Do we make the truth plain to understand? The Bible passage appointed for this week is the story of the Sadducees’ question to Jesus about the resurrection. The Sadducees only believed in the first five books of the Bible and did not believe in any form of resurrection as, they felt, it wasn’t found in the teaching of Moses. Therefore, their question to Jesus about the resurrection wasn’t a real question. Rather, it was an attempt to trap Jesus and ridicule the concept of any theology of resurrection. Jesus’ reply is masterful. Firstly, he points out that they had completely misinterpreted what resurrection is and, secondly, he explains how Moses himself believed in resurrection by what he wrote in Exodus – one of the first five books of the Bible! What do we draw from this passage? Yes, it underlines the reality of the resurrection that the risen will be like angels who are different from mortal humans, but there is more. Jesus had the gift of answering questions in a plain and understandable way. This is why other religious onlookers commented, “Well said, Teacher!” For us, the challenge is to do the same.
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 welcome into the church, and into our lives, people who have a very different past from our own? In the appointed Gospel passage for this week Jesus says: “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents more than over ninety-nine just people who have no need of repentance!” In order to fully understand the significance of these words and the context in which Jesus said them, we need to know the common sayings of strict Jews in Jesus’ time. One of the pharisaic sayings was: “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God!” For Jesus it was not about destruction of the sinner but, rather, salvation of the sinner. Jesus backs this up with two very well-known stories. The first story is of a shepherd who risks his own safety to recover one lost sheep from the flock. The second story is of a woman who loses one of ten silver pieces and then hunts for it until she finds it and her set is once again complete. In both these cases there is exuberant joy. In the case of the sheep, these would often belong to a village. To lose one sheep was to reduce the assets and productive capacity of the village community. Frequently the villagers would wait with anticipation late into the night until the shepherd returned with the lost sheep carried on his shoulders. What infectious joy would then spread through the whole of the village. This, said Jesus, is what God is like. God is passionate about as many of us as possible coming back to Him if we ever stray away. These people, often with a different past from our own, need to be made fully welcome in the church and, indeed, we should rejoice enthusiastically over their return.
Why is humility important? The Gospel passage this week underlines the importance of humility in the Christian life. Jesus builds on Jewish thought, expressed for example in Proverbs, that an individual should start at a feast by sitting at the foot of the table. If you arrive at a feast and start by sitting at the head of the table, you risk being demoted when someone considered more eminent than you arrives later. Of course, the model for humility was Jesus Himself. Jesus, who was God, humbled Himself by becoming human and then humbled Himself further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross. This is matchless humility. What about us? We may think that we are knowledgeable when we are young but as we become older, we realise there is so much more that we don’t know. We may think that we have achieved a lot in our lives until we realise that there is so much to life that we have not achieved. This is fine. God loves us as we are, but the key is to remain humble. Once again by focusing on Jesus. If we view our lives in comparison with the radiance of his stainless purity, our pride will automatically die, and our self-satisfaction will be shrivelled up. Then we can start to live the Christian life of pure grace.