Reflection: "Come on Down!"
Zacchaeus wasn’t a very tall man, barely standing five feet tall with his shoes off and he was probably one of the least popular men in Jericho, because he was the head tax-collector in that district for the Roman occupying forces and he’d made a huge profit out of it.
He was the richest man in town, as well as being the shortest.
Last week, I used the lectionary reading from Luke 18 - the passage about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple.
We certainly got the idea from that reading, that tax collectors were pretty despicable characters and not at all popular with the Jewish people.
Still, when word got around that Jesus would soon be passing through his town, Zacchaeus shinnied up a sycamore tree so that he could see something more than just the backs of other people's heads.
And that's precisely where he was when Jesus spotted him.
And in the words of that recent TV game show, Jesus called out, “Zacchaeus, come on down!”, adding “I'm going to eat at your house tonight.”
Well, the reaction from the people was not exactly the thunderous applause that the game show audience respond with.
The people nearby were actually amazed and, I think, a little horrified.
It was beyond belief to think that Jesus wouldn’t have had better sense than to invite himself into the house of a man whom nobody else would touch with a ten-foot barge pole.
But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.
He’d spent his life perfecting the art of mixing with the marginalised people of the land.
Zacchaeus, meanwhile, was so taken aback by the honour of hosting Jesus for dinner, that before he had a chance to change his mind, he blurted out a promise to not only turn over 50% of his holdings to the poor, but to also pay back four times the cash he'd extorted from anyone else.
Why this sudden change of heart?
What had turned this money-grabbing shylock into a philanthropist?
It all came down to the fact that, when Zacchaeus came into a relationship with Jesus, something remarkable happened.
Jesus set him free from the stunted, distorted self-image that had corrupted his life.
Jesus set Zacchaeus free to be his true self - as one made in the likeness of God - a creature made for loving, for giving, for sharing.
Jesus could easily have seen in Zacchaeus what everyone else did: a greedy, ruthless, despicable traitor who collected taxes for the Roman occupation forces.
But Jesus saw a lot more in him.
He knew that there was a child of Abraham locked away in Zacchaeus and Jesus wanted to release it.
In other words, Jesus acknowledged him as a Jew and gave him the benefit of the doubt, so that he could turn his current life around. We’ll never know the details of what went on between Jesus and the tax collector over that meal, but we do know the result.
Zacchaeus started to recover his lost inner beauty and bearing fruits to prove it. He said:
“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”.
To which Jesus replied:
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”
Zacchaeus was looking for God, but God had already found him.
Knowledge had happened and revelation had taken place.
It’s common today for people to tell us that “knowledge is power”, but this was a personal kind of knowledge that Zacchaeus now embraced. It was the ultimate power.
It’s a power which Christ still has: to reveal God to us and to show us our own true nature.
So what is it that you see in the bathroom mirror, first thing in the morning?
Do you just see a life form with a complex plumbing system?
A pile of beige or brown coloured cells?
A mass that consists mostly of water?
Maybe the aftermath of your last 500 takeaway meals?
A chance fragment of consciousness in an unconscious universe?
These are all terms that have been variously used to describe us - people.
Or do you see something which God has revealed and redeemed through Christ Jesus: a child of Abraham, or better still: a child of God and a sister, or brother, of Christ.
There’s something truly divine about you; something infinitely precious and glorious.
That’s a part of the revelation of which we are stewards.
The other part of that revelation is that God, the Awesome First Person, far more glorious than all the billions of suns and stars in the universe, is tirelessly seeking your self-rehabilitation.
To God, you are so priceless, that no trouble is too much for him in trying to achieve your reclamation!
Out in the community, this very day, there may well be someone who’s thinking: “Rick, in my case, you’ve got it all wrong. There’s nothing precious about me. If you knew my ugly thoughts and feelings; if you knew about my broken promises and sullied ideals; if you knew my lack of prayer and lack of faith; if you knew about my simmering resentments and lusts; if you only knew the real me, you wouldn’t stand up there and say that I’m precious.”
The real you isn’t all about the sins and follies of your life.
God already knows all about them and yet he loves and treasures you, all the same.
My faith in your preciousness isn’t based on observation or investigation; it’s based on revelation.
That is, your true identity flows from God; from that immense, beautiful, throbbing Spirit who is within, and behind, all creation and whom Jesus revealed in his life and death and resurrection.
There may come a time when you might want to seek me out and tell me a sad story about your failings.
As your Pastor, I’ll listen carefully and compassionately and recognise the pain in your heart.
I’ll attempt to assist you.
But I will draw the line at one thing: I’ll never accept that you are just a ‘waste of space’.
You may have failed your Lord a million times, but that doesn’t alter God’s belief in you and his eternal love for you.
As we read in our bibles, God is willing to wipe the slate clean and let us start all over again.
Even the Apostle Paul, when writing to the fledgling church in Thessaloniki, reminded the congregation that they weren’t judged by the way other people viewed them, but by their steadfastness and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, I encourage you to look inside yourself!
Affirm what you are in God’s eyes.
Lift up your head.
Reach forwards towards that day when Christ will complete his work of grace in you and you shall have actually become the glorious being that you are in God’s eyes!
This day salvation has come to this house; for we also are children of Abraham - that’s us.
So let’s go out and live our lives just for God from this time on!
“Let us go into our lives in the joy of knowing we are loved.
Let us go in that truth, and in that peace, to love and serve the Lord.
Reflection: "Where to Stand in Church"
Evidently, going to church can be a tricky business.
One person might enter this sanctuary thinking: “I feel good here. I’m doing okay, God. Thank you that I have not fallen in temptation like some others I know. Bless me that I may keep up the good work.”
Another person might slip into this place thinking: “I’ve got no right to be here, God. I’ve really screwed up and made a mess of my life. If you can, God, have pity on me.”
According to Jesus, the first person would probably leave this church at odds with God, while the second one could well leave very much okay with God.
Here’s another bit of sharp discomforting word from the Parable Man! Jesus just could not help himself, could he? He keeps upsetting our ideas of what is appropriate or inappropriate, fair or unfair, but he continually throws us back into the arms of God’s free gift of grace.
Among the four Gospel compilers, I find Luke especially enthusiastic about this aspect of Christ.
The familiar benediction which commences: “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” may not have originated with Luke, but the theme is certainly dear to his heart.
His Gospel is about some great news for the world – “Grace”.
Providing the unbuyable, unpredictable, uncalculated, seemingly indiscriminate, generosity of God - to even the most despicable of characters.
But don’t gloss over this fact; I did just say: “despicable characters.”
In this parable, the tax collector is not painted as a really nice guy, in spite of his profession.
By the way, our son-in-law, Tim, used to work for the ATO until just recently, so I suppose he could have been called a modern day “tax collector”, but it’s actually considered an honest profession these days.
In those days, such people were rogues, despicable people.
Our common use of the word “tax collectors” as those whom Jesus welcomed, must not blunt the fact that they were usually traitors; “low lifes”, who collected taxes for the occupying army.
These men were hated for good reason, as they were the “bag men” for Rome.
With the broad swords of the Roman military behind them, they enforced the payment of tolls, even from the poorest of the poor.
And they also made an extortionate profit from the business, on the side.
So, the tax man at the back of the Temple was probably one of these low-life’s – a real blood sucking creep.
I imagine him as very plump, well dressed and wearing lots of expensive jewellery.
On the other hand, the Pharisee was probably a truly good man.
I imagine him as being lean - from living with moderation and fasting often.
He’s trying desperately hard to do the right thing.
The only obligatory fast for a good Jew was once a year on the Day of Atonement, but this chap is voluntarily doing it twice a week.
What’s more, he doesn’t merely give a tenth of his income to the temple, he gives a tenth of the cost of anything he buys; just in case the shop keeper doesn’t tithe with his income.
This is not one of those religious guys who gets legalistic and meticulously pays attention to legal requirement, but doesn’t do a thing more.
This man is generous, and we would probably love to have him as a member of any church, wouldn’t we?
Well, where does the Pharisee go wrong, and where does the tax collector get it right?
To start with, notice the Pharisee prayed about himself – no mention of God.
He’s airing his goodness before God, rather than communing with God.
He’s flaunting his virtues, instead of falling down in awe before such pure beauty and holy love.
Then things get worse.
Where the Pharisee goes totally wrong is when he attempts to justify himself by making comparisons with others.
“I thank you God that I am not like everyone else,” he says, in an attempt to find his soul’s security by establishing his credentials as compared with the poor credentials of extortionists, the unjust, and adulterers.
You may have heard a similar comment from someone watching the news or reading a paper.
They comment on an item about some respectable person who has been caught breaking the law:
“I may not be a saint, but at least I’m not like that fellow!”
Or the worldly person, who plays the self-justification game this way:
“I know I don’t go to church very often, but at least I’m not a hypocrite like some of them!”
In the presence of God, we’re not like siblings, jealous of each other and hoping to buy more parental love by being better than our sisters and brothers.
We don’t earn good points that way, nor do we earn extra vouchers by bad-mouthing others.
Our only justification for being in the presence of God comes down to this: God’s unconditional love for us.
We’re here because God wants us here.
The tax collector was a despicable man, but he knew he was and looked for nothing but the mercy of God.
He knew he had no right to be in the Temple and he was aware that any comparison with others would leave him in more debt.
The only way he was going to feel okay was if God granted it to him.
And God did – as a free gift - gratis!
Grace is what this Gospel message is fundamentally about.
Self-vindication can lead to a terrible poverty, but God’s love can restore us.
It’s a tragedy that those who try to justify themselves leave no room to receive grace.
Morally, they may be living exemplary lives; yet their well-stocked, neatly packed, self-justifications leave no hole into which the grace of God can take hold.
They go home unpardoned - not because God withholds grace, but because they’re not ready to receive it.
If you’re full of yourself, there’s not much room for God.
On the other hand, all kinds of sinners who’ve given up hopes of self-vindication, are able to find grace, mercy and peace, as they have a hunger, a gnawing emptiness in their souls, a room for grace to enter in and work its miracle.
I have one final comment - a sting in the tail - if you like.
There is a little, demonic trap lurking close by after we’ve heard this parable.
It’s the temptation for each of us to think: “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.” Oops.
Don’t be like him – so full of yourself that you can’t come openly to God and gratefully accept his gift of grace.
Be thankful for all the gifts God has provided for you and tell it to him regularly – in your prayers.
Reflection: "Don't Get Discouraged"
Many of us might have had an experience like the persistent widow in the Gospel reading from Luke.
If you have ever had to deal with an insurance company or a government agency, or in some cases even a child’s school, a hospital, or the justice system, you might know how it feels to wonder if anyone is listening or responding to your needs.
We’ve probably all experienced the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, but sometimes, when our needs are most serious, we can experience these feelings of being unheard in the middle of an emotional or desperate situation – and that can be devastating.
We can even feel like Sisyphus in the famous myth: struggling to lift a heavy weight up a tall mountain.
But just when we think we’ve reached the top, it rolls all the way back down and we’re forced to start at the beginning again.
More often than not, it is our persistence, our unwillingness to let things slide, or our unwillingness to lose hope, that eventually leads to success.
Jesus told his disciples to always pray and to never give up.
The teaching in this parable on prayer follows directly on Jesus' teaching on the coming of the Son of Man in Ch 17.
Indeed, verse 8 of this parable ends with exactly that theme.
In verse 1 we read a reminder to the disciples who may be undergoing a struggle, just prior to the return of the Son of Man, not to give up hope, but to keep praying.
Luke reveals the point of the parable in advance: "that they should always pray and not give up".
"Always" in Greek means "always, at all times" and Jesus is teaching us to continually pray, again and again.
Some might say that once you've asked God for something, it displays lack of faith to ask for it again, but
Jesus teaches clearly that we are to continue to pray until we receive the answer.
The act of continuing to pray is not a sign of little faith, but of persistent faith.
We know that widows had a difficult time in early Palestine.
Normally, the wife of a deceased man had no legal right to inherit her husband's estate, so that when he died, she couldn't take for granted that she could continue living in his house.
If they had no children, the estate reverted to her husband's male relatives on his father's side -- his brothers, his father's brothers, and then the nearest family kinsman.
If she had grown children, things would be easier; they would take care of her.
But a widow with small children had a difficult time.
We don't know how the widow was being cheated, but her judge appeared to be on her opponent's side.
She didn't have money for lawyers, as she was probably holding on by a thread.
But there is one thing we know about her -- she didn't take "no" for an answer.
She was a squeaky door demanding oil and the judge decided to grant her what she was due just to get rid of her.
Probably there wasn't a real widow, nor a real judge, but Jesus' hearers had met widows like her and had experience with judges like him.
In the audience you would have seen people nodding their heads, because they'd met people like that, so the story was true-to-life for them.
The judge was concerned with himself -- his own opinions, his own comfort, his own income.
In verse 6, Jesus calls him "unjust" and though it isn't explicit, there was probably a reason that the judge wouldn't give the widow justice - probably had to do with money.
It is possible that the judge was either taking bribes to fatten his purse or had an "arrangement" with a wealthy citizen who stood to lose if the widow won her case.
The judge was arrogant, self-absorbed, and unjust, a powerful man facing down one of the weakest members of society - a widow.
Then, in his parable, Jesus substitutes God and his chosen ones, instead of the unjust judge and the widow.
Note that he wasn’t saying that God is unjust - no, and that's just the point.
Jesus points out that if an unjust, selfish judge will see that justice is done in response to persistent requests, how much more will the just God bring justice to his own beloved people who pray constantly for relief.
It's easy for people in situations like these to get discouraged, disappointed.
When the church was young, the new followers of Christ were sure that they would see his return in their lifetime. However, with 2,000 years of hindsight, we now know better.
If you read carefully Jesus' words to his disciples, you see that his message is consistent: Stay spiritually awake and be ready, for I come in an hour that you do not expect.
When we try to put his Second Coming on a calendar, we get disappointed and we're not the only ones.
In the latter part of the First Century, Peter wrote:
"First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, following their own evil desires.
They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation....”
"But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." (2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-10)
When Jesus comes again, it will be at the right time, not at our time or our preference, but God's - the right - time.
Jesus told a parable of persistence, of a widow - weak in the world's estimation - who has won a victory because she didn't give up hope, she doesn't give up her plea, and finally wins the day.
But what about you and me.
We sometimes become so worn down and discouraged by our lives that we stop praying, stop hoping, stop expecting God to intervene.
Will we be religious, church-going unbelievers who have given up expecting an answer, whose prayers are just going through the motions?
Jesus told this story to us disciples so that we might be encouraged and not become discouraged.
None of us are weaker than the widow and none of us are facing longer odds than she was.
But because of her persistence and faith even the unjust judge gave her what she requested.
How much more we can expect God to intervene on your behalf?
How much more will God bring justice to us, since we are his beloved, chosen child?
Yes, we will become discouraged at times - even Paul did.
But we must not quit and not give up praying – continually.
“Remember that God has been with us from the beginning and is always with us.
Today, in this moment, we are living miracles of the Creator God.
Let us go out into our day knowing that we have tasted the essence of God!
Talk to God constantly and remember to thank him for all that he does for us, in us and through us.”
Throughout his Gospel, Luke presents the Gospel, or Good News, with the telling of parables, or stories.
He illustrates a series of personal encounters between Jesus and others – sometimes with the followers of Jesus, sometimes with his opponents, sometimes with strangers.
There were crowds of the curious and hopeful - and various other individuals – a tax collector, a centurion, a grieving mother, a sinful woman, a man inflicted with demons.
As Luke relates these stories, he shows how Jesus responds with love and grace and uses the occasions to teach the values of God, whilst all the time challenging the contrasting and distorted ways of the world.
Now, having reached Chapter 17, we find Luke recalling an episode in which Jesus was engaged by 10 lepers who were begging for mercy.
These unfortunates suffered from what we now call Hansen’s Disease, a chronic bacterial infection which affects the nerve endings, meaning that the afflicted cannot “feel”.
This malady, known among humans for thousands of years, went untreated in biblical times and caused permanent damage to skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, compromised the immune system, and hastened death.
Contrary to popular belief, it did not cause limbs to “drop off”, although secondary infections may have hastened their decay.
Though it’s now known to be only mildly infectious, the ancients considered it highly contagious and forced lepers to stay away from others, identifying their condition by calling out “unclean, unclean” when approaching others.
As a result, they were excluded from the general society and forced to make their own communities.
They became like dead men walking – at the mercy of others, ostracized, alienated from the richness of family life and the comfort of communal religious practices.
Like others, the lepers in today’s gospel reading were outcasts who bound themselves to one another out of necessity and because no one else would touch them.
All that mattered was their disease, as evidenced by the inclusion among them of a Samaritan, who would have been a hated and shunned foreigner in mainline Jewish society.
This band of 10 had nothing to offer others; nothing to offer Jesus.
When they saw him coming, they recognized him, perhaps by his reputation as a holy man, and approached within shouting distance, calling out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Possessing enough inspiration, or maybe just a sense of desperation, they reached out to Jesus with an appeal for healing that went beyond all conventional expectations.
And Jesus didn’t hesitate in his response.
He didn’t back off - or require the lepers to confess a faith in God.
He didn’t inquire about whether they were worthy – in fact, he didn’t ask anything of them.
Jesus just saw them for what they were, desperate men, in need of God’s grace and he said simply, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
According to Jewish law, a cured leper had to appear before the priests, who would conduct a series of elaborate ritual actions, in order to declare them cleansed.
The lepers, who had put their hope in Jesus, now displayed enough faith to obey him.
They immediately left his presence to go to the priests and then begin their new lives, made possible by Jesus.
What Jesus did for them, of course, bore remarkable significance.
Not only were they cured of a horrendous, disabling disease, but the cleansing also enabled them to overcome what was perhaps the greater affliction, separation from society.
Now, having been cured, they could return to their families, to become a part of the community that had cast them out. Now they could participate in life fully - restored physically and socially and surely experiencing the beginnings of emotional healing.
Yet, we might ask, did they gain everything Jesus hoped for?
Did they achieve spiritual healing, as well?
We’ll never know about all of them, but we have assurance that one did – the Samaritan who returned to give thanks to Jesus.
What led to his distinguishing himself by praising God and falling at Jesus’ feet in gratitude?
It was easier for him – as a double outcast – to see clearly the remarkable nature of what had happened.
Jesus was saddened that the outsider, the Samaritan, was the only one who came back, and he used the examples of the one and the nine, to teach his disciples another lesson about the grace of God.
He was clearly disappointed by the behaviour of the nine, and in earshot of his followers, he said to the now-cleansed Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.”
In place of the word “well,” some bible translations use the words “made whole” or “saved.”
There is ambiguity about the Greek meaning, but its use by Jesus implies more than just being cured from a disease.
“Your faith has made you whole,” seems closer to the way Jesus used this episode to provide a new teaching.
The Samaritan was not simply physically cured of Hansen’s Disease, like the others, but experienced something more important – God’s saving grace.
His response to being cleansed, demonstrated that his view of God was closer to what Jesus came to earth to reveal. As he wasn’t of the Jewish faith, there was no reason for him to gain certification of his cure by rushing to the priests.
Instead, before anything else, he saw God as the centre of the personal miracle he was experiencing.
And so, the Samaritan returned and gave thanks for the chance to renew his life.
This was the beginning of his personal transformation, and it provided a fitting model for Jesus to honour.
The man was not only cured physically, but he also gained spiritual wholeness.
For the worshiper, there are several things to glean from today’s gospel reading – community, inclusivity and wholeness - in the life of the world and in Christianity.
We can think about it when we come to the communion table.
What we experience among our fellow worshipers, in prayer and in the common meal, is unity in its purest form. Receiving the sacrament of the bread and the cup, the body and blood of Christ, all else is shut out but the holy context.
We are at one with God and one another, in a sublime moment of grace - in this moment we’re made whole.
Even if we lose this reality as we depart from the church, we know it as a deep truth on which to draw on our journeys of faith.
In that moment, we know that everyone is like the Samaritan, freed from alienation and separation from others - in a realm of inclusion with God.
Luke’s story of this encounter between Jesus and the lepers allows him to teach us about the disappointment Jesus must have felt because the other nine failed to return and give thanks, but also the joy he must have experienced in discovering that the Samaritan recognized the deeper truths of God.
When Jesus reflects on the difference, he’s speaking to us, today, as well as the disciples of old.
Today we’re reminded of the sadness of our Lord when we, like the nine, fail to thank him.
More importantly, we are led to emulate the Samaritan by recognising the source of our healing – and that is God.
We can take joy in the act of committing ourselves anew to respond in love and gratitude to the grace, forgiveness and wholeness of God that we can all have - simply by accepting this freely offered gift.
So often we forget to give God the thanks that he deserves.
So don’t be like the nine, but instead, return back to God and give thanks to him for all his goodness towards you.
This is a copy of the message given at Lane Cove uniting Church by Andrew Corish on Sunday 2nd October
Luke 17:5-10 Increase our Faith
In our passage today from Luke, the disciples ask Jesus to “increase our faith”.
Perhaps it is a bit surprising that the disciples felt a need for more faith, considering they had Jesus there with them to guide them. But they were facing perilous times and an uncertain future. Many of us have felt the need that if only we had more faith, things would be easier.
So, what is “faith”; how much do we need; how can we get more?
I googled “faith” in Luke’s gospel. It came up with 5 incidences where Jesus used the word faith and complemented people for their faith. There were another 2 times where he criticised people for their lack of faith, in both cases being the disciples.
The first instance is in Luke 5:17. Jesus is teaching in Galilee, and it said Pharisees and lawyers came from Jerusalem and every town and village in Israel, such was his fame, and he was drawing huge crowds. It seems he was teaching in an open-air venue under a roof, probably in a synagogue. Just then some men came, carrying a paralysed man on a stretcher. They were unable to approach Jesus such was the density of the crowd. Somehow, they managed to get around the back of the building and climbed on the roof with ropes and removed the tiles above Jesus’ head. Then they let down the man slowly until he came to the ground in front of Jesus. Jesus was impressed and bemused. The passage said, “when Jesus saw their faith” he told the man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” And he healed the man who went home glorifying God. So, it was the faith, not only of the paralysed man, but of his friends helping him and it was faith characterised by courage, initiative, determination and trust in Jesus. It led to healing and a new life.
The second story is from Luke 7. Jesus is in Capernaum. There is a Roman Centurion who sends Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come. He has a slave he is concerned about who is close to death. The elders impress upon Jesus how he is worthy of Jesus coming, as he loves our people and built our synagogue. That’s strange, isn’t it. That a Roman would be so supportive of Jews and their religion. And that the Centurion would be so concerned about a slave, treating him more like a family member. So, Jesus comes. But the Centurion changes his mind. He sends Jesus a message. Please don’t come any further because I am not worthy, and I didn’t presume to trouble you by coming to you. Just say the word and my slave will be healed. Because I too have authority and say to come, and people come, and go and they go. And indeed, his commands were a matter of life and death. Jesus is impressed and says, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” It is faith showing humility, and trust in Jesus and his authority. It is faith directed at helping someone in need.
The third story is later in Chapter 7. Jesus has been invited to dinner by a Pharisee. It is apparently more a public event and people had access to it. A “woman of the city”, a sex worker, brought an alabaster jar of ointment and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. We know from Paul in Corinthians how forbidden it was for women to be in public with hair unveiled. So, this was an act of abandonment of her dignity by this woman. And the Pharisee thought “if this man was a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman she is and who is touching him.” Jesus then criticises the Pharisee for his lack of charity and hospitality. But to the woman he says, “your sins are forgiven.” And then, “your faith has made you well, go in peace.” Again, faith which showed courage, persistence, trust; willingness to risk everything. Leading to forgiveness. And the chance to start a new life. Her faith made her well and she received peace.”
Then to 8:42. Jesus is making his way through a dense crowd who are jostling him. There is a woman, who had suffered haemorrhages for 12 years and had spent all her money on useless cures. Now she was an outcast and no one would touch her or come near her, such was the taboo against her. But she got in her mind; that if she could just touch the fringe of his clothes, she could be healed. And she did and immediately felt it. But Jesus stopped and said, “and who touched me?” Peter said to the effect, “don’t be ridiculous Jesus, everyone is touching you.” But Jesus said, “no, someone touched me because I felt the power go out of me.” And the woman came forward trembling, because she was an unclean person and had touched a Rabbi. And he told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” So again, courage, trust and persistence; leading to healing and a new life and peace.
Next in chapter 17. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem and is approached by 10 lepers and heals them and they go on their way. But one turns back and prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. And he is a hated Samaritan. And Jesus, somewhat bemused, says ironically, “were there not 10 made clean. Where are the other 9 good Jewish boys. Were none found to return and give praise to God except for this Foreigner?” Then he turns to the man and says, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” Now he had already been previously cured of leprosy. Jesus is talking about making him really well; in mind and spirit and being made right with God. By prostrating himself before Jesus, Jesus said he is giving “praise to God.” So, it is a story of faith and gratitude, giving thanks to God by recognising Jesus, and being really healed in body and soul.
Final one, Chapter 18. They are approaching Jericho and a blind beggar calls out “Son of David have mercy on me.” And wouldn’t stop and be silenced despite others sternly speaking to him. But Jesus stops. And asked him to be brought to him. The beggar asks to be healed. And Jesus says, “receive your sight, your faith has saved you.” Courage, persistence, faith leading to healing and starting a new life.
Two other times Jesus mentions “faith”. In chapter 12 Jesus tells his disciples, don’t worry about what you eat or what you wear. By worrying can they add a single hour to their lives? Consider the beautiful lilies of the field, here today and gone tomorrow. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these; “you of little faith”, Jesus said Isn’t that interesting. It seems Jesus was not into being judgemental and inducing guilt and fear to control people, as his church subsequently did and emphasised. His critics more than anything criticised Jesus for partying and eating with tax collectors and sinners and having a good time. Here he is saying, faith is about not being anxious and worrying about small things. Just focus on the kingdom of God and everything will be OK.
Secondly in Chapter 8, Jesus is in a boat on the sea of Galilee at night. A great storm arises, and the boat begins sinking and disciples fear for their lives. But they see Jesus asleep and wake him and say, “we are perishing” and doesn’t he care. Jesus stills the storm and tells the disciples, “Where is your faith?” So, if Jesus is with you, even in a crisis, you have no need to fear.
Returning to our bible story today in Ch 17. What does Jesus say in in answer to the disciples request to “increase our faith”
He says, “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.”
Jesus liked a good allegory. He paints vivid word pictures. He particularly liked the analogy of the mustard seed. It is mentioned 7 times in the gospels, including that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. The miracle of a tiny seed producing a great tree and particularly useful ones like mustard trees and mulberry trees.
The point Jesus is making is that; you don’t need much. You in fact have more than enough faith already. You just have to put it into action.
He goes on in the passage today, to speak of the slave coming in from the field. He can’t then sit down at this master’s table and expect to be fed. He has his duty to perform in first serving is master. So also, do we. We have our duties to perform in assisting and helping others. We have no basis to feel too proud of ourselves if we are just being what we should be as Christians, loving the Lord your God will all your heart and soul and loving your neighbour as yourself.
So, from these stories, faith seems to involve courage, persistence, ingenuity, humility, helping others, giving thanks to God. It involves not being anxious or fearful. Above all it involves showing trusting in Jesus. Not trying force yourself to believe a set of increasing unbelievable dogma which the church has been so obsessed with over the ages. Just believing in Jesus and honouring him and by doing so, honouring God. And then acting upon it.
And remembering; you only need faith the size of a mustard seed. See how small the mustard seed is? I have put some out on plates at the exit. Pick up a few grains after the service. That is all the faith you need. If you have that much faith, you can do anything and be anything you want to be. And you never need to be worried or anxious or fearful again. What a miracle.
Rose Kennedy the matriarch of Kennedy dynasty in America said, “I have come to the conclusion that the most important element in human life is faith.”
I think that is probably true.