A Disciple Welcomes the Outsider

We have a lady’s book club that meets in our church. Some years ago, they asked me for a suggestion concerning what book they should study. I recommended a novel called The Lamb’s War by Jean de Hartog. [1] imgresWhen I was a new Christian, this book had a profound influence upon my Christian pilgrimage. The book tells the story of the Dutch girl, Laura Martens. Her father, a Quaker, became an adversary of the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp in Holland, where they lived during the Second World War. One day, Laura came to the camp seeking out her father. The Commandant tied her to a radiator and physically abused her in front of her father. The father was then killed. Deeply traumatized, Laura became the unwitting mistress of a German doctor.

When the camp was liberated, Laura was in danger. In particular, so far as the other residents of the camp were concerned, Laura was a collaborator with the hated Germans. Eventually, she was stripped, tarred, and beaten. She was left an even greater emotional wreck than before. Fortunately, a young American, Boniface Baker, who was also a Quaker, had befriended Laura. The story is about their relationship, and her subsequent life from the Second World War until Laura’s death many years later as a mission doctor in Africa

The book is about salvation and healing. It is also starkly realistic: for many, there are limits to the healing we experience in this life. Laura never fully recovered emotionally from her experiences during the war. She became a very difficult person.

It’s been more than 30 years since I read The Lambs War, but it continues to impact my life and ministry today. To her campmates, Laura was a collaborator, and no one likes a collaborator. Yet, Laura had a story that very few people knew, including her fellow prisoners who saw her only as the mistress of Nazi war criminal. Readers, of course, know the whole story; and therefore can have compassion on Laura. Laura was a broken person fighting the Lamb’s War—the the War of the Lamb of God, Jesus, in a harsh and difficult world. [2] Life is often much like this.

The story of Zacheaus

Our text is from Luke chapter 19, verses one through 10. It is a familiar story, one many of us have known since we were children. Here the word of God as it comes to us today from Luke, the traveling companion of the apostle Paul.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1-10).

Lord God: When you came to live among us, you were an outsider. We did not recognize you. We rejected you. Finally, we allowed you to die for our sins. Come so our hearts with your spirit that we might share the love you have for the world. In Jesus name Amen

Zacheaus the Outsider

There is a similarity between the story of Laura Martens and the story of Zacchaeus. Laura was an outsider because she was seen as a collaborator with the hated Germans. Zacchaeus was also hated because he was seen as a collaborator with the hated Romans. Tax collectors were hated by the Jews. Under Roman law, a tax collector was responsible to forward a set amount to Rome. Anything he collected in excess of that amount, he was free to keep. Therefore, a tax collector could become an extremely wealthy person. [3] Nowhere in the Roman Empire were tax collectors loved. Palestine was no exception. However, the fierce nationalism of the Jews made tax collectors especially hated. [4]

I have called Zacchaeus an “outsider” because he stood outside the socially acceptable occupations and behaviors of his society. In every culture, there are outsiders. In some cultures, it is demeaning to engage in certain business activities. For example, the ancient Jews were shepherds. The Egyptians detested shepherds because they smelled like sheep. No good Egyptian wanted to be a shepherd. One reason why it was possible for the Egyptians to treat the Jews so badly was that they practiced an occupation that the Egyptians despised.

We would like to think that we live in enlightened times, and that we are beyond persecuting those were different or outsiders. However, it’s not true. All cultures have norms that children learn from the time they are her a born. Our culture is no exception. Subconsciously, we all shy away from relationships with people who we feel to be dangerous or different in an unhealthy way. Last weekend, I had to travel. Airports are places where we have to rub elbows with people who are very different than we are. Most of the time, I don’t pay much attention to coupon passing as I hurry through the halls of a busy airport. Saturday, I was walking from my gate to the car when I passed two women wearing Afghani Burka’s. I hardly noticed anyone as I walked down the airport corridor trying to get home as fast as I could; but, I noticed those two women immediately and wondered what they were doing. I had no reason except that they were different and come from the nation I regard as threatening.

Jesus Welcomes Outsiders

Jericho was one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the ancient world. It sits near the Jordan River. There is abundant water and the land is fertile. 1335027417_jerichoToday, the city is not so lovely as it once was. In the ancient world and was known for its beauty. It had famous groves of fragrant Balsam trees. Just as ancient Babylon was known for its Hanging Gardens, ancient Jericho was also known for its lovely rose gardens. It is said that the Balsam Groves and the rose gardens perfumed the air for miles around. As a visitor entered the lovely city, he or she was surrounded by lovely trees, lovely buildings, lovely gardens, and a lovely fragrance.

Zacchaeus, the tax collector, wanted to see Jesus. He wanted to know more about this Rabbi about which he had heard. Perhaps, he had heard that one of his disciples, Levi or “Matthew” as we know him, was a tax collector. As an outcast, Zacchaeus wanted to see this Rabbi who might even welcome him and seemed to love sinners.

Unfortunately, Zacchaeus had two problems: He was short and people hated him. When he arrived at the city gates to see Jesus, he could not see the road. He would have to stand in the front row near the road to see Jesus. However, the people of Jericho hated Zacchaeus. Therefore, no one moved over so that Zacchaeus could see Jesus enter the city and judge for himself what kind of a person Jesus was. In fact, scholars believe that people probably hit Zacchaeus from behind and pushed back against him, just to prevent him from being able to see. Like tarring and feathering the body of a young girl, this was a way to see that a hated collaborator got exactly what he deserved.

Unable to get to the front row near the road where he could see Jesus, Zacchaeus did the next best thing: He found a sycamore-fig tree (Luke 19:4). Sycamore-fig trees are relatively short. They have low lying limbs and are easy to climb. Zacchaeus would have no trouble climbing such a tree, so he did. imgres-1Just about this time, Jesus passed by. We are told that Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (19:5). Zacchaeus came down and welcomed Jesus into his home (v. 6). Jesus was not afraid to be seen with the outsider. Jesus was not afraid to have fellowship with a man no one else liked or respected. Jesus was pure—purer than any of us—but he was not afraid to be in contact with those less pure. Not everyone was so generous or open-minded. In fact, we are told that the majority of the people looking at what was happening were upset! (v. 7). They could not believe that a rabbi, a man of God, would be the guest of a tax collector and collaborator with the Romans.

This is, perhaps, a part of the story 21st-century Christians have a hard time understanding. In the ancient Middle East, and even in the Middle East today, hospitality is an important virtue. However, like all virtues, it was to be practiced at the right place and the right time. In Jesus’s culture, when a person accepted hospitality from another, he became indebted to that person. Table fellowship implied a relationship which could not easily be broken and created a reciprocal obligation. [5] For Jesus to accept the hospitality Zacchaeus, was for Jesus to in some way become indebted to Zacchaeus, to owe him hospitality in return and tacitly to approve of Zacchaeus in some way. As a rabbi, as a leader of the people, and as a devout Jew, Jesus should not accept the hospitality of a sinner, a tax collector, a collaborator, an exploiter, an evil man. Nevertheless, Jesus did.

We live in a different world, and in some ways it is easier socially for us to reach out our own comfort zone and have fellowship with those who are outsiders. However, at the deepest level, we are no different than the ancient Jews. We find a difficult to make friendships with those who come from other nations, some of whom we secretly fear. We find it difficult to have social relationships with people who are of a different race, a different culture, a different religion, a different social background. It doesn’t have to be the case that we perceive people as dangerous to have difficulty accepting them. It is interesting that our text notes that Zacchaeus was rich, as if his wealth was also a barrier to him having relationships with his fellow residents of Jericho. We can be prejudiced against those who we feel have accomplished more than we have accomplished or have more money than we have just as easily as we can be prejudiced against those who we perceive as immoral or dangerous.

Jesus was not Afraid

Jesus showed us a different and better way. I mentioned my experience in an airport terminal for a reason. Why did I notice two women dressed in Burka’s and no one else on the long walk from the last gate to the parking garage? Was it simply because they were different? Or, was it because I was afraid? When people belong to a race or religion or creed that has threatened or harmed us or our nation or our loved ones, we are afraid. When people are different, we are also naturally afraid. This is part of human nature. It was true in the ancient world; and it is true today. Subconsciously, we all fear or suspect those who are different from us. We also sometimes fear and/or resist relationships with those who we feel inferior to or whom we find challenging.

Jesus did not fear or shy away from those who were different. He was not afraid of the outsider. In fact, he viewed Zacchaeus as an outsider who needed to become an insider. Jesus viewed Zacchaeus as a person outside of the kingdom of God, outside of the People of God, outside of the church of God, who needed to be inside. Jesus also knew that the surest way to bring Zacchaeus from the outside to the inside was too become his friend. Therefore, Jesus accepted an offer of hospitality – in fact he created an opportunity for hospitality – and developed a relationship with Zacchaeus.

We live in a culture in which many people are afraid of the church. They may never have been inside a church building. In some cases, they been inside a church building but the experience was not favorable. Such people have little or no understanding of Christians or Christianity. To such people, we can seem a bit dangerous.

Years ago, in Houston, I had to go to a prominent black church and make a small presentation. In order to attend this church, I had to drive through an area of Houston I normally would not have entered. When I got to the church, it’s customs and style of worship were very different than I was accustomed to. Although when I left the church I felt welcome, when I entered the church everyone looked at me because I was the only person in the church wearing a three-piece suit, a white oxford shirt, and a Brooks Brothers tie. My discomfort didn’t last long because the pastor and elders of the church almost immediately recognized who I was and why I was there. They came, welcomed me, and took me to where I should sit. They talked with me, and pretty soon I felt at home.

Christians are now often seen as different and perhaps dangerous. If we do not reach out and give hospitality to strangers, strangers are very unlikely to reach out and seek hospitality with us. This is not the first sermon over the last few years on the subject matter of hospitality at Advent. This is not the first sermon about reaching out to those who are different. I think, perhaps, the reason this sermon was placed in this series was to remind us to take seriously the call of Christ to go to the outsider and invite the outsider inside so that the outsider can become a Christian and be a disciple of Jesus and experience the joys of being inside the kingdom of God.

The Outsider Becomes an Insider

Zacchaeus, touched by Jesus’s warmth and friendship, had a change of heart. This man who was known for his greed and his grasping looked at the crowd and said to them, “Look, Lord here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Then, Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, and said “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (v. 9). And then, I think, Jesus continued on, after glancing at the crowd to be sure they were listening, and said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what is lost” (v. 10).

God saved us when we were outsiders. He asks us to go into our world and there to invite outsiders to come in and be a part of the family of God. Sometimes, it’s not easy or comfortable. This may not always be true, but in my experience it’s always been true: There is no joy quite as great as as welcoming an outsider into the Kingdom of God.

It’s almost winter. When it’s cold, and when the wind is biting, there is that moment when we opened the door and welcome a friend inside. As they passed the threshold of the door and clap their hands together, they almost always smile and say, “It’s great to be inside.”

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Jan de Hartog, The Lamb’s War (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1980). Hartog eventually moved to the United States. While living in Houston, Texas, he wrote a book, “The Hospital” that became a well known critique of the state of indigent care in Houston and provoked many changes. He was a Quaker by the end of his life.  He died in Houston a few years ago.

[2] The Quakers have an entire theology of peace which they sometimes call by the name, “The Lamb’s War.”

[3] Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., “Tax Collector” in The New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Rev. Ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1883), 1227-1228.

[4] See, William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke in “The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: 1975), 233ff. The historical narrative is based upon his commentary.

[5] This is at root why it was difficult for Peter to imagine that he should have table fellowship with Gentiles and why he and Paul had an argument in Galatia. See Galatians 2:11-14).

One thought on “A Disciple Welcomes the Outsider”

  1. The world is lost if indeed we have to be told to go out and drag them in. Like the Parable of the Unwilling Guests, there are some who are not welcome, and as the King did, they are cast out. Our world is such that not everyone can be trusted. Perhaps that is why you noticed the two Muslim women in head scarves.
    Matthew 10: 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. 16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
    This type of scripture is actually wisdom. We cannot be too careful. Yet You make a good point. There are some people today who are not reachable, and some who are, one must make the effort, and if as Jesus says, they do not listen, then we must leave that town and shake the dust off our feet. But we at least must make the effort. God will do the rest.

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