Treed then Freed
By Al Gray
Most people never climb a tree past maybe the age of twelve, but some of us frequent assorted oak, pine, poplar, hickory and even cedar trees all the way past age 60 in pursuit of the wary whitetail deer. One hasn’t lived until he is so well hidden up in the boughs that a squirrel jumps off on his trousers or a raccoon climbs onto his head. This writer has been accustomed to using a camouflage head net for years, even after a sharp-clawed squirrel leaped onto one late one afternoon and got his toes caught in the mesh. Hat, net, and rodent quickly hit the ground that time!
In Luke 19 we begin with a man coaxed out of a tree and we end with flogged sinners coaxed to flee. It is one of the most juxtaposed books in the Bible and it introduces us to Zacchaeus, whose descent to the ground was much gentler than my squirrel friend’s was.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus had literally a lot of short comings that made him a most unlikely character to find himself in a tree that day. He was rich. He was influential, backed by the powers of the state. He had to have been uncompromising and seemingly unfair to the crowd. It doesn’t imply this in Luke, but one reason he might have had to climb up there was his unpopularity. The disdain of the crowd was clear.
This man had one redeeming act – he sought Jesus, despite his riches, status, and power. He sought truth and understanding that was alien to his creature comforts, wealth and previous life experiences. In an instant he found release and came down from his lofty perch to a new life that was freer, richer, and forgiven with respect to his past sins. More to the point, Zacchaeus did something pretty rare even in the New Testament, he embraced the Second Commandment of Jesus and loved his neighbors as well as he did himself.
There is a message in this simple, short story for us and for our day. It is this – worldly things are fleeting – seek the forgiving power of Jesus and act with love to your fellow man. In these times, when civilization and even the rule of law enabling existence of society are threatened, we have each other and His teachings to save us here and beyond.
Luke 19 closes with the only time recorded that Jesus grew angry, even to the point of violence.
45 When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. 46 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’[c]; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’[d]”
47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’[c]? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’[d]”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
It was one thing to be a morally depraved tax collector, then to seek Jesus and Truth, but quite another to usurp a holy place to conduct similarly immoral business-as-usual by folks who probably paid the erstwhile religious ‘leaders’ generous bribes for their vending spaces. Give up your riches to enter the kingdom was Jesus command, not betray the kingdom for earthly riches ill-gotten or stolen in the temple.
The story begins with a tax collector who swore off his swindles and ends with the money-changing temple tax financiers bearing the wrath of Jesus. Isn’t it strange that the Old Testament is replete with the anger of God, yet the testament of Jesus shows this one exhibition of anger complete with hostile actions on His part? How great and unforgivable must the transgressions of the money-changers have been?
Today America has been brought to her knees by the most pernicious of money changers, financial charlatans, and outright thieves to ever walk the earth. We often hear the admonition, “What would Jesus do?” In this situation, it seems that the instructions are radically different from that of healing through forgiveness. We have money changers who have overturned our precious constitution and have turned our land into “a den of robbers!” Will Christ excuse our tolerance of evil to hold onto our cushy lifestyles, as Zacchaeus was certainly tempted to do, or does he expect us to defend our lands, our patriot-won freedoms, the Constitution and his teachings, even his example here, from the wicked, power-grabbing, and mendacious opportunists we see?
In what most of us were taught about free markets, people were free to fail, with those who did so more-or-less gracefully accepting their diminished fortunes for the remainder of their days. The powerful and connected of our day seem to have other objectives, most of which will end in the enslavement of everyone else as they rush to use politics to make themselves whole in their money and power.
The message from Luke 19 is probably as forthright as such a contrarian tale from the New Testament can be. Hate the sin’ and love the repentant sinner who seeks grace, but spurn those who assume entitlement to grace because of espoused religiosity or clerical position while subverting our most revered principles to their greed.
We stand on the verge of extinction of the rule of law if we don’t make the climb of Zacchaeus to seek the truth in Christ and once again become “ a people hung on His Words” and “amazed at his teaching.”
The singular teaching that money changers in our temples are not to be tolerated at times must be revived.
Now is one of those times.***
By Brother Al Gray, the High Reverend of The Church of What’s Happening Now.