He’s a first-rate crusader who makes a lot of racket and causes a lot of trouble—not only for Jezebel and her allies, but also for him.

Quit Running and Hiding

Jezebel’s got her eye on Elijah. Yet his office as God’s anointed messenger vests him with divine say-so that trumps her husband, Ahab’s, royal clout. It vexes her that she can't do anything about this One-True-God zealot who won’t get with her program. Then, when draught hits the nation and her pro-Baal following starts to slip, Elijah proves his God’s superiority in an over-the-top demonstration that gets out of hand. He incites a nationwide manhunt for Baal’s prophets and slaughters them. Although God honors Elijah’s faithfulness and pours rain down on Israel, the prophet knows this time he’s gone too far. The gruesome genocide garners him no support and hands Jezebel cause for his execution. (If their rivalry played out today, we could hear Jezebel’s ads: “Elijah insists we obey the First Commandment his way by abandoning Baal for Yahweh. But what about the Sixth Commandment: ‘You shall not murder?’ That one doesn’t matter to him. Is this the kind of prophet we need?”)

Elijah behaves like most publically disgraced figures. He disappears. He’s run out of answers and run down from the struggle. The rush of triumph is long gone. He lost the surge of support he should have won by exposing his intolerance and pride. The race is over, the Movement finished. There’ll be no change. Jezebel’s people will eventually find him and that will be that. He heads into the desert and sits under a broom tree—an oversized bush that offers protection from sun but no fruit or moisture to sustain him. Elijah confesses, “I’ve had enough, Lord,” adding, “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19.4) Or, “I’ve been this loud-mouthed leader of a Movement that says You control everything. Yet I've acted like I’m so threatened by other gods I have to kill anyone who serves them. At heart, I’m just another old-school polytheist.” He goes to sleep. Twice, an angel visits Elijah under the tree with food and water. The second time, the angel tells him, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” (v7) Elijah starts a 40-day trek that ends in a cave—still on the run, still hiding out. But God finds him again, instructing him to quit running and hiding. “You’ve got a lot more work to do,” He says to Elijah, “new prophets to groom and a Movement to lead. You’re not alone. You’re not defeated. Right now, there are 7,000 in Israel who’ve not bowed their knees to Baal.” (v15-18)

Under the Broom Tree

If we’ve not yet been to the broom tree, we’ll get there sooner or later. At some point, personal convictions and confidence in God will compel us to cry out for change. We’ll see situations tilt away from what He desires. We’ll feel attitudes resist the move of His Spirit. We’ll observe people we love and live with embrace traditions and myths that steal their devotion to Him. We’ll act, and God will honor our faithfulness. But in the moment of triumph, we must be very mindful not to let zeal and pride run away with us. God controls everything. He doesn’t need us to rout His enemies. They’re no threat to Him. All He asks is we prove Who He is. He’ll handle the rest. And if, like Elijah, we stumble over our confidence and land under the broom tree, we take heart. Our loss becomes our lesson. God’s grace will provide what we need. We’re not alone. We’re not defeated. Change we seek will happen. Just when we say, “I’ve had enough, Lord. I’m no better than anybody else,” He says, “Not so. Quit running and hiding. Get up. You’ve got a lot more to do because there’s a lot more to come.”

In our zeal for change, we take care not to stumble over our confidence and land under the broom tree. But if we do—and we all do at some time or another—God’s grace provides what we need to get up and keep going.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Left Hanging

Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s head got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going. (2 Samuel 18.9)

A Regrettable Mistake

Nowhere in Scripture is a father’s grief more heartbreaking than when David wails, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18.33) Word that his third son has been killed in a freak accident crushes Israel’s greatest king and warrior on such a profound level he never fully recovers from the loss. In the tragedy’s immediate context, David’s gut-wrenching sorrow comes as something of a surprise. The son he mourns is his arch-nemesis. At the time of his death, Absalom is leading a full-scale revolt against his father in his ultimate ploy to usurp the throne. This isn’t a political coup. It’s an extremely personal vendetta and Absalom’s sole objective in mounting an insurgency is assassinating his father. Were Absalom not David's son, news of his demise would be cause for rejoicing. But hearing his child died before they could reconcile their differences—and in such an undignified manner, getting himself tangled in the branches of an oak tree—is, for David, a fate worse than death.

David’s charisma on the battlefield and throne don’t surface at home. He’s a terrible father. Although he’ll correct this with his youngest son, Solomon, rampant neglect of his older children deals him disastrous results. His eldest son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister, Tamar. When David learns of it, he’s furious. But he does nothing to avenge Tamar and his irresponsibility provokes Absalom, her full brother, to take action. He kills Amnon. Absalom sees David’s grief as a sign the king cares nothing about Tamar and him. Fearing for his life, he flees the country, putting himself out of reach. It’s a regrettable mistake that results in a regrettable life. Once David recovers from his loss, 2 Samuel 13.39 tells us, “The spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom, for he was consoled concerning Amnon’s death.”

An Extraordinarily Charismatic Guy

Five years separate Amnon’s murder and Absalom’s reunion with David, with the son’s hatred for his father festering by the day. By the time he returns, Absalom is eaten up with venom and paranoia. His raison d’être focuses exclusively on David’s downfall. He never realizes he craves revenge for a crime David doesn’t commit. It’s he, Absalom, who severs their ties and wedges distance between them. He projects his own weaknesses on his father and judges him guilty before the fact, giving David no benefit of the doubt or chance to offer love and forgiveness to his son. Staying out of reach and remaining aloof after his return denies Absalom any glimpse into David’s change of heart. He’s stuck in the past, which deceives his sight at present, and feeds delusions about the future.

Absalom has no problem rallying allies, as he’s an extraordinarily charismatic guy, a master politician with incredibly good looks. We read in 2 Samuel 14.25: “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him.” Long, thick hair is his defining feature; when it grows too heavy, he cuts it and the sheared weight totals five pounds. People support him to be seen with him. They’re the biblical equivalent of groupies, hangers-on eager to experience what sociologists call “the halo effect.” While he knows this, hatred goads Absalom to trade on their vanity. He tries to resolve his internal conflicts by waging actual war. Other than he, no one on either side has any gripes to settle. This is Absalom’s battle. One gasps to imagine the carnage and heartache that would have come of his engaging hundreds of troops to play it out. In one of the Bible’s most just reversals, however, Absalom’s crowning asset becomes a deadly liability. As he advances toward David’s troops, his hair twists around an oak’s branches. His mule rides out from under him and he’s left hanging. One of David’s captains finds him and finishes him off with three javelins. When the king hears of Absalom’s end, he’s overwrought—as any parent would be—by a sense of failure. What more could he have done to save his son?

A Tragedy We Can Avoid

When we look at Absalom, we ask a related question: how could someone so rightly outraged by abuse and neglect go so horribly wrong? Since he’s infamous for his bizarre death, it’s nigh unto impossible to view him sympathetically. Yet, for a moment, let’s forget how the tale ends and step into his place. (Otherwise, the story has no point.) Imagine David is our father—the most revered, best loved man in the land, God’s handpicked, anointed surrogate, and the greatest sacred poet of all time. Now let’s see him at home, when the crown comes off and the crowds go away. He’s an inveterate womanizer with kids by several wives, none of whom he pays much attention to. He only seems to care about our oldest half-brother, the heir, and when the scoundrel rapes our sister, all Dad does is get mad. He doesn’t punish him, nor does he show any concern for our sister. Basically, he ignores the problem to make it go away. Would we hate him? Absolutely. Could we resist the urge to retaliate? Absolutely not.

Absalom goes wrong where so many with deep-seated resentments go wrong. He removes himself, refuses to forgive, and rules out hope things will change. How often do we this? How often are we so obsessed with our side of the story we forget it’s not the whole story? We forget it doesn’t end when we decide we’re through. Other players continue to wrestle with it, for better or worse, while we’re stuck in the past, blind to the present, and deluded about the future. Instead of seeking peace, we fuel conflict, trading on our gifts to persuade people to rally to our cause. In growing bolder and more self-righteousness, we also grow more venomous and paranoid. We marshal troops and hoist flags, anticipating a decisive showdown when we’ll finally be vindicated. But confrontations seldom play out in life like in theory. As a rule, they deepen rifts and wound many innocents dragged into the fray. The very talents we employ to mount our campaigns serve our undoing. Our greatest pride gets tangled up in God’s mercy for those we’ll harm. The confidence we ride on vanishes beneath us. We’re left hanging, vulnerable for our enemies to finish off. Had Absalom let go his hatred and sought grace for healing, his relationship with David would have been restored and he likely would have reached the throne he tried to seize. His is a tragedy we can avoid.

Absalom teaches when we allow resentments—even those we can justify—to overtake our lives, gifts we use to fuel conflict may very well destroy us. (Albert Weisgerber: Absalom.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Great Trees

So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD. (Genesis 13.18)

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1.3)

An Unorthodox Gesture

The patriarch we know as Abraham spends his first 99 years as “Abram,” which translates as “exalted father.” It’s an honorific suggesting the paternal instincts that drew God to him are native to his character. Abram can be counted on to care for his family and sacrifice for their benefit. He’s an even-tempered man—a gentle, good man—living in a primitive age of uncertainty and flux. He belongs to a nomadic people that doesn’t own property or build houses. Their community consists of extended family whose members share one campsite, combining their property for mutual security and benefit. When joint holdings exceed their capacity to manage, they divide their property, with one faction remaining while the other moves on. This occurs when Abram obeys God’s call to leave his father’s camp for a new land: “He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” (Genesis 12.5)

The journey doesn’t go well at first. Not long after they arrive in Canaan, famine strikes. Abram decides they should go to Egypt. Before crossing the border, he tells Sarai (later, "Sarah"), “You’re so beautiful. If the Egyptians know we’re married, they’ll kill me to have you. If we say we’re brother and sister, they’ll treat me well.” As predicted, Sarai gains Pharaoh’s notice. He brings her to his palace and showers gifts on Abram. Still, the arrangement surely grieves the couple. God intervenes by sending sickness to Pharaoh’s house. When he figures out the cause of his trouble, he sends Abram, Sarai, and their household (including the wealth they acquired in Egypt) away. They continue to prosper until fights break out between Abram and Lot’s herdsmen. After they decide to separate, Abram breaks with custom. It’s not in him to allow Lot to leave while he stays put. In an unorthodox gesture of care and respect for his nephew, he also leaves. Lot moves to the plain of Jordan, near Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s choice is rather odd, yet very telling. He moves his family and flocks to Hebron, near the Mamre forest famous for its great trees.

Seeking Stability

Why would a wealthy nomad homestead at the edge of a forest and not an open plain? Pasture is limited. Odds increase that livestock may get lost in the woods or killed by predators that proliferate there. Thieves may use the forest as a covert place to launch a heist of Abram’s herds. Trees abutting his campsite significantly encroach on available farmland and endanger his crops by housing birds and pests that destroy them. Lot appears to make the wiser decision, choosing a site where future prosperity is all but assured. Again, we ask: why would Abram move somewhere that very well may compromise his wealth and security?

The only imaginable reason for Abram’s decision suggests he’s not concerned with possessions and safety. The vast majority of his property came by way of divine providence. The same holds for security. By all rights, his deception of Pharaoh should have ended with him and Sarai stripped of everything and killed. Abram left Egypt with more than his life and goods. He came away knowing God’s faithfulness and protection. He moves near the Mamre forest because he’s seeking stability. He needs to be surrounded by rootedness and strength. He’s surviving on God’s pledge he will father a great nation. Yet, as of now, nothing indicates the promise will materialize. He and Sarai can’t start a family. His surrogate son is gone. The land where his promised heirs will one day dwell belongs to another people. He’s outnumbered and outdone and all his moving around has got him nowhere. Abram looks to the great trees of Mamre because deep inside him he realizes if he’s to succeed in the role he’s been given, he has to be a great tree himself.

Trees in the Process

It’s very idealistic, the notion of becoming a great tree. But what does that look like in pragmatic terms? Psalm 1 beautifully lays them out. It starts by teaching us where great trees don’t grow. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers,” verse 1 reads. To become a great tree, one must be removed from harmful influences and mindsets, unhealthy environments, and cynical attitudes. They invite darkness that stifles growth and twists development. Next, the psalmist tells how great trees grow: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night.” (v2) The stability and strength we seek come from light and nourishment found in God’s Word. It grounds and nurtures us in inexplicable ways that transform our seedlings of faith into great trees of confidence. “He is a like tree,” verse 3 says, “planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”

We are trees in the process of becoming great trees. And we must become great trees because God has given us great tasks. Stability and strength are not nice-to-haves for people of faith; they’re have-to-haves. But too often we get confused about how the process works. We don’t generate stability or strength. They come with growth over time. All we have to do is remove ourselves from unhealthy climates and self-destructive atmospheres so we can remain planted in bright places that encourage growth. And we must be patient, resisting every urge to be anxious about our prosperity and security. In due season, our fruit will blossom. Over time, dangers we presently fear will dissipate. Our leaves will not wither. Whatever we do will prosper.

Sometimes we joke about feeling forced to compromise, saying, “I’m a tree. I can bend.” But we’re not called to be trees. We’re chosen to be great trees. And great trees stand tall and firm so other great trees-to-be can look to them for inspiration and example. In our modern age of uncertainty and flux, there are Abrams all around us, moving closer to us to learn how they can become great trees. Let’s stand apart, stable, and strong for them.

We are trees in the process of becoming great trees because God has given us great tasks.