A Surprising Family of Faith: the Blind Man and Zacchaeus
Luke 18:35 – 19:30
August 18, 2019
Rejection hurts, doesn’t it? I think rejection is one of the feelings every one of us in this room can relate to in some form or fashion. I remember when I was a junior in high school, I had a huge crush on this girl in my class. We were good friends at the time and it was nearing the end of the year, so I figured “what better way to move our friendship to the next stage than to ask her to prom?” So I decided to bake a cake all on my own – that’s a huge accomplishment for me – and on the top wrote in frosting: “Prom?” So one day after class I gave it to her and it went over great. She was so surprised and said yes! Unfortunately that’s not the end of the story, as I’m sure you could already guess, given that I’m preaching on rejection.
About a day or so later, she texts me saying: “hey, can we talk?” And you all know what that means…so we talk and she let me down real nicely. She said it wasn’t that she didn’t want to go to prom with me, it’s that she didn’t think she wanted to go to prom at all. I could live with that, no hurt feelings right…I mean it had nothing to do with me! Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the story either. Fast forward a couple weeks and I come to find out that she had just started dating someone – ouch that hurt. But not only was she dating someone, she was dating my best friend. Yeah that one really hurt. And for the icing on the cake, they went to prom together.
We can all relate to this experience of rejection in some form or another whether it’s from heartbreak, or maybe its rejection from a job, rejection from school, the rejection that comes with getting picked last at kickball in 2nd grade; most of us have experienced the sour taste left in our mouths when our dollar bill is rejected from the vending machine. The feeling of rejection is not foreign to us.
While stories like the one I shared can make us laugh in retrospect, there is also a very real pain that we experience when we feel rejected.
The external rejections that we receive can sometimes begin to create an internal narrative in which we begin to really believe that we deserve to be rejected by others; we are not worthy of their time, their attention, their services.
And sometimes we even construct for ourselves a narrative in which we think we deserve to be rejected by God – we wonder whether God really loves us the way we are. We are afraid that God doesn’t approve of us, because if God truly knew the way we live, all of the things we’ve done in our past – things to hurt others and ourselves – if God really knew all of our thoughts, all of the hurtful things we think about others, there’s no way God would accept us. We feel like the child whom God is constantly disappointed with. We tell ourselves that we deserve rejection and we wonder if we are unworthy of God’s love.
Today we’re looking at two stories intentionally placed side by side in Luke’s gospel. They are the stories of two men who thought they deserved to be rejected by society or by God. Rejection was an all-too-familiar feeling for them. And as they encounter Jesus they fear the same rejection from him.
The first character Luke introduces us to is a blind man. We aren’t given a name and we are told nothing else to identify him by except for his blindness. Luke is signaling to us right off the bat that this man’s circumstance was determined by his blindness. He was known by others based on his disability. That’s what he was to them: a blind beggar. Oh, and in ancient times we could assume one more thing about him: he was a sinner. We know from other stories in the New Testament and other writings of the time that it was assumed there was a direct causal link between sin and suffering. If you were suffering, it was assumed you had done something to deserve it. In John 9, Jesus encounters a different blind man, and the crowd inquires as to whether the man is blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned? Jesus says neither.
Imagine with me this scene: on the road to Jericho, this blind man sits day after day begging for the generosity of others, and all the while, those who pass him by ignore him because he has a body that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and they dismiss him because they know he is a sinner and he probably deserves his suffering. We can imagine that well-intentioned people would stop long enough to try to offer some consolation or encouragement. I’m sure he was told on countless occasions: if you just pray harder then God will heal you. You must just not be praying hard enough! There are others who would tell him that his blindness was all part of God’s plan. It was obviously his burden to bear so that God could teach him something or correct some sin.
Maybe the people were right? Maybe God really did cause him to suffer from blindness as part of God’s master plan so that through suffering he might learn some endurance. That didn’t quite sound like the God he had heard about in the synagogues. But after years of suffering, maybe he really did deserve his blindness. Maybe he did deserve to be ignored, dismissed and rejected by almost everyone who passed him on the streets. Maybe he really wasn’t worth their time and maybe he wasn’t righteous or pious enough to deserve the attention of God.
The blind man sat on the road to Jericho day after day with these thoughts running painfully through his mind. Until one day, there was a particularly large crowd coming down the road. He could hear the size of the crowd by their footsteps and he knew that this must be someone important they were escorting. The more important the person, the larger the crowd.
The blind man tried to get the attention of someone around him to find out who this important dignitary was. Nobody seems to notice or hear him, but eventually someone says, “It’s Jesus of Nazareth!” Now, the blind man had heard rumors of this man, Jesus of Nazareth. Some thought that he was a prophet sent by God, others thought that he was Elijah back from the dead. Still others whispered that he was the Messiah, God’s anointed one from the line of David, come to rescue Israel. The blind man knows this is his chance. This is his chance to get answers from God, to find out why his body didn’t work the way it should, to find out why God had been ignoring and rejecting him all these years!
And so he yells at the top of his voice: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!!!” Immediately he is rebuked by those in the crowd around him. He is told to be silent, because Jesus has more important things to do than to deal with a blind beggar. He wasn’t worth Jesus’ time. But the blind man ignores them and he yells louder than he’s ever yelled: “Son of David, have mercy on me!!!”
A hush comes over the crowd and he can hear that Jesus has stopped walking, the crowd is no longer moving. Jesus orders for the crowd, the very people who had rejected the blind man moments earlier, to escort him to Jesus. As the blind man is brought close to Jesus, he knows that every eye is on him. He fears that he has spoken out of turn; he fears rebuke from the man, Jesus in front of him. He braces for what might be about to happen.
Piercing the silence, Jesus asks in a soft, gentle voice: “What is it that you would like me to do for you?” The blind man is stunned. He is not rebuked and silenced, but Jesus honors him with a question. The blind man responds: “I want to be able to see.” He now not only wants to see, but he wants to see this man who stands in front of him. He knows there is something different about him, and he longs to rest his eyes upon him. The man, Jesus, replies: “Open your eyes and now see.”
Immediately the man’s eyes are opened and he sees for the first time. The first thing he beholds is the face of Jesus, the Son of God. He knows in that moment that all those platitudes and things spoken to him his whole life by others as comfort were untrue. This man who was truly God embodied, would never ever create a plan that intentionally caused him to suffer. This God, he knows, is in the business of healing, not hurting. He knows now that this God doesn’t cause suffering as part of some master plan, but he chooses to reach down into the suffering of the world and to redeem it somehow.
This man expected rejection but instead found in Jesus extravagant love and unprejudiced acceptance.
But this isn’t where Luke ends his story. Because as the man who was formerly blind now joins the throng of Jesus’ followers, glorifying Jesus as he enters Jericho, Luke describes another incredible encounter between Jesus and a man for whom rejection had become a lifestyle.
His name was Zacchaeus. Good luck trying to say that name 5 times fast. The only things we’re told about Zacchaeus are that he is the chief tax-collector in Jericho and that he is rich. Now, during Roman times, this would signal to us that he had accumulated his wealth by cheating his neighbors out of their money. Tax-collectors at this time in ancient Israel were classified with murderers and robbers – this is how hated they were.
So everyone in town knew that Zacchaeus took advantage of them and he was understandably despised for this. As you can imagine, people kept their distance from Zacchaeus, occasionally throwing insults at him from a distance and gossiping about him behind his back. He wasn’t what you would call a “good” guy; he was greedy and selfish. He oppressed the people he lived with. And we can imagine that Zacchaeus had come to expect people to hate him, to call him names and to even secretly want to kill him. For anyone to treat him kindly would be unfathomable.
But on this day, we can imagine Zacchaeus heard a rumor that a man named Jesus was coming to Jericho. He had heard other rumors about this man: how he had healed people from many sicknesses, he had even raised someone from the dead! He had also heard rumors that Jesus was a great teacher and there were even whispers that he was possibly the Messiah. There was something special about this man, Jesus, and Zacchaeus wanted to see it for himself, but found that Jesus was entirely surrounded by a crowd of people.
Deciding on a Plan B, Zacchaeus ran on ahead of the crowd and climbed up a sycamore tree. Now, in ancient Israeli culture, grown rich men absolutely did not run and they definitely did not climb trees; this would have caused Zacchaeus an immense amount of shame if he was found out, but he was desperately curious just to get a peek at Jesus. He found himself so drawn to this man, wondering to himself: Were the stories true? What would Jesus say to me if he saw me? So he climbed up in a sycamore tree. Sycamore trees are generally not that tall, but they have huge leaves, so they’re very easy to hide in. This was no doubt Zacchaeus’ hope. He was afraid of what insults the crowd would yell at him if they found out he was in a tree; worse, he feared that if he was seen Jesus would probably join in and scold him for taking advantage of his neighbors; he might even condemn him to some awful fate.
And then, we can imagine the scene as Jesus and the crowd are passing just below the tree that Zacchaeus is in. Jesus pauses and looks up…straight at Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ heart stops and his first reaction is one of humiliation. Now the crowd is looking up too as a hush comes over them and they eagerly await Jesus’ condemnation of Zacchaeus. Jesus has surely heard of his notoriety. Everything moves in slow motion as Zacchaeus fears the worst: there’s no way that Jesus has anything to say but to scold him for the life he has chosen to live. And Zacchaeus knows this is what he deserves. He has taken advantage of people and he would deserve every last insult and rebuke Jesus would hurl at him.
But then, to Zacchaeus’ amazement and the crowd’s astonishment, Jesus hurls no such insult or rebuke. Instead, he calls up in a soft, gentle voice: “Zacchaeus, may I come over to your house for dinner?” What!? Plot twist.
Zacchaeus can hardly believe his ears, but quickly scrambles down the tree, delighted to take Jesus home with him! For the first time in years, someone hadn’t called Zacchaeus a demeaning name, hadn’t threatened to hurt him and had for the first time treated him as if he was worth something. Immediately, the realization of the grace that Jesus had shown him struck Zacchaeus and his delight mixed with the guilt of how he had mistreated those around him. He begins to stammer apologetically, both out of a desire to justify himself before Jesus, and out of a genuine desire to change his life. He promises to pay back everything he’s cheating others out of, plus more! Jesus’ gracious encounter with Zacchaeus has transformed his heart.
This sounds like the perfect ending to the story, right? But unfortunately, for as stunned as Zacchaeus was at Jesus’ extravagant love towards him, the crowd was even more stunned…and angry! They expected Jesus to tell Zacchaeus off, but now he was going to have dinner with him?? With this unclean and sinful man who deserved punishment and rejection? They wanted justice! They wanted to see vengeance and wrath! And now the crowd’s anger is transferred from Zacchaeus onto Jesus. Jesus becomes the object of their anger and insults, and pays the price for treating Zacchaeus as more than a tax-collector and as more than his sins. This is costly grace.
What we see in these stories is that the crowd is able to accept Jesus’ love towards the blind man, because of course, that makes sense that God came to care for and accept the oppressed and the marginalized. Of course and thank goodness! But as soon as Jesus offers that same love and that same acceptance to a man who had done some pretty awful things; when love is offered to a man who by all accounts definitely did deserve to be rejected, then the crowd goes ballistic. They liked the Jesus who didn’t reject the oppressed, but they didn’t like the Jesus who fails to reject the oppressor. Love is not supposed to be offered to the oppressor, to the one who hurts other people.
To be completely frank I sympathize greatly with the crowd. Part of me didn’t entirely feel like preaching this message today – not in light of this past year, all that’s been uncovered in the #MeToo Movement and the seemingly endless stream of mass shootings we’ve witnessed. If I’m honest enough with myself, there are some people who I would love to be rejected from God’s grace – people I know who are undeserving. Yeah, I’m undeserving, but most days I feel I’m certainly more deserving than some people out there who take advantage of the vulnerability of others. I thought about cutting out this second half of my sermon—the story on Zacchaeus—because I thought it was too soon to proclaim that God’s good news and grace extends even to the oppressor, even to the person who has hurt others and continues to hurt them. I wasn’t ready to do that. I’m still not sure I want to. But that’s probably all the more reason I should.
How is it though that in the span of 20 verses, Jesus offers extravagant love and unprejudiced acceptance to both the oppressed and the oppressor? Both men had been rejected by society. Both men thought they deserved to be rejected by God. One of them definitely did deserve it! But here’s the thing I have to learn: whether we deserve to rejected by God and whether we actually are rejected by God are two completely different questions.
Now, I want to make clear that Jesus in no way condones the actions of the oppressor – he vehemently protests them – but Jesus has not given up on the person behind those actions. The oppressor is still to be held accountable to their actions, and Jesus asks for repentance, complete turning around, but the person behind the actions is never ejected from the bounds of God’s grace. As one of my old professors said: “Grace is forever scandalous because it is forever undeserved…Grace is a scandal because it insists on including those whom we wish to exclude.” Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. That includes those who have been hurt, and those who do the hurting—this is a tough truth to swallow, and I wrestle with this.
When I worked in the psychiatric hospital, I had many patients who had done some terrible things. At first I was disgusted by many of them and didn’t think they were worthy of my love or time. But then I started to listen to their stories. Every single one of them had experienced trauma, had been abused, or had been badly hurt by someone else. As Richard Rohr writes, “Pain that is not transformed, is always transmitted.” People who hurt and mistreat others, usually have been hurt and mistreated themselves.
Now this by no means excuses people of their actions. But it allows us to see that Jesus seeks to end the vicious cycles of abuse, violence and hurt. Jesus, in this story takes the time to pay attention to Zacchaeus like nobody else did; Jesus loved Zacchaeus, and in the process transforms Zacchaeus’ pain so that it will no longer be transmitted and inflicted upon his community. Only love and grace has the power to transform pain and to end the vicious cycle of hurt. Wrath, condemnation, ridicule and rejection only deepen the wound, promising that pain will continue to be transmitted to others. Forgiveness heals. Hatred turns bitter and rots us from the inside out.
This Jesus who offers love to the oppressed and the oppressor, who offers grace to the one who is hurt and the one who does the hurting, this Jesus may be too much for many of us to swallow. But let us not quickly forget the ways we have hurt others and how Jesus still welcomes us in. Let us not quickly forget that we worship a God who is in the business of healing and redeeming; a God who is in the business of transforming pain so that it will no longer be transmitted.
Jesus shows us a way of living that can free our hearts from the bitterness and hatred that binds them and festers. Jesus shows us a way of ending the vicious cycles of violence, abuse and hurt. Only love and forgiveness have the power to transform our world. And Jesus came to offer them to everyone, even those we would rather see rejected. Church, let us be brave enough to treat those with love who are undeserving, in the hope that it might transform our world.
Before we transition to joys/concerns, I want to pause to give a quick clarification: that if you happen to find yourself in an abusive relationship, it is not your responsibility to remain in that relationship in order to embody this type of love and forgiveness. That is not your responsibility; your responsibility is to get yourself safe. Please talk to me or someone you trust if you find yourself in this situation.
We are called to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us, but in some toxic and abusive situations that forgiveness may need to be something you come to terms with in your heart, rather than something that needs to be explicitly offered to the one who has hurt you.