Does knowing Jesus transform our lives? The Bible reading assigned to this week is the story of Zacchaeus. Jericho was a very prosperous town where the Romans would have been able to levy a considerable amount of taxes. Zacchaeus was good at his job of tax collector and so had amassed a considerable sum of money for himself. Yet, he was not happy. He was reaching out for God. When he heard Jesus was coming by, he courageously made his way to see him. As a hated servant of Rome, he would have been punched and kicked while he was in the Jewish crowd and the crowd would have mocked him for not being tall enough to see. None of this deterred Zacchaeus who resolved to climb a fig-mulberry tree. But perhaps the most significant thing about this story is the change wrought in Zacchaeus after meeting his new best friend, Jesus. He decided to give half his goods to the poor (a 50% tithe) and to repay any he had wronged four times over. This was way over what was legally necessary and demonstrated that he had been genuinely transformed by the kindness of Jesus. How much more should we, who now know the depth of Jesus’ love for us, be equally transformed?
The Bible passage assigned for this week looks, once again, at prayer. It is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went into the Temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like others because he didn’t sin like other people, and, unlike many others, he fasted and gave a tenth of all his earnings to God. In contrast, the tax collector stood far-off with his eyes down, beat his chest and cried, “O God be merciful to me a sinner.” Which of these types of prayer did Jesus commend? The problem with the Pharisee was that he wasn’t really praying. He simply went to the Temple to tell God how good he was. Prayer requires at least three things. Firstly, humility. You cannot be proud when praying. Secondly, you cannot despise your fellow men and women when praying. Finally, prayer is not about us setting ourselves against others but rather setting ourselves on our knees before God. Although we may think that we are very righteous people, when set against the perfect standard in Jesus, we all fall short (Pharisees, tax collectors and everyone). For all these reasons, Jesus commended the prayer from the tax collector rather than the Pharisee.
What should our prayer life look like? Of course, there are many dimensions to this question, but the Bible urges us to pray big, to pray expectantly and to pray persistently. This week, the appointed reading is the story of the persistent widow. The widow came appealing for justice against someone who harmed her. Jewish judges, or magistrates, at the time were notorious for taking bribes. We are told that this particular magistrate was a godless man and we can infer that he too would be prone to bribes. In a patriarchal society this widow would have had no resources. She could not get justice by paying a bribe, but she did have one weapon and she used this one weapon relentlessly. She had the weapon of persistence. Eventually the magistrate gives in to her frequent visits and requests, and grants her justice. Clearly God is not a godless judge who is prone to bribes, but Jesus makes the point quite simply that if this corrupt magistrate gives the woman what she asks for, how much more will He, our loving Heavenly Father grant us our requests too. Pray big, pray expectantly AND pray persistently.
Do we lack gratitude? Do we care for our elderly parents in the way that they cared for us? Do we look after our friends in the way that they would look after us? Do we thank God for what he has done for us? The Gospel passage assigned to this week is fundamentally about gratitude. Jesus sees ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. The lepers were far off as was the required custom. In his great compassion Jesus heals them but only one returns to say thank you. 90% don’t return to show their gratitude. Currently about 90% of people don’t go to church in our country. Do we show gratitude as a nation? Do we show gratitude as individuals? The man who returns to Jesus is not a Jew; he is a Samaritan. Although Jews and Samaritans never mix, it is therefore quite clear that in their desperate illness, the 10 lepers, ignored this and stuck together. It would be hoped that humanity in its desperate need of God would, in turn, group together. There is one final twist to this story. When the Samaritan returns in gratitude to God, he is already healed but Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you well!” Beyond the physical healing there is something even more important and that is a relationship with Jesus which brings eternal life. This, above all else, warrants our gratitude.
Do we demand too much from God? Often our attitude to God is one of questioning his actions, or even his existence. God why is there suffering? God if you are there, why don’t you do this? The Gospel passage assigned for this week talks about faith and then the position of a slave working on a farm. In Jesus’ day, it was common to use the most vivid language. When Jesus says, if you had enough faith you could uproot a mulberry tree, he was emphasising that faith was the greatest force in the world. Next, Jesus goes on to say that a slave will not be served at the table by his master. Rather, the slave serves the master first and then helps himself to food and drink. Moreover, he is not thanked for simply doing his job. The juxtaposition of these two passages is significant. Yes, God can do anything for us and is willing to do so but this is not our right which we can demand. God is God and we are his beloved creatures who have sinned. Ask for the biggest things in your life but do not demand because no servant is greater than his master.