The city of Philippi was situated at a pass in a range of hills at the eastern edge of Greece—thus at the eastern edge of Europe—along the overland trade route from Rome to Asia. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, the decisive battle to determine the fate of the Roman Empire was fought on the plain to the west of Philippi. When the victor, Octavian was named Roman Emperor (becoming Caesar Augustus), he reorganized the city of Philippi as a Roman colony, giving property to veteran commanders and soldiers, including veterans of the Praetorian Guard.
Philippi was considered a “little Rome.” Though it was roughly a thousand miles from the actual city of Rome, the citizens of Philippi always looked upon themselves as citizens of Rome. They lived under the municipal law of Rome and were governed by two military officers who were appointed directly from Rome. They spoke Latin. They wore the Latin style of clothing. They kept up Roman customs.
Though they resided on the far edge of Europe, the citizens of Philippi lived their lives as citizens of Rome. When Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, who resided far away from heaven, he challenged them to do the same: to live their lives as citizens of heaven—though on earth—conducting themselves in ways that were faithful to their Lord and to their true citizenship. That’s the call of the book of Philippians to us—no matter where on earth we live—to conduct ourselves in ways that are faithful to our Lord.
The early church father Jerome claimed that the apostle John, late in his life, kept repeating to people the command in John 13:34 that we are called to love one another, and John would explain, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if it be fulfilled it is enough.”
To live as citizens of heaven, while residing on planet earth, we are to live as Christ lived, and that means to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34).
Thirty years ago, Pastor Mark Thompson of Faribault, Minnesota, suffered terrible knife wounds from an assailant in his home. One consequence of his difficult recovery was being forced to miss watching his son Chris run in the state cross-country championship. Pastor Thompson asked his brother Merv to go in his place. According to an account in the St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, Mark told his brother, “I can’t be there to see Chris run, so I want you there at the beginning of the race. Holler a lot…. Then at the end, I want you to really cheer loudly. And I want you to make your voice sound like mine.”
With his uncle’s encouragement, Chris ran a strong race, finishing in second place. Merv, who is also a pastor, recognized the theological significance of this. He explained, “That’s what Jesus wants us to do: Make your voice sound like mine.” (Leadership Journal, summer, 1989)
When Paul prayed in Philippians 1:9-11, “This is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God,” he was, in essence, praying that we make our voice sound like Jesus’ and that we make our actions look like Jesus’.
I am shocked by and moved by the way Paul opens his letter to the Christians in the city of Philippi. He writes to them, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you….”
Consider Paul’s words carefully: “I thank my God every time I remember you….”
As Paul sat in his prison cell in Rome, what kinds of things may have provoked his memory of the Philippians?
Every time he felt the chains upon him and or looked about at the prison walls that enclosed him, he may have recalled the first time he was locked in chains in a dungy prison cell, and that would have reminded him of Philippi, and his first encounter with unjust imprisonment. Every time he felt a pain in his back or in his shoulders, he may have recalled the beating he sustained in Philippi. And then there was Epaphroditus. The Philippians had sent Epaphroditus to Rome to provide care for Paul in his imprisonment, but Ephaphroditus had become deathly ill, and it was left to Paul to care for Ephaphroditus instead.
I fear that if I were in Paul’s shoes, I would have begun my letter to the Philippians quite differently. I may have written, “Dear Philippians, I am sorry to tell you this, but every time I remember you, I am filled with disappointment and frustration! My present surroundings remind me of the lousy night I spent in your dank prison. My aching body reminds me of the cruelty I suffered among you. And sick Epaphroditus is a constant reminder to me that with friends like the Philippians, who needs enemies!”
I may have been inclined to begin my letter with griping, but Paul began his letter by expressing gratitude. How was he able to do that?
I believe the answer is found in verse 6 where Paul shares, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul perceived something within the Philippians that others might not have been able to see.
In 480 B.C., when the Persian army invaded Greece, the Greek commander Themistocles assembled the Greek ships off the coast of Salamis and waited there. As the morning wore on, he simply sat there idly, not commanding the ships into battle. The soldiers grew restless and confused. They wondered whether he was afraid of battle. But Themistocles knew what he was doing. He knew that around 10 each morning, the winds and waves would change, and would turn the Persian ships sideways, making them easy targets for ramming by the Greek triremes. Moreover, with the ships driven now by a strong wind, Themistocles would not need to waste half of his men pulling at the oars but could bring them all on deck for the battle. As Themistocles trusted in a power that was not perceptible to his enemy, Paul had come to trust in a power that was not easily perceptible to others.
A story has been shared throughout the centuries that when Michelangelo began work on the statue of David, he brought a hunk of marble into his studio, and his housekeeper grunted at it. But many months later, after chipping away at that hunk of marble, the magnificent form of David began to take shape. The housekeeper walked back into the studio and stared at the emerging statue. In amazement, she turned to Michelangelo and asked, “How did you know that beautiful man was hidden inside that hunk of marble?” Paul, like Michelangelo perceived the beauty that lay hidden in the Philippian church, and he knew that Christ was doing his work among the Philippians and would not stop until his work came to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.
I pray for God to turn my griping heart into a grateful heart, with faith to perceive the beauty that God is producing in my life and in the lives of others.
“Some theologians interpret hell as alienation from God,” writes Norma Swetnam. “I have experienced such a hell while in the throes of depression—a terrible sense of aloneness and isolation from everything, from everybody and from God. This results in a loss of hope for the future, and without hope what is there?”
Elizabeth Wurtzel adds, “A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”
In the depths of despair and depression is where we find two individuals whose story is told in Luke 24:13-35. One of the individuals is identified as Cleopas. The other is probably his wife Mary, who is identified in John 19:25 as “the wife of Clopas.” They are walking seven miles northwest, from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They walk with their heads down because of the setting sun before them and because of the despair within their hearts. Their despair stems from a tragedy that took place just a couple of days before: the one they had hoped would redeem Israel had died by crucifixion and had been sealed in a tomb.
As they walk along, someone new joins them and asks what they are discussing. As the story unfolds, we discover that their new companion is Jesus, but, in the midst of their hopelessness, it will take them a while to figure that out. The irritableness of depression flashes forth from Cleopas, who retorts, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
If irritation had flashed back from Jesus, he might have walked away at that point, leaving them to continue on in despair. Instead, he gently asked them questions about what had happened, enabling them to pour forth their expressions of sorrow and confusion.
When they finished, Jesus invited them into a new way of perceiving what had happened, explaining to them from the Scriptures the good that God accomplished through Jesus’ crucifixion.
As they walk along together, the mood of their souls changes. By the time they reach Emmaus, they are no longer irritably trying to get rid of Jesus. Instead, they urge him strongly to stay with them. When Jesus breaks bread and blesses it, they recognize him. They exclaim to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Hope had come alive in them! Despair had been replaced by burning or glowing hearts.
What produced such a change in them?
What made the difference was the presence of Christ. Discovering that Christ had not been defeated and that he had not abandoned them made all the difference in the world.
Bruce Larson comments, “The events of Easter cannot be reduced to a creed or philosophy. We are not asked to believe the doctrine of the resurrection. We are asked to meet this person raised from the dead.” That’s what happened to Cleopas and Mary on the road to Emmaus.
J. Sidlow Baxter adds, “Fundamentally, our Lord’s message was himself. He did not come merely to preach a Gospel; he himself is that Gospel. He did not come merely to give bread; he said, ‘I am the bread.’ He did not come merely to shed light; he said, ‘I am the light.’ He did not come merely to show the door; he said, ‘I am the door.’ He did not come merely to name a shepherd; he said, ‘I am the shepherd.’ He did not come merely to point the way; he said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’”
While two depressed individuals trod along toward the setting sun, Jesus cared enough to come and walk beside them. By his presence, Jesus turned their despair to hope, and their depression to joy, for with his presence is the assurance that we are never left alone, that we are remembered and loved, and that the God of resurrection will see us through.
The amazing beauty of God’s love burst forth in the midst of the world’s deepest ugliness!
Here is the ugliness: The crucifixion of Jesus.
Bruce Larson points out, “Crucifixion was invented by the Carthaginians and adopted by the Romans. It was the most horrible manner of execution ever devised and it was used only for the lowest type of criminal.”
Cathleen Shrier gives a more thorough description of crucifixion’s ugliness: “The accused needed to be nailed to the patibulum [the horizontal piece] while lying down, so Jesus is thrown to the ground, reopening his wounds, grinding in dirt, and causing bleeding. They nail his ‘hands’ to the patibulum. The Greek meaning of ‘hands’ includes the wrists. If the nails were driven into the hand, the weight of the arms would cause the nail to rip through the soft flesh. Therefore, the upper body would not be held to the cross. If placed in the wrist, the bones in the lower portion of the hand support the weight of the arm and the body remains nailed to the cross. The huge nail damages or severs the major nerve to the hand (the median nerve) upon impact. This causes continuous agonizing pain up both of Jesus’ arms.
“Once the victim is secured, the guards lift the patibulum and place it on the stipes [the vertical piece] already in the ground. As it is lifted, Jesus’ full weight pulls down on his nailed wrists, and his shoulders and elbows dislocate. In this position, Jesus’ arms stretch to a minimum of six inches longer than their original length.
“It is highly likely that Jesus’ feet were nailed through the tops as often pictured. In this position, the weight of the body pushes down on the nails and the ankles support the weight. The nails would not rip through the soft tissue as would have occurred with the hands. Again, the nail would cause severe nerve damage and acute pain.
“Normally, to breathe in, the diaphragm must move down. This enlarges the chest cavity and air automatically moves into the lungs (inhalation). To exhale, the diaphragm rises up, which compresses the air in the lungs and forces the air out (exhalation). As Jesus hangs on the cross, the weight of his body pulls down on the diaphragm and the air moves into his lungs and remains there. Jesus must push up on his nailed feet (causing more pain) to exhale.
“In order to speak, air must pass over the vocal cords during exhalation. The Gospels note that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. It is amazing that despite his pain, he pushes up to say ‘Forgive them.’”
The physical torture of crucifixion was ugly, but the deeper ugliness was what Jesus’ crucifixion revealed about the depravity of human sin. In Jesus’ crucifixion, the very worst attributes of humanity amassed together at the same place at the same time. Cold-hearted injustice was inflicted upon the earth’s only truly innocent individual. Hate was flung upon the One who is fully loving. Bitterness was spit out upon the One who is merciful and forgiving. A blind eye and deaf ear turned away from the One who listens intently to the imperceptible groaning of our souls. People turned their backs on the One who gave his life for us. The death knell of crucifixion rang upon the Giver of Life.
Yet here is the beauty: The promise of forgiveness and restoration.
Even while soldiers strip away his clothes and gamble for them, and even as religious leaders mock him, Jesus battles the searing pain to rise up and pray aloud, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Then the intense beauty of forgiveness burst forth in a personal display. One of the criminals hanging near him cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Max Lucado observes, “A condemned criminal was sent to his death by his country. In his final moments, he asked for mercy. Had he asked for mercy from the people, it would have been denied. Had he asked it of the government, it would have been declined. Had he asked it of his victims, they would have turned a deaf ear. But it wasn’t to these he turned for grace. He turned instead to the bloodied form of the one who hung on the cross next to his and pleaded, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus answered by saying, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (In the Grip of Grace, p. 41)
And the beauty that burst forth produced such an amazing splendor that it promised to carry through into eternity. William Barclay points out, “When a Persian king wished to do one of his subjects a very special honor, he made him a companion of the garden which meant he was chosen to walk in the garden with the king. It was more than immortality that Jesus promised the penitent thief. He promised him the honored place of a companion of the garden in the courts of heaven.”
Because of what Jesus did on the cross, the beauty of forgiveness and restoration has forever overwhelmed and transformed the ugliness of sin and of death.
What is true love?
One little girl explained, “Love is when your mommy reads you a bedtime story. True love is when she doesn’t skip any pages.”
Other children offered their ideas. Jan stated, “No one is sure why love happens, but I heard it has something to do with how you smell. That’s why perfume and deodorants are so popular.” Bart advised, “Take the girl out to eat. Make sure it is something she likes to eat. French fries usually works for me.” Roger explained that falling in love is “like an avalanche where you have to run for your life.” Leo lamented, “If falling in love is anything like learning how to spell, I don’t want to do it. It takes too long.” And Regina shared, “I’m not rushing into being in love—I’m finding fourth grade hard enough.”
Despite Leo’s and Regina’s reservations the longing for love may be the most fundamental longing of the human soul. J. Paul Getty, who was one of the richest individuals in the world in his time, put it bluntly, “I would give my entire fortune for one happy marriage.” John Cheever recognized a deeper longing. He wrote, “Homesickness is…absolutely nothing. Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time…. You don’t really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don’t have, or haven’t been able to find.” What Cheever touches on is the deep longing in the human soul to be filled with the love of the Creator.
Wanting his disciples (and all of us) to know that he came into our world to meet that longing, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples the night before his death. During the meal, he spoke to them of true love. Specifically, he took bread and broke it and gave it to them, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). Then he took a cup and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
When Jesus took bread and broke it—the unleavened bread of the Passover meal, the bread known as the Bread of Affliction in the Passover custom—Jesus was saying to them (and to us), ‘This bread represents me, laying my life on the line for you, giving my life up for you. As such, the bread of communion represents true love. From here on out, whenever you eat that bread, may it assure you that you are the recipient of true love.’
And when Jesus took the cup of wine—the third cup of the Passover meal, referred to as the Cup of Redemption in the Passover custom—Jesus was saying to them (and to us), ‘This cup represents me, pouring out my life’s blood for you. As such, this cup represents true love. From here on out, whenever you drink this cup, may it assure you that you are the recipient of true love.’
While Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison for his outspoken opposition to Adolf Hitler, he received a care package from his parents. He wrote back to them, expressing his gratitude for their gift: “It is Monday, and I was just sitting down to a dinner of turnips and potatoes when a parcel you sent me by Ruth arrived. Such things give me greater joy than I can say. Although I am utterly convinced that nothing can break the bonds between us, I seem to need some outward token or sign to reassure me. In this way, material things become the vehicles of spiritual realities. I suppose it is rather like the felt need in our religion for sacraments.”
Bonhoeffer knew that his parents loved him and that nothing could break the bonds between them. Nevertheless, he admitted that he seemed “to need some outward token or sign to reassure” him. The bread and the cup that are shared at communion are the outward tokens or signs that reassure us that we are the recipients of God’s true love!
One evening, just before Mary Martin was to go on stage in the Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, Mary received a note from Oscar Hammerstein, who was on his death bed. The note said, “Dear Mary, a bell’s not a bell till you ring it. A song’s not a song till you sing it. Love in your heart is not put there to stay. Love isn’t love till you give it away.”
After her performance that night, it is reported that people rushed backstage crying, “Mary, what happened to you out there tonight? We never saw anything like that performance before?”
Blinking back tears, Mary read to them the note from Oscar Hammerstein, then she said, “Tonight, I gave my love away.”
Whenever we take of the bread and cup at communion, they declare to us that Jesus gave his love away!
Growing up in the church, I came away with the impression that Christians are supposed to pray confident, victorious prayers, full of praise, trusting that God will always provide the answer we seek. But when I examine the actual prayers of some of the great heroes of Scripture, I find a different picture.
David, the great psalmist, opens Psalm 13 with dark questions: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
Psalm 22 opens with even deeper despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
And in Psalm 69 David vomits up this expression of discouragement: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”
Jeremiah, who gained a reputation as “the weeping prophet,” stated, “My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick” (Jeremiah 8:18). He complained to God, “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad. Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great. Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18)
Moses, the great leader of Israel, prayed to God, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight–and do not let me see my misery” (Numbers 11:15).
And the great prophet Elijah begged God, “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4).
According to the Gospel of Luke, even Jesus—a very member of the Godhead—prayed in deep turmoil. Even after an angel came down from heaven to minister to Jesus, his turmoil was not dispelled. Luke 22:44 reports, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”
What we need to know is that prayer will not always be a peachy clean experience for us, filled with the refreshing peace of God. Sometimes prayer will be filled with the bubbling up of the deep sorrow, fear, pain and anguish of our soul.
Jesus’ experience of praying on the Mount of Olives shortly before his arrest and crucifixion was like a gethsemane. The word gethsemane means “a place for pressing oils.” Ray Vander Laan explains, “During Jesus’ time, heavy stone slabs were lowered onto olives that had already been crushed in an olive crusher. Gradually, the slabs’ weight squeezed the olive oil out of the pulp, and the oil ran into a pit.” That seems to be how Jesus felt as he prayed.
Olive oil was almost sacred to the Jewish people. It was used to anoint kings and priests. When Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, blood seeped from his pores like anointing oil that was squeezed from the olives. The blood that seeped from Jesus did exactly what olive oil did in Jewish culture for centuries. It is Jesus’ blood—his death for us—that anoints us as heirs of the King of the universe and as priests of the Living God.
Because Jesus was willing to go through the agony of crucifixion, we are brought into intimate and eternal relationship with God.
Because he endured the agony of prayer on the Mount of Olives, we can know that it is okay for us to pray in anguish. If it okay for Jesus to pray in agony, then it is okay for us to pray in agony as well.
As Jesus prayed in agony, he felt free to ask of God exactly what he wanted. He wanted to be relieved from having to go through with the crucifixion; he wanted to be relieved of having to take upon himself all of our sins. So he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” We can know that it is okay for us, too, to ask God for whatever we want.
In the end, though, Jesus submitted to God’s will. He prayed, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.” We will need to pray as Jesus did, submitting finally to God’s will. The sequence is important though: Start by genuinely pouring out to God the longing of our soul; and conclude by submitting to God’s will for our lives.
Through it all, we can know that Christ sympathizes with the anguish of our prayers, for he experienced that himself. And we can know that he is with us in our anguish, for that’s what he accomplished by drying for us (by anointing us with the blood that was squeezed from him).
When a woman poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ head during a dinner at Bethany near the end of his life, Jesus announced to everyone at the dinner, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Nowhere else in any of the Gospels did Jesus suggest that anything anyone else had done would be told all around the world. He did not claim that everyone would hear about the faith of the centurion, or about Peter walking on water, or about the blind man seeing again, or about Zacchaeus’ dramatic repentance, or about the feeding of the 5000, but he said it about this woman pouring ointment on his head!
Pericles, who was responsible for the construction of the Parthenon in ancient Greece, argued that it was the duty of an Athenian woman to live such an inconspicuous life that her name would never be mentioned among men either for praise or for shame. The thinking in Greek culture was that a woman should live in such a way that she would never even be noticed. But this woman caused a great stir when she broke open her alabaster jar and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head. Jesus praised her and announced that she would go down in history for it!
Mark reports that the people at the dinner “scolded her,” complaining “in anger” that the ointment could have been sold for the price of at least 300 days’ wages, and the money given to the poor. But Jesus defended her and affirmed the value of what she did, and he declared that what she did would be “proclaimed in the whole world!”
What is going on here? Why is Jesus so impressed by her deed?
To answer that question, consider the setting where this took place. They were eating a Middle-Eastern meal, vibrant with the aroma of delicious food. There would have been the smell of freshly baked unleavened bread, since this was in the days leading up to the Passover. There would have been the aroma of red wine. There would have been the smell of dates, and figs, and fresh grapes, and cooked onions, and Jerusalem cheese, and pickled herrings, and honey pie. Quite possibly, there would also have been the smell of barbecued lamb or goat. These aromas would have warmed the nostrils and the souls of all the guests.
Then the woman arrives, not with a hot dish made from her grandmother’s famous recipe, but with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard. When she breaks the jar and pours the contents on Jesus’ head, she fills the room with a new and beautiful aroma—the aroma not just of nard, but of love and devotion.
Apparently, there is nothing that thrills Jesus’ heart more than that!
Henry David Thoreau once advised, “Behave so the aroma of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere.” That’s what this woman does, and such a deed deserves to be shared around the world!
Henrietta Mears once remarked, “God does not always choose great people to accomplish what he wishes, but he chooses a person who is wholly yielded to him.” That’s what Jesus finds in this woman, and that’s what he decides should be shared all around the world.
One other aspect to this story should be mentioned. In breaking the alabaster jar, this woman made a great personal sacrifice toward Jesus. Jesus, in turn, tells the people at the dinner that “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” It is Jesus who will be making the greatest sacrifice—giving his very life for us. There is something incredibly beautiful when the sacrifice of Jesus is greeted by a person’s own sacrifice of devotion and love. When that happens, the world ought to hear about it so that we can be inspired by it and imitate it. That’s why her story continues to be shared throughout the world.
Watching the movie John Q helps me to understand the Biblical account of Jesus overthrowing tables in the temple and driving out the money changers.
In the movie, Denzel Washington plays the part of John Quincy Archibald, a Chicago factory worker whose young son, Michael, is rushed to the hospital after collapsing at a softball game. John and Denise Archibald are told that Michael needs a heart transplant to survive. The procedure will cost the family $250,000 with a required down payment of $75,000 in order to place Michael on the organ recipient list, but due to the factory’s recent change of insurance carriers, John’s health insurance refuses to cover the surgery. When the Archibalds are unable to raise the needed funds and are unable to arrange alternate aid, the hospital decides to release Michael from their care so that he can die at home. Distraught over the prospect of losing their child, Denise pleads with John to do something. In desperation, John takes Dr. Turner and several patients and staff hostage, demanding that Michael’s name be placed on the recipient list.
Desperation to save his child drives John Q. Archibald to extreme actions. That’s the kind of pathos stirring in Jesus’ soul as he watched what was taking place in the temple.
Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem at the beginning of preparations for Passover. This meant that pilgrims from many distant towns were also arriving in Jerusalem. For many, this was the time when they would pay their yearly temple tax. But the temple would only accept Tyrian shekels which had a higher silver content than the normal Roman currency. Money changers in the temple charged a handsome markup in the exchange process, greedily profiteering off of worshipers.
On top of that, temple authorities appointed inspectors to check the quality of every animal that worshipers hoped to present as a sacrifice, to certify that every gift to God was without injury or blemish. If the inspector decided an animal had an unacceptable flaw, the worshiper would be required to purchase a replacement from one of the temple’s merchants. Often the temple sellers would charge as much as 20 times more than what the same animal would be sold for outside of the temple.
Mark specifically notes that Jesus overturned the benches of those who were selling doves. The law stipulated that a dove was an acceptable sacrifice for those who could not afford to present a lamb or goat. Doves were the usual sacrifice by women for their purification, by lepers for their cleaning, and by the poor. The ability to offer a dove in the temple was essential for those who were most vulnerable in Jewish society at the time.
Moreover, the area of the temple where business was taking place is the portion that was referred to as the Court of the Gentiles. This was where God-fearing Gentiles could draw near to God. By setting up shop in this section of the temple, the merchants and the temple authorities were blocking Gentiles from having access to God.
When the life of his son was at risk, John Q took the extreme action of taking the doctor and others hostage. When Jesus observed the risk to the souls of those who were being pushed aside, Jesus took desperate actions himself. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. As desperate as John Q was to get his son on the recipient list, so desperate is Jesus that no one be blocked from having access to God.
Indeed, Jesus goes on to take the ultimate step. He lays down his life to give everyone access to God! Matthew, Mark and Luke each report that when Jesus died, the curtain in the temple was ripped in two, from top to bottom. The veil in the temple was a long, thick, woven curtain of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen. It separated “the Most Holy Place”—where God was thought to reside—from everything else. The thick curtain that set apart that room symbolized the separation between us and God. It represented the barrier between God’s pure holiness and our sinfulness. By ripping the curtain apart, from top to bottom, at the point of Jesus’ death, God sent a message, letting us know that because of the death of Christ, nothing will be allowed to separate us from God—not the tables of money changers or the exploitation of dove sellers or a curtain in the temple or sin or death or anything else will be allowed to block our access to the love of God!
Louisa Fletcher Tarkington once wrote, “I wish that there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again, where all our mistakes and all our heartaches and all our poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door and never be put on again.”
That Land of Beginning Again is sought by many people who come to a point of grieving the mess they have made of their lives. But most of us fear that we could never find such a Land of Beginning Again where all of our mistakes and heartaches and poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby coat and never be put on again.
It seems to me that Zacchaeus is such a person. He is the chief tax collector in one of the more important taxation centers in all of Palestine. Therefore, we know that he is rich and shrewd. As chief tax collector, every tax collector beneath him had to turn over a portion of their profits to him. Zacchaeus was a person who had reached the top of his profession and whose income far surpassed nearly all of his countrymen. But his chosen profession had also made him a despised man. He was hated throughout the country. The Jewish people hated him because tax collectors made their income by adding their own margin of profit to the taxes they extracted from others. Even worse, the money tax collectors turned over was used to pay for the upkeep of the Roman army in Canaan. Since Zacchaeus was collecting taxes for Rome, Jewish people looked upon him as both a thief and a traitor. Since he was Jewish, though, he was despised by the Romans. They used him to collect their taxes, but he was merely a pawn to them—someone to use then discard. Nobody liked Zacchaeus or wanted anything to do with him.
No wonder Zacchaeus may have found himself longing for the Land of Beginning Again.
One day, Zacchaeus hears the news that the teacher from Galilee is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus has heard rumors about this teacher and miracle worker who is known as a friend to sinners and to tax collectors. He is curious. He wants to see Jesus with his own eyes. He figures that if he can get a good look at this controversial teacher, he will be able to ascertain what kind of person Jesus is.
Being such an unpopular person, though, Zacchaeus knows that no one will give him a spot at the front of the crowd. The “good” people of Jericho will certainly not be willing to share space with him along the road. But, being a short person, if he is pushed to the back of the crowd, he will never be able to see Jesus. Furthermore, who knows what an agitated crowd might do to a chief tax collector. So Zacchaeus hurries ahead of the crowd and climbs up into a sycamore tree, the leafiest tree in Israel. He hides there waiting for Jesus to pass beneath him so that he can get a glimpse of Jesus from his place of secrecy.
The kind of fear that drives a person to secrecy and hiding is the hallmark of shame, which has been described as “the inner, critical voice that judges whatever we do as wrong, inferior or worthless.” Over the years, external and internal voices had been telling Zacchaeus that his livelihood is wrong and despised, and that he is inferior and worthless for doing it.
When Jesus arrives at the tree where Zacchaeus is hiding, he stops and calls out to him. Oh, what potential for further shame this presents! It was considered shameful in that culture for a grown man to run because running involved a man pulling up his robe and exposing his naked legs. How much more shameful it would have been for a grown man to be caught hiding in a tree (exposing more than just his ankles probably).
But Jesus was not looking for an opportunity to shame Zacchaeus. Instead, he calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
The crowd is ready for shame to be poured on. They fully expect Jesus to give a good verbal thrashing to the tax collector hiding in the tree. But a verbal thrashing would be nothing new to Zacchaeus. He has been scolded many times already. He has heard plenty of words of rebuke and condemnation. He has grown accustomed to being judged and disdained. What he has not grown accustomed to are words of love, forgiveness and acceptance, which is what he gets from Jesus. Jesus’ words of invitation, acceptance and forgiveness become the motivation for miraculous change for Zacchaeus. He says to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” The grace Jesus extends to Zacchaeus changes his life.
Many years ago, a Japanese magazine presented a creative advertisement. The picture of a butterfly appeared on a page. The entire page was dull gray in color—until the reader placed a hand over the picture. Then the warmth of the hand caused special inks in the printing to react, transforming the dull gray butterfly into a rainbow of flashing color.
It was the warmth of Jesus’ touch (through a gracious invitation to Zacchaeus) that was able to transform a shamed, lonely, hiding tax collector into a penitent individual who gives half of his possessions to the poor and who pays back four times what he had cheated from others. It is grace rather than shame that has the power to transform lives.
In Mark 10:17-31, Mark shares a story about an encounter Jesus had with a certain man one day. In sharing this story, Mark reports the actions taken and the words spoken. But in verse 21 Mark slips in more than just a record of the actions and the words; Mark adds an editorial comment. He tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said….”
When Mark tells us about Jesus “looking at him,” he is reporting what he saw. When he goes on to tell us what Jesus said, he is reporting what was heard. But in between, Mark asserts that Jesus “loved him.”
This isn’t as much what Mark saw or what he heard, but it’s what Mark knew about Jesus in general, and it’s what he knew about Jesus’ heart toward this man in particular. Because of this editorial comment, we must keep in mind that the rest of what takes place in this encounter flows from Jesus’ love for this man and is an expression of Jesus’ love for him.
What is it that takes place after this declaration of Jesus’ love?
Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
How can it be an expression of love to tell someone to sell everything they own and to give the money to the poor?
It is only loving if what Jesus offers is better than the treasures this man holds onto.
When I was in college, I flipped my bicycle and my body over a car. I landed on the sidewalk with a twisted bicycle and a separated shoulder. Doctor cut my shoulder open and fastened the bones back together with a couple of nuts and bolts. For the next 10 weeks, my arm was strapped to my side, immobile. Shortly before Christmas, I was to return to the hospital to have my shoulder opened up again for the removal of the nuts and bolts. I was apprehensive and suggested to the doctor that he could skip the surgery and leave the nuts and bolts in my shoulder. He answered matter-of-factly, “We don’t have to operate again. We can leave the nuts and bolts where they are, but you will never be able to use your arm again.” His tone did not strike me as particularly loving, but the truth was. Despite my apprehensions about the surgery, he was offering me something far better than life with an immobile arm.
On November 12, 1859, a young Frenchman named Jules Leotard climbed to a platform high above the crowd at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris, France, and performed a fete that no one before him had ever done. Holding onto the trapeze bar, he swung away from the platform, then he let go of the bar and dashed unsupported through the air for 15 feet before grabbing a bar that had been sent swinging toward him. No one before him had ever let go of the bar away from the safety of the platform without first taking hold of another bar, but Jules did so. For the first time in history, a daring young man on the flying trapeze had actually flown through the air with nothing to hold onto. That day, Jules Leotard brought to the trapeze a marvelous new sense of thrill and excitement. It only happened, though, because Jules was willing to stop clinging to the bar.
That’s what Jesus invites this rich young man to do. Because he loved him, Jesus invites this man to let go of the possessions he is clinging to so that he can told hold of something far better.
After the man turns away from Jesus’ offer, Jesus tells his disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Some have suggested that the “Needle’s Eye” was a low and narrow gate beside one of the main gates of a city. During the day, all the trade and traffic would pass through the larger main gate, but at night the main gate would be locked and guarded so that no invading army could sweep into the city. But the low and narrow gate was normally left open, allowing a straggler who came along after dark to enter into the safety of the city walls. This low and narrow passage was barely large enough for a man to walk through. For a camel, it was even more difficult. It could be accomplished only if the camel was stripped of the load it carried then led through upon its knees.
Like the camel going through the eye of a needle, the rich man who inquired about inheriting eternal life is welcome in the kingdom of God, but the only way he can get in is by taking off his load and coming through upon his knees.