6 July 2008
7th Sunday after Trinity
Evensong – Stone
Readings: Ps 56, 2 Samuel 2:1-11; 3:1, Luke 18.31- 19:10
May I speak in the name of the + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN
At the start of this sermon I want to pose a question and leave it hanging for a while: Who do you say Jesus Christ is and what do you want him to do for you? I’ll come back to that again at the end.
This evening’s gospel reading from Luke 18 and 19 contains two stories of healing – one physical and one spiritual – the poor blind man on the road to Jericho whose sight was restored and Zacchaeus the rich tax collector whose humanity was restored.
Although the stories are as different and as individual as the people involved they have a common theme: in both stories the people in need of restoration recognised that Jesus had the ability to set them free because of who he was, they both wanted to get close to Jesus regardless of what those around them said or thought and their faith in Jesus set them free.
So let’s think first about the poor blind man on the road to Jericho. We know he is poor because he is sitting on the side of the road begging. He probably sat there day after day in his personal darkness just managing to beg enough small coins to keep body and soul together – every day was pretty much the same with no hope of anything changing or getting better. And then one day there is an unusual commotion – he hears a crowd passing by and he asks “What is happening?” Someone tells him that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by and the blind man’s response is immediate – he calls out:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Presumably, the blind man must have already heard stories about Jesus and his ability to heal and he can’t believe his luck that this healer is about to walk past him – he has the chance to change his life forever if only he can get Jesus’ attention for a moment. However those leading the crowd around Jesus (possibly some of the disciples but we are not told) try to stop the man from distracting Jesus – they rebuke the blind man and tell him to be quiet. However this is the man’s one chance to be freed of his afflication and he is not going to let anyone stand between him and Jesus – he shouted all the more:
“Son of David, have mercy on me!”
This got Jesus’ attention and he asked for the blind man to be brought over. Now, as we know from the story of the woman who was cured of persistent bleeding just be touching Jesus as he went past that it was quite possible for Jesus’ presence to be enough to heal without any knowledge of the person’s needs which means that in this case he could have simply healed the blind man and moved on without any further ado. And yet Jesus doesn’t do this and he seeks to engage the man in conversation by asking the simple yet profound question:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Although the man’s needs are obvious Jesus wants him to name his desire, which he quickly does:
“Lord, I want to see.”
This man has no doubt what he wants and he believes that Jesus as Lord and Son of David is the person who can heal him. The man’s sight was restored and we are told that the man followed Jesus praising God and that when all the people saw what had happened they praised God also.
The blind man had one very profound need, he believed that Jesus was the only one who could heal him and he wasn’t going to let anything get in his way of getting Jesus’ attention – he pestered Jesus with prayer – have mercy on me, have mercy on me. A very simple yet effective prayer and this story is one of the foundations of the Jesus Prayer that we can think about in more detail another time.
The story of Zacchaeus the tax collector has some interesting differences and some interesting parallels.
On a superficial level Zacchaeus could not have been more different from the blind beggar – Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but we are told that he was the chief tax collector and that he was a wealthy man. If tax collectors in our society are sometimes viewed with suspicion that is nothing compared to the hatred with which they were viewed in Israel at the time of Jesus – because of course not only were they taking money from hard working people as all tax collectors do but, even worse, they were doing so on behalf of the occupying Roman army – the tax collectors were essentially collaborators with the Romans and, to make matters even worse, they were employed on a commission basis which meant that the more tax they extracted the richer they became. So we have Zacchaeus – the chief tax collector and a wealthy man. Although very different from the blind beggar sitting at the side of the road in many ways he was just as much an outcast from mainstream Jewish life as the beggar.
However even he had heard about this Jesus of Nazareth and when he heard that Jesus had come to Jericho he wanted to see this man for himself. Unfortunately for Zacchaeus we are told that he was a short man and that he would be unable to see Jesus from within a crowd so he had to take matters into his own hands to ensure he got a good view – I love the humour of this – we are told that he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up a sycamore-fig tree. I can’t help picturing him as some sort of Danny DeVito picking up his robes and running as fast as his little legs will carry him to beat the crowd. It is also worth bearing in mind that it was viewed as dishonourable for a man to be seen running around in that society but Zacchaeus didn’t care about his honour he just wanted to get a good look at this character Jesus.
Now the blind beggar was the one who called out to Jesus for healing. In the case of Zacchaeus it was quite different – when Jesus came near to the sycamore tree it was Jesus who looked at Zacchaeus and addressed him by name:
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” And Zacchaeus came down and welcomed Jesus gladly. He welcomed Jesus gladly.
But let’s not forget that Zacchaeus was something of an outcast from decent Jewish society and some people started to grumble and mutter that Jesus was going to stay in the house of a sinner. That is actually a complaint that is levelled against Jesus an awful lot – he associated with the outcasts of society of all descriptions – women, Samaritans, beggars, publicans, tax collectors, the ceremonially unclean. As an aside it might be interesting to think about the extent to which the church associates with outcasts or whether we can sometimes become too cosy with people like us – because it certainly seems to be a mark of Christ’s mission that he always reached out to people not like us.
But was Jesus in some way tainted by associating with this sinner Zacchaeus? On the contrary it was the tax collector who was immediately transformed when he recognised Jesus as Lord – he said:
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything I will pay back four times the amount.”
And Jesus says
“Today salvation has come to this house….For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.”
So the blind man and the tax collector were both outcasts from decent, right thinking, society for different reasons – one because of his poverty and disability and the other because of his slightly ill-gotten gains. They were both ‘lost’ in different ways. And yet Jesus came to seek and save the lost – one called out to Jesus and was healed, the other Jesus called out and he was healed. Yet in their different ways they both acknowledged Jesus as Lord and they welcomed him gladly and followed him, giving praise to God.
Of course in our different ways we are all outcasts because none of us is perfect. Like the beggar we should call out for God’s mercy and healing and not let anyone keep us quiet and, like Zaccheaus, we should not be afraid to make fools of ourselves in the eyes of the world in order to get closer to Jesus – because it is then that Jesus hears our call or calls out to us and it is for us to welcome him gladly and praise him.
Returning to the question I posed at the start – who do you say Jesus is and what do you want him to do for you?
Let us close with a prayer:
Heavenly Father, we give you thanks that through you Son Jesus Christ the blind receive sight and sinners are set free to serve you and to serve others. We pray that through the work of your Holy Spirit in us we will recognise our own areas of blindness and sin and that by faith in Jesus Christ we too shall be set free to be the people you created us to be. AMEN.