Taking a little break from the stories of women to look at three encounters with Jesus by rich men: Nicodemus, The Rich Young Ruler, and Zaccheus--These stories are parables of individuals—we can apply them to our own spiritual lives—but they are also parables of churches, denominations, the church universal. Jesus walks among the churches, we read in Revelation, and he has something to say to each congregation, each denomination, the whole of Christianity.
These individuals were all rich. Two of them had the approval of society, influence and spiritual authority. One had coercive power over others, backed up by the government, but was despised. When Jesus met each of them, he didn’t say the same thing. To the first, he said you must be born again; to the second, he said sell everything you have and give it to the poor; to the third, he said today I must stay at your house
What can we learn from these differences?
We can see that
1) Jesus speaks particular truth to particular individuals or groups.
2) We can see that if we want to have Jesus come to our house, we need to set aside the ways we protect ourselves from what Jesus brings to us, a life at the mercy of the Spirit of God.
3) And we need to quit caring about being approved of by our culture or cultures. Jesus cares more about openness to truth than about approval by others
4) And we show we’re serious about Jesus by being generous and by repenting of what we’ve done wrong and making it right.
Nicodemus came by night. He was a man of position and influence and a Pharisee. His coming by night suggests caution and care about appearances.
He is polite, even complimentary: Rabbi, he says to Jesus, we know you have come from God as a teacher because no one could do what you have done unless God is with him. Nicodemus states that he approves of Jesus’s ministry in a quiet way. He finds out that Jesus doesn’t care about approval. Jesus cares about something else—Nicodemus himself.
Jesus replies, no one can see the kingdom of God unless that person is born again.
Nicodemus says, “how can an old man be born again when he is old?” What I hear in this question is self-defense. What does it mean to be reborn? I think it means I need to make a completely new start, without the protection and mask of influence and position—complete vulnerability, complete dependence, complete openness. It confronts my fear of change.
Jesus makes it even worse for the cautious: This new life is based in the Spirit, and it is not predictable or safe. It is like being the wind, without boundaries, without excuses. A person who is born of the spirit will not seek Jesus under the cover of night. Jesus speaks repeatedly in the passage that follows in John 3 about openness, the public nature of God’s kingdom and the daylight redemption for those who believe in God’s Son.
He warns Nicodemus about preferring the darkness, and he suggests to Nicodemus that such a preference means that he fears that his sinfulness will be exposed. It’s not that the darkness that defines night is outside of God’s love; but Nicodemus takes cover behind influence, power, age, privilege; this state of his heart is revealed when Nicodemus bestows on Jesus his “seal of approval.” Approving of Jesus allows Nicodemus to keep his distance from the new life Jesus brings.
Jesus says to Nicodemus: Set all that down in order to see God’s kingdom with newborn eyes and be one with the wind of God’s spirit sweeping across the countryside.
The (nearly) Perfect Young Man
This story is prefaced in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with Jesus blessing the children and saying that whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child won’t enter it at all. This intriguingly echoes the “born again” advice given to Nicodemus above.
In fact, the youthfulness and openness of this nearly perfect man sets him apart from Nicodemus, though like Nicodemus, he is a ruler. To all appearances, he has the courage of his curiosity, and he approaches Jesus in broad daylight. “Good Teacher (or rabbi),” he says, “what good thing shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” says Jesus in Mark and Luke; “Why are you asking me about what is good?” reports Matthew. Jesus reacts to the man bestowing his approval on Jesus with the word good. Jesus pulls him up short. “You know only God is good.” Don’t try to flatter Jesus.
I notice that Jesus resists flattery. I wish I always did that, also. When someone comes up to me and identifies me as a somehow superior being, I have a hard time finding fault with that person, particularly if he or she is from a position of influence. Oh, I say to myself, I have the seal of approval. I am now ok. I will be careful not to lose that standing.
Suppose I were Jesus; I would see flattery for the temptation it is, the temptation to compare myself with other people to my advantage which is based on the weakness of thinking I am not really ok.
This applies to churches, too. Do churches compare themselves with others? And why do they do so? Are churches open to flattery? Can whole churches and denominations be manipulated to buy into the dominant culture or to prove they are counter-cultural?
Why can Jesus resist this temptation and call out the tempters? Jesus finds his identity in obedience to God. Whatever God tells me to say and do, that’s what I say and do, he says repeatedly. Put down your burden and be in this kind of relationship with me; just like oxen in a yoke, you and I will obey God together.
Back to our story: Jesus meets the perfect young man where he is, measuring himself by the law; Jesus says to him, “do the commandments given by God who is good. “
Now the nearly perfect young man’s façade cracks just a bit: he asks, “which ones? “ This young man is not stupid. He knows he can’t obey all the commandments. As St. Paul said, the law exposes our need for grace; Paul’s own particular downfall was the “do not covet” commandment which went past appearances into the heart. This young man already knows he hasn’t kept ALL the commandments.
The list in Luke are these:
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Honor your father and mother
Mark adds: do not defraud; again, the young man can check this off.
Matthew adds: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I don’t know why these lists are not identical. But I can tell you that the perfection façade cracks wide open with this last commandment. And we know it has broken open when Jesus says, “Give everything you have to the poor—your neighbors—and follow me.” Suddenly that emotional word love has real dimensions—generosity. Generosity outside the family, generosity to the beggar and the undeserving. Be gracious, Jesus tells him. Don’t be legalistic.
So we’ve seen Jesus confront the heart issues of two men of influence and position. Give it up, Jesus says. Lay it down. Give it away. Just you, come follow me with just you. The kingdom is open to those who just drop everything and run into it. The kingdom is being seized violently, he said, urgently, by those with nothing to lose and nowhere else to turn.
One more rich man, but this time a tax-gatherer. I’m sure you know that the tax system under Rome was filled with corruption, that a tax-gatherer could collect much more than was actually required by Rome. Tax-gatherers were beneath contempt, collaborators with the occupying army, not admirable people at all, certainly not in the moral class of the other two rich men.
This particular tax-gatherer, Zaccheus, is a short man. I sympathize with him. He can’t see through a crowd, and so when Jesus comes through town, Zaccheus climbs a tree because he is trying to see who Jesus is. Well, so much for dignity, so much for status; a grown-up throwing aside his fancy clothes, climbing a tree and perching on a limb. That sounds like something a child would do.
And Jesus stops right below the tree, looks up, and says, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” Surprise! Jesus wants to see who Zaccheus is, too. Tumbling out of the tree, Zaccheus receives Jesus gladly. Imagine how he beams, sheer pleasure lighting up his face.
He stands right there in public in his under-tunic, and says to Jesus, “I will give half of everything I own to the poor, and I will repay four times any fraud I’ve committed.” Jesus doesn’t say to him, “Sell everything and give it all away.” He doesn’t need to. He sees how much Zaccheus wants to see who Jesus is. Zaccheus knows what God wants him to do and he rushes to do it. Even if he remains rich, he will be a new person.
What makes this story different from the other two? Zaccheus’s energetic determination to see who Jesus is and the delightful discovery that Jesus knows him by name and by heart. Zaccheus is like a little child, tumbling into the kingdom without dignity, influence, position, wealth, or even most of his clothes.
As I said at the beginning, these stories are parables of individuals—we can apply them to our own spiritual lives; one hearer remarked that she can see herself in each of these at different points in her life. These are also parables of churches, denominations, the church universal. The same questions can be asked of individuals, congregations, denominations: Do we come to Jesus after cover of darkness because we are afraid of change? Do we come to him with the list of everything we’ve done right because we are unwilling to admit our need for grace? Or do we do whatever we can to see who Jesus is, and then out of sheer joy, turn to make life easier for our neighbors and to make things right with those we’ve wronged?