Stuck Up A Tree

I must have been about six years old, when my younger brother Jon and I were playing in the backyard on a Saturday morning — when Jon had climbed too far up into a tree and became too afraid to come down. I didn’t know what to do – so I went in and got mom. So mom came out and climbed up to where Jon was, but quickly discovered that she couldn’t hold my brother and climb down safely – so I had to go get my dad . . . to get my mom . . . to get my brother. So I know a little something about what it means to be stuck up a tree.

But I suppose we all know, to varying degrees, what it means to be out on a limb, as the metaphor goes – to discover we’ve placed ourselves in a vulnerable and intractable position . . .  wondering how we’re going to back ourselves out of the mess we’ve made. And very often it has been the short-sightedness of our choices that have placed us in our predicament. Because sometimes we see what we want to see, and everything else fades into the background . . . until what we’ve blinded ourselves to, makes itself so conspicuous, that we can’t ignore it any longer.

This is how imagine Zacchaeus ended up becoming a tax-collector for the Romans. There’s a lot of money to be made working for the most powerful empire to have ever existed – besides, it’s better to walk in step with the powers that be, than to be crushed under their heel . . . and a man of small physical stature, living in such cruel times, needs to look after his own. So if he doesn’t seize this opportunity, the Romans will just find someone else to do the job . . . someone else to enjoy those benefits. Surely, everyone could see he had little choice . . .

But then the reality of his choice began to settle in – he had become a pariah to his own people, a traitor profiting from their oppression, bloodlessly shaking them down, regularly stealing from them their dignity . . . and no amount of money could ever hope to rid him of the shame, and loneliness that now haunted his every waking hour. So what had once seemed like a simple matter of common sense to him had become a life of dread and regret. In this way, Zacchaeus found himself out on a limb long before he ever climbed that tree.

I like to think Zacchaeus had heard about Matthew (Matthew 9:9), and wondered what it would be like to just walk away from the comfortable prison he had created for himself. I also like to think Jesus was thinking of Zacchaeus when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector (Luke 18:9-14) – that somehow he could hear Zacchaeus’ quiet cry for God’s mercy to save him from himself. So that by the time Jesus was standing underneath that sycamore tree inviting Zacchaeus to climb down, the mercy of Jesus was on full display . . . to the grumblings of the crowd gathered there (Luke 19:1-10). And I also like to think — that this is the same mercy, inviting you and I to let go of that limb . . . and let Jesus make his home within us.

I can’t help but imagine Zacchaeus’ reaction was similar to Matthew’s in this clip from The Chosen

Lazarus At Your Gate

We don’t mean to be so selfish – it just seems to happen. It’s just the default undertow of our daily experience pulling us ever toward the life we desire most. Which is why it takes a concerted effort to not find ourselves at the center of our own universe . . . and allow ourselves to feel the gravity of others in our orbit – so that we might be pulled into a better appreciation of their daily experience. I suppose this is why Jesus describes, loving our neighbors as ourselves, as a commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) – because if it were left up to us . . . we probably wouldn’t do it.

1 John 4:20, 21 seems to be underscoring the symbiotic nature of the two commandments Jesus declares in Matthew 22:40 as being the foundation of which the Law and the Prophets is built upon – that our love of God is inextricably tied to our love of our neighbor. Such a framing leaves no room for any high-minded spiritualized love of God that doesn’t involve some measure of our loving engagement of our neighbor. So that in the same way that loving God isn’t merely a Christian ideal we aspire to — loving our neighbor must be pursued as an essential discipline of our Christian faith.

Loving our family members may, or may not, be filled with obstacles and land mines – but it still remains the most conspicuous place to begin . . . as this is supposed to be the place where the patterns and practices of love are meant to mature. Loving friends is likely the easiest, as these are people we’ve chosen to be around, while loving work acquaintances may present many unique challenges to be worked through. But the real testing ground for our faith inspired love, is found when we are willing to love someone who offers us absolutely no relational advantage . . . those in great impoverishment of body and soul.

rich_man_and_lazarus-1In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story with a particular sense of symmetry. It is a story describing, how in life, a chasm was created by a rich man — between the selfish indifference of his affluence, and the conspicuous suffering of a beggar at his gate, named Lazarus . . . and, how in death, this chasm created by the rich man, remained as a monument to the love he had in abundance for himself . . . but had none for his neighbor. And just in case, you misunderstood Jesus’s point here, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is there to remind us of who is our neighbor.

I do not pretend there’s a simple answer to how we best deal with Lazarus at our gate, but I know this — it can’t involve an answer that allows a chasm to grow between the love we say we have for God and the love God expects us to demonstrate to others. Because the love God shows us isn’t meant to pool up and grow stagnate, it’s meant to flow through us. So we do well to remember — our faith calls us to be the hands and feet of the gospel, so that the love of God might always be on full display in both our words and deeds . . . especially, to the least of these (Matthew 25:45).

It is the little things done with great love