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Reading between the Chapters: The Label Maker

October 21, 2007

Luke 18:35-19:10

While Clare and I were at the coast several weeks ago, I sat down and read the entire Gospel of Luke in one sitting. So often when we read Scripture, we stop at the end of a chapter and put the Bible aside. The next time we read, we begin at a chapter heading. You realize, of course, that the authors of the Scriptures did not include chapter headings and verses. For example, the physician Luke wrote this gospel without any such divisions. The original text of the Scriptures had no demarcation between chapters and verses. Scholars actually added chapter markings 1,200 years after the Scriptures were written, thinking the smaller components would help people grasp the meaning easier. About 200 years after that, scholars separated the chapters into even smaller units, verses, in the Old Testament. Another 100 years passed before scholars divided the New Testament into verses. The very first Bible that had chapter demarcations was the one by John Wycliffe. The Geneva Bible is the first having chapter and verse divisions. This way of dividing the content is a very recent development. When we read the Bible and stop at the end of a chapter or stop after a few verses, we tend to miss the flow of Scripture. It is important for us to continue reading into the next chapter from time to time. That is particularly true in today’s text, which covers parts of two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 18 and Chapter 19.

Today’s sermon, “Reading between the Chapters: The Label Maker,” allows us to consider the encounters Jesus has with two people while on his way to the town of Jerusalem, the capital city. His route takes him down the Jordan Valley through the town of Jericho. Groups of pilgrims, also traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, follow him. Even now when Jewish families celebrate the Passover, they conclude the Sadar meal by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” It is the fond hope of every Jewish person to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.

As was the custom of rabbis in those days, Jesus teaches his disciples and others who are following along as he walks. You might think of it as a movable classroom. As he approaches Jericho, a blind beggar sitting on the side of the road rudely interrupts Jesus’ teaching, shouting, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” This blind beggar probably knows something about the ministry of Jesus. He has probably heard stories about this young rabbi from Galilee who could heal the blind. When someone told him that Jesus was passing by, he knew this might be his only opportunity to encounter Jesus.

The man is quite insistent with his shouts. Though those at the head of the procession try to quiet the man, saying, “Hush! Don’t interrupt the teacher,” he refuses to become silent. William Barclay points out that Verse 38 uses one word for shout that means an increase in volume. The man shouts at the top of his voice so that Jesus can hear him. Verse 39 uses a different word for shout, one that means a desperate plea of someone in terrible need. Think of the plea of a drowning man. The blind beggar is desperate for a new life.

Jericho was significant in terms of its large population and great wealth in those days. It was known for balsam and its date palms, which the Romans exported to all parts of the known world. This city had great wealth and prominence, especially in the first century. Kathleen Kenyon, who spent her entire life as an archeologist excavating that city, asserts that it dates back long before the time of the conquest.

The people of Jericho do not have a favorable opinion of the beggar. They have discarded him, designated him as an outcast, as refuse. It may be that they do not allow him inside the city. He has positioned himself along the way near the entrance of the city. Because the man has no one to take care of him, he is unwashed. He probably has a distinctive odor. Think of homeless people you have encountered. This man is not only unattractive and repulsive, but he is also rude. He interrupts a teacher like Jesus.

In that day and time, people assumed that if you were blind, it was because of your own sin. Your impurity, unrighteousness, resulted in some ailment. They believed that if you were prosperous, you were righteous. This is the classic way in which society blames the victim. Here is a man, a victim, yet most people assume that this blindness is his fault. Jesus does not respond to this man in that way. He pays attention to him and delays his travel. Because of the man’s faith, Jesus heals him, then continues his journey into the city of Jericho.

The Gospel of Luke, in Chapter 19, introduces a second man, Zacchaeus, who also has an encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, a person who has an occupation greatly desired in the Roman Empire. People paid large sums of money for an appointment as an agent working for the Roman government. Sometimes those appointed for this position would double the tax, adding their own surcharge. They would give Rome what was due to Rome and pocket the surplus. Because tax collectors generally took advantage of others, Zacchaeus has a terrible reputation. People dislike him and group him among the sinners. Zacchaeus is not just a tax collector; he is a chief tax collector in Jericho, quite the prosperous city. An appointment as a tax collector in Jericho put a person in a good position to make money. Zacchaeus’ appointment as chief tax collector means that he can make a considerable amount of money. Zacchaeus is a wealthy individual.

This man, like the blind beggar, knows of Jesus and wants to catch a glimpse of this rabbi from Galilee. He has heard that Jesus welcomes tax collectors. He has also probably heard that Jesus even includes a tax collector, Matthew, among his own disciples. Too short to see above the crowd, he runs ahead and climbs a sycamore fig tree near the roadway. This tree is not one you would recognize as a sycamore or as a fig tree. This tree has a kind of inferior fruit with low branches, making it easy for Zacchaeus to climb. Perhaps he climbs the tree, knowing that if he stays among the crowd, others may taunt him. If he had stayed among the crowd, Jesus might not have seen him.

Zacchaeus does not say a word to Jesus, as far as we know. He remains silent in the tree, not wanting to call attention to himself. Jesus, however, becomes aware of Zacchaeus’ need as he approaches the tree. Zacchaeus is no less a beggar than the blind man by the road. Both men are equally desperate. Zacchaeus just wants to see this rabbi, but he gets more than he wanted. He gets what he needed. Jesus looks at Zacchaeus and immediately knows the heart of this wealthy man perched in the tree. Jesus can see the poverty in his own heart, his spiritual poverty. Jesus responds to this man of bad reputation, by saying, “Come down. I am going to your house today.”

Perhaps you know the children’s rhyme, “Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark. The beggars are coming to town, some in rags and some in tags and some in velvet gowns.” Jesus looks into the heart of these two men. The blind man by the road is a beggar in rags. Zacchaeus, the man in a tree, is a beggar in velvet; he has great wealth but an impoverished spiritual life. Both men are in desperate need.

Jesus has the ability to see into the heart of every person. When he looks at us, he sees not just our physical need, not just our outward appearance. He also sees our heart. It is as the book of Samuel says, “The Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

A friend who is a pastor had a secretary early in his ministry who decided she wanted to organize his life. She began by classifying his bookshelves. She got one of those devices with a roll of plastic tape and dial that allows a person to type out a label. Then she divided his books into such categories as Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, and Pastoral Care. She made labels and applied them to the edges of newly painted bookshelves. She arranged the Old Testament books above the label that read Old Testament, the New Testament books above the appropriate label, and so forth. When she came across a book like Theology of the Old Testament, she became confounded. Did the book belong in the Old Testament section or with the theology books? Where did a book entitled Theology of Pastoral Care go? Even worse, the pastor had some oversized books that would not fit on the shelves she had marked. Finally, in frustration, she peeled off the plastic labels, leaving strips of bare wood along the shelves. When I visited him in his study and asked what happened to his shelves, he told me this story.

Using labels is not always a good idea. Putting labels on people is usually a bad idea. Labeling people is not only frustrating; it is also unfair. I learned a little poem long ago: “Quick to paste a label on everyone he knew, his tongue grew sticky and he gagged on glue.”

Clare and I were on a trip last weekend to Nashville, Tennessee. I officiated at a wedding where llamas were in attendance. During the wedding, which was held on a farm, several llamas walked over to the fence and observed the wedding. That will go in a book somewhere sometime. About lunchtime on our way home, we ran into heavy traffic on Interstate 40 about lunchtime, so we got off the interstate. I stopped at the local fire station to see if the folks there could recommend a good restaurant. They told me of a place called the Haywood Café in Haywood County.

When Clare and I got there, the parking lot was full of pickup trucks, a sure sign of a good restaurant. We went inside and saw a large congregation of mountain men, mostly wearing blue jeans or overalls and baseball caps. The women in the restaurant fit right into the mountain scenery, with the exception of a group of three Mennonite women. They looked a little out of place. It was tips day. Their special was beef tips and chicken tips. Clare and I each had an omelet, but I did leave a good tip. When I left, I thought about my inclination to stereotype the people in that restaurant, an inclination we all have.

I heard a story about a young couple that was traveling from one state to another. They stopped in a public park so that this mother could nurse her child. Police officers came along and asked to see the license of the husband. They immediately arrested the husband, put him in handcuffs, and took him to jail. Once released after four hours or so, the man said this experience, “I know I am going to be detained at times because I have an Arabic name and because my skin is darker than that of many Americans.” The police officers had stereotyped this man, based on his physical appearance. He was actually a medical doctor who had been a citizen of the United States for twenty years.

We all have such a propensity to stereotype people, to put labels on them. Consider these terms: single mother, divorced mother, welfare mom, soccer mom, addict, activist, biker, hiker, hunter, vegetarian, alien, illegal alien, mixed blood, blue blood, beggar, tax collector. We have a terribly unfair tendency to categorize others, according to our prejudice. Doing so limits our ability to relate to them.

Jesus, traveling to Jericho, sees the beggar of Chapter 18 and the rich man of Chapter 19. He stops on both occasions, welcoming the interruptions. Jesus treats the men as real people with real needs. No one has touched the blind beggar for years, but Jesus reaches out to this man and heals his blindness. No one has visited Zacchaeus’ home in a long time; but Jesus reaches out to him as well. He invites himself into the man’s life, saying, “Zacchaeus, I’m going to your house today.” In doing so, he is saying, “Zacchaeus, you are a person of value, though value not based on your net worth. You are no less valuable to me than the beggar outside the gate.” He treats both men as having importance. Look at his disciple group, the men he called to join him in his ministry: four fishermen; a skeptic, Nathaniel; a doubter, Thomas; the tax collector, Matthew; the traitor, Judas. These men, certainly a varied lot, were not the notable people of society; yet Jesus called them to take his ministry forward.

Yesterday, I led a retreat for the deacons of Cornerstone Baptist Church. While we were sitting together at lunch, one of the deacons asked me about our staff. Consider the ministerial staff: three diabetics, two cancer survivors, four men, two women, one amputee, and all the rest with missing parts. What an unusual assortment! God, through Christ, has called every one of us into ministry. Not one of us is very different from the beggar by the roadside or the beggar in the tree. If we look carefully, we will see ourselves. We do not need to use stereotypes. We need to look at people the way Jesus did. In many ways, Jesus is a label breaker. In another way, Jesus is a label maker. He draws us all into a large circle. “I have come to seek and to save the lost,” he said (Luke 19:10). The beggar by the roadside, the rich man up the tree, all of us are lost.

Christ came to this world because God loves the whole world. He sent Jesus, who died for all. Paul makes this very clear: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Everyone is included: butcher, baker, candlestick maker, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief, beggars in rags, beggars in velvet, red, yellow, black, and white, all are precious in the sight of Jesus. Jesus died for all of us. The ground at the foot of the cross is level. We are all equal in the sight of Christ. We are all sinners in need of his grace. Because of God’s love, fully revealed in the face of Jesus, every single one of us can receive redemption, just like the beggar by the roadside, just like Zacchaeus in the tree.

Have you experienced that salvation in your life? Do you know that Christ Jesus came into this world and died for you? He conquered the grave to give you the hope of eternal life. It is because of you that he offers forgiveness and unconditional love. If you have never accepted him as Savior, could I urge you to make that decision today? Maybe you know Christ. You accepted him long ago, but you have been away from him a long time. Your desire is to come close, to come back into fellowship with him. We will pray for you and encourage you. Some of you have other decisions to make, perhaps a decision about church membership. You know that God has led you to this place. He wants you to join, to become a member. We welcome your decision as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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