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Beggars All

April 27, 2014


Sermon:  Beggars All
Text:  Luke 18:35-19:10

Our Scripture passage this morning comes from Luke 18-19. Hear now the Word of God.

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 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.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Because today marks the beginning of our Week of Emphasis for North American Missions at Morningside, I want to bring a missions sermon.

I would like you to look at the way these verses are printed in your copy of God’s Word. You probably have a very clear division between Chapters 18 and 19. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament were never so divided. The idea of separating the Bible into chapters is relatively new. In the thirteenth century a fellow named Archbishop Stephen Langton decided that the Bible would be easier to read if divided into sections. Archbishop Langton’s system has served us well. About 300 years later people began dividing those chapters into the smaller units of verses.

I encourage you to take the time to read the Bible straight-through, reading over the chapter and verse divisions. When we read the Bible as a narrative we see connections that we would ordinarily miss. Beyond the chapter divisions, we see a continuous flow, particularly among the Gospel writers. That flow is clearly evident here in the Gospel of Luke where the events in Jericho all occur on the same day.

Archeologists have excavated the city Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world. Kathleen Kenyon spent almost her entire life excavating this ancient city, which was a remarkable place at the time of Jesus. The Romans called Jericho, known for its beautiful rose gardens, “The City of Palm Trees.” The date palms and balsam that flourished there created trade for Jericho, making it very wealthy.

As we consider our text this morning, we know that Jesus has left Galilee and is now planning to travel through Jericho, which is located in the Jordan Valley just slightly north of the Dead Sea. Once he leaves Jericho on his way to the Passover in Jerusalem, he will actually go uphill, making a steep ascent of about 3000 feet. The Scripture refers to the twenty-three mile journey as ascending because Jerusalem was high in elevation.

As Jesus enters Jericho, a contingent of many people follows along with him, as you might expect. Understand that Jesus and his disciples are among a large crowd. As Jesus walks along, he teaches, doing what rabbis did. The crowd, of course, wants to hear what Jesus has to say. Poor people, knowing that pilgrims would pass through this city on their way to the Passover, have lined the road, asking for handouts. Among these panhandlers of their day are beggars. Those out in front of Jesus have the job of clearing the way and getting the beggars to hush. The Gospel of Mark tells us that one such beggar by the road is the blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus. Bartimaeus, one of the few people healed by Jesus whose name we know, hears this stir of people approaching and asks, “What is happening?”

When those in the crowd tell Bartimaeus that Jesus of Nazareth is passing, he shouts out to Jesus twice. I have no doubt in my mind that he must have already heard about Jesus, heard that Jesus had already healed a blind man. He possibly thought, If Jesus can heal a blind man in Capernaum, why not one in Jericho? The distinction between the Greek words used for “shout” is important to note. The first time Bartimaeus shouts to Jesus he makes a loud cry, such as “Hey! Over here!” You would hear people shout these words at a football or basketball game.

His second cry is very different. Knowing that this may be his one and only opportunity to have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, his only opportunity to receive healing, his second shout of “Help me!” is marked with desperation. It is the cry of a person who is drowning. He cries out in desperation, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The very way Bartimaeus calls out for Jesus, using the words “Son of David,” is significant. This messianic phrase indicates that Bartimaeus believes Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. I have no doubt in my mind but that Bartimaeus has heard about the healing ministry of Jesus.

Jesus certainly had a ministry of interruption. On one occasion he was on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue official in Capernaum, a man named Jairus. As he pushed through the crowd, a woman reached out and touched the hem of his garment. Jesus took the time to stop and tend to the woman. Servants from Jairus’ home soon arrived and told Jesus he no longer needed to go to the home of Jairus. The daughter had died. Jesus knew it was not too late. On that occasion when the woman interrupted his ministry, Jesus continued with the task of healing her.

Jesus hears this man among the crowd. Though Bartimaeus interrupts Jesus, he stops teaching in the road outside of Jericho and tells some of his followers, “Bring that man to me.”

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

He replies, “I want to see.”

Jesus tells the man, “Receive your sight. Your faith has healed you.”

Immediately after Bartimaeus receives his sight, what does he do? He stops begging and follows Jesus. A new disciple has joined the band. Though we have no more information about Bartimaeus, I have no doubt that he continues on to Jerusalem with Jesus. I have no doubt that he sees the events that unfold during the week prior to the death of Jesus. He is probably in Jerusalem when Jesus is mocked, scourged, and crucified and also there on the day of the resurrection. Bartimaeus’ life is changed by his simple act of faith and a Savior who does not pass by but stops and pays attention.

When Jesus goes on into the city of Jericho, he encounters another man.

Sometimes we respond to people who cry out in desperation in ways that are not very helpful. We dish out platitudes or clichés. Jesus, however, knows that a deed is more important than words. He is not only a master with an intelligent mind; but he is also a Savior with a big heart. He knows when to stop and minister to people on the basis of their need.

A seminarian got a summer job as a lifeguard at Myrtle Beach. One day the currents and riptides were particularly strong. Sitting in his stand, the lifeguard watched as one man was caught in a riptide and swept out beyond the breakers into the ocean. The man was crying out, “Help me! Help me!” This young seminarian, who had recently taken had a class in evangelism, shouted, “I see your hand, brother. Is there another?”

What a terrible story!

Platitudes do not help people who are desperate. Action, not words, helps. Our own mission endeavors must include action, not words. We can do more than just talking about helping others. Morningside has participated in the event called Stop Hunger Now for the past several years. That event is a tangible way of helping people. That event gives us a way of actually doing something about the problem of hunger.

We move now to another individual who wants to see Jesus. In the profession of collecting taxes in the first century, the best place to work was Jericho. Because the city was wealthy, many high taxes were collected. Rome demanded a certain amount; but because tax collectors could demand extra money, they became the wealthiest and the most despised people in town. Chief tax collectors in this Roman system could set the tax fee; and other regular tax collectors, underlings who worked for him, could add their own percentage to the amount. Strike one against tax collectors was the fact that they worked for Rome. Strike two was the fact that they lined their own pockets. The people despised tax collectors.

Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector at the top of his profession, was in every sense filthy rich. Citizens hated him because he made his money off of everyone else. In addition his situation was made even worse because he was small in stature. He had what is called the short man’s disease – an unquenchable desire for power, an unquenchable desire for wealth. He was unhappy, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled.

We know for certain that Zacchaeus was also determined to see Jesus. Maybe, like Bartimaeus, he had heard about Jesus and knew that Jesus had welcomed tax collectors and sinners. Maybe he knew that Jesus had called a tax collector, Matthew, to be one of his disciples.

It was a risky behavior for a hated man, especially a little man, to get caught up in a crowd. He could come out of it with a good many bruises – a kick here, a jab there, a push in another place. Because he knows that he can be wounded, he climbs a sycamore tree. Sycamores in the Holy Land have low branches, spreading very much like an oak tree. Zacchaeus climbs one of these shade trees planted along a road where he knows Jesus will travel. I wonder if anyone else noticed this wealthy man, dressed in his fine robes, balanced out on a limb in a position to see Jesus. This desperate man is hanging by his toenails.

Though Zacchaeus seems to have every possession the world has to offer, something is missing in his life. He does not cry out to Jesus in the same way Bartimaeus does. I guess he is too dignified for that. Zacchaeus does not have to call out to Jesus. Jesus can hear the silent cry of Zacchaeus’ heart. Jesus can see that this man is no less a beggar than the one he healed by the roadside. Both men – Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus – have a deep need. Though they are worlds apart in terms of their socioeconomic class, they are exactly the same spiritually. John Calvin called it total depravity. Each man has a huge hole in his life, a deficiency that only Jesus can meet.

You have probably heard this Mother Goose rhyme:

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark.
The beggars are coming to town.
Some in rags and some in tags,
Some in velvet gowns

One version of that little nursery rhyme says, “Some in rags and jags,” clothing that had been patched. We usually think of beggars as people wearing ragged clothes. Do we think of a beggar wearing a velvet gown? No. Beggars have no nice clothes. They do not wear wool suits or linen or silk. Jesus sees in Zacchaeus a beggar who is no less a beggar than Bartimaeus. Zacchaeus does not cry out to Jesus; but Jesus stops, looks up, and says, “Zacchaeus, I am going home with you.”

Dr. Frank Stagg, a professor of the New Testament at Southern Seminary, served on my ordination council. Dr. Dale Moody, a professor of systematic theology, was also on my council. During that meeting, Dr. Stagg asked me, “What is the soteriology of the Zacchaeus account?”

Dr. Moody challenged him and said, “Frank, that is really not fair.”

They debated the fairness of the question for a few minutes, giving me time to think about the meaning of soteriology, which comes from the Greek word for salvation. Soteriology means the understanding of the doctrine of salvation. The soteriology of the Zacchaeus account is that sometimes we must take the initiative and go to the lost. We cannot just give an altar call and invite the lost to come to Jesus. Bartimaeus, who cries out to Jesus, would have chased Jesus if he could have seen. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, merely positions himself close to Jesus. It is up to Jesus to take the initiative, call him down out of the tree, and go to his house.

What happens to Zacchaeus? We might say that the eyes of his heart are opened. He is given sight just as Bartimaeus receives sight. Zacchaeus receives spiritual sight, not physical sight. He realizes immediately what he must do: “I am going to give half of everything I have to the poor.” Then he adds, “If I have defrauded anyone, I will restore to them four-fold what I have taken wrongly.” This man’s encounter with Jesus changes his heart. He demonstrates a remarkable faith in Jesus, loosening his grip on his pocketbook.

Henri Nowen tells a story in his book The Wounded Healer about a Jewish student who told his rabbi, “Rabbi, I would like to find the Messiah.”

The rabbi answered, “If you want to find the Messiah, go to the city gate.”

The student went to the gate, where he saw a crowd of beggars everywhere. He returned to the rabbi and complained, “Rabbi, I went to the city gate, but I did not see the Messiah. I only saw beggars.”

The rabbi explained, “Go back and look among the beggars. Most of them are dabbing at their own sores, but you will see one who is tending the sores of others. That is the Messiah.”

Nowen says that we will find Jesus among the beggars – beggars in rags like Bartimaeus, beggars in velvet like Zacchaeus. We readily think of Jesus’ ministry to the oppressed and the down-and-out, but he also has a ministry to the upper crust. He met with Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin who came to him by night, and the rich young ruler who could not do the one thing necessary to follow Jesus. Jesus ministers, not just the poor and the oppressed begging by the road. He also ministers to those who are out on a limb, crying silently for help.

God looks at the heart of a person, not at the outward appearance. Jesus does the same. After looking into the hearts of these two men, Jesus makes the remarkable comment, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). A double search is happening here.

Have you ever played hide-and-seek? Have you ever been the one who found a great hiding place but nobody came to look for you? What a terrible feeling! Jesus is searching for you. “I have come to seek and to save the lost,” he says. Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). A double search is happening. This is not hide-and-seek. This is seek-and-seek. Jesus wants to find us, and he wants us to find him.

Our mission message is this: we cannot expect the lost to come to us. We must go to them. We cannot just expect to find them at places like T.O.T.A.L. Ministries, Greater Spartanburg Ministries, or Saint Luke’s Free Medical Clinic. We will find people there who are lost and who need to know Jesus, but we will also find them at the Spartanburg County Club and Carolina Country Club. We will find lost people spanning the socioeconomic spectrum – some in rags, some in tags, some in velvet gowns. All are beggars.

Have you found Jesus? Has Jesus found you? Being lost does not mean that you are doomed; it means that you are out-of-place, that you are in the wrong place with God. Being found means that you are restored to your rightful place with God. Have you been restored? If not, our invitation is to accept Christ Jesus as your Savior. He wants a relationship with you. He wants you to be a part of his church. Once you commit, once you are a disciple of Jesus – like Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus – Jesus wants you to join in the effort to seek and to save the lost.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2014


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