Bigger on the Inside

Stained glass window in the the protestant Christ church in Korntal in Baden-Württemberg. “Hurry down, Zacchaeus”

Luke 19:1-10 | Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The TARDIS from Doctor Who
The TARDIS from Doctor Who

Doctor Who is a BBC television series that began in the 1960s. The stories are about the adventures of the Doctor, who travels time and space in a machine called the TARDIS–Time And Relative Dimensions in Space. On the outside, the device looks like an old fashioned British police call box, a blue telephone booth. On the inside, it is enormous, with uncounted rooms and passages. I can’t think of a show that I would recommend more wholeheartedly for kids. For that matter, there are few shows that can match it for grownups.

Zacchaeus of this gospel passage is like the TARDIS—bigger on the inside. No doubt plenty of people before me have made a great deal of Zacchaeus’ small stature, but so did Luke. The Gospel story is insistent, recording that he was a small man, that he climbed a tree to see over the crowd, and pointing out that when he responded to the criticism of the crowd, he took care to stand up before speaking. Plenty of people stand, we might say, but Luke is particular to tell us that Zacchaeus did.

Being from the South, there are aspects of the story that are difficult for me to imagine. Our sycamores, when we find them, are very large trees with no figs. Our figs may be called trees, but no one other than the smallest child could climb in one, let alone see over the heads of a crowd from the branches. The tree in the story sounds like a sycamore fig, a variety native to Africa that grows in the Middle East—a larger tree by far than our figs, and fruit-bearing.

By Reinhardhauke (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Zacchaeus on stained glass of Église Saint-Pierre de Neuilly-sur-Seine
Something else is peculiar about the story. In calling Zacchaeus down out of the tree, Jesus says, “I must stay in your house today.”

A must. A necessity.

Is this the same compulsion that drove Jesus toward Jerusalem? Does he mean that by staying with this chief of tax collectors, a man despised for his position and his wealth as well as for his small stature, that something needful for the kingdom of God is being accomplished?

The kingdom of God. The Gospel. The life of Jesus. These are things that are also different than they appear, things that are bigger on the inside.

Zacchaeus hears the crowd, their grumblings and their insults. Many of us know what that is like, to hear the insults of people who hide behind anonymity or mutter at the edge of our hearing. Many of us have also taken our place in the crowd, mumbling and insulting with the worst of them.

Zacchaeus stands as tall as he is able, and he shows them his real stature. Half of his wealth he gives to the poor. Anyone he has defrauded, he promises to repay four times over—and out of the half of his wealth that he has remaining. We have to wonder at that second promise. If he were the scoundrel that the crowd seem to think he is, he would need more money to meet the claims. Maybe that second promise is more of an indictment—if any of you want to make me out a crook, come prove it so. Sometimes we need to speak for ourselves.

Zacchaeus didn’t let the crowd deter him. When he couldn’t see who Jesus was one way, he chose another. The challenge didn’t stop him, and the jeers of a crowd who watched a tiny man climb a tree like a boy didn’t stop him. The opinions of other people didn’t stop him. Rejection didn’t stop him.

When he saw Jesus, when he heard Jesus calling him down and saying in front of everyone that he was going to Zacchaeus’ home, he didn’t hesitate.

Hearing the reaction of the crowd, he responded in a surprising manner. Where many of us would rage against the insults or attack those who were mocking him, Zacchaeus responded with a great heart and deep faith. His critics must have left that scene feeling that Zacchaeus was a bigger man than they.

Climbing that tree so that he could see was a choice, and so was clambering back down as everyone gaped at him. Giving to the poor and making amends were choices. Welcoming Jesus was a choice.

All of us are Zacchaeus. Sometimes we’re smaller than we think. Sometimes we’re bigger. We get to choose. The trick is lifting our eyes to see the difference.

Stained glass window in the the protestant Christ church in Korntal in Baden-Württemberg. “Hurry down, Zacchaeus”

Stained glass window in the the protestant Christ church in Korntal in Baden-Württemberg. “Hurry down, Zacchaeus”

Contending with Contempt

Children and families trying to reach a UNHCR camp for refugees. Image from

Luke 18:9-14  |  Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…

Well, that really says it all, doesn’t it? Except we still have the notion that the words are aimed at other people. Like Trump supporters. Or Hillary people. Or even Bernie folk.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as being right, unless it is the certainty that other people are wrong. That’s particularly true when we think we have God on our side.

Except that God doesn’t take sides. Not yours, not mine. Not the side of those people over there.

That seems to be the point of the gospel message, that God takes no one’s side, or maybe takes everyone’s side, but most of all that God invites us, expects us, to take God’s side. Not that we are to be right. Not that we tell others that they are wrong.

The point of the gospel is that we are all instruments of grace, which isn’t ours to keep or give away.

When we see people hungry, we are supposed to feed them.
When we see people without a home or clothes, we are supposed to find homes for them. We’re supposed to clothe them.
When we see people ignorant and without skills or opportunity, we are supposed to teach them and prop open the door.
When we see them sick, we’re to bring them balm. And doctors. And clean water and mosquito nets. We’re supposed to make sure their children don’t die of a disease we’re not even exposed to anymore. We’re supposed to make sure their children don’t get shot trying to walk to school.
When we forgive others, we’re supposed to do it the way we’d like to be forgiven.

Hey, that’s pure gospel. Blame Jesus. And no, we don’t get an escape clause if the hungry people are part of a different religion, or have a different skin color, or don’t conjugate their verbs well because of poor education, or don’t speak English at all.

A health worker with a woman. Image from
A health worker with a woman. Image from — click on the link or on the photo to visit their website and learn more about what they are doing in the world.

The only thing the overwhelming majority of needy people ever did was to get themselves born in the wrong place. Let’s think about that. When we see needy people, we might consider what brave and brilliant and wondrous things we did to be born to a better life.

Yes, work is important. And responsibility. And making something of yourself. And ‘God helps those who help themselves’ must be written somewhere, just nowhere in scripture.

So is grace important. And opportunity. And human decency, let alone Christian compassion.

“I thank you God that I am not like other people,” said one fellow, the one Jesus held up to ridicule.

Admit it. We think the same way as that fellow. On some level, when we see the homeless or the poor or the dispossessed, we think something like the same thought, and we think we are being grateful. We think we are being faithful and humble. The last thing we think is that we are precisely the people Jesus was talking to.

I’m afraid that this is genuine gospel stuff. It’s not the popular kind, but it is the kind Jesus taught. It’s the kind of thing that made people want to crucify him. If we Christians don’t like it, maybe we should try a different religion.

If we’re tired of just being right, and want to do right, there are plenty of opportunities, probably starting in our own homes and neighborhoods. Faith isn’t what we say. It’s what we do.

Here’s a great place to start:

Children and families trying to reach a UNHCR camp for refugees. Image from
Children and families outside a UNHCR camp for refugees. Image from  Click on the link or on the photo to visit the website and find out more, including ways you can help people whom you may not even have known existed.


Judges, Crones, and Charlie Brown

Luke 18:1-8  |  Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Charlie Brown kept trying to kick the football, even though he knew Lucy would pull the ball away every time. He kept trying to fly his kite, even though both Charlie Brown and we knew that the tree was going to eat it.

That kind of persistence is admirable, but on some level watching it makes us a little uncomfortable. We like Charlie Brown, or most of us like him anyway, and we would like to see him succeed at least once—kick the ball or get his kite past that malevolent tree—because it would mean that we might manage to do whatever the thing is that we would most love to do one day. At least once.

The story about the persistent widow, a cranky old crone who keeps coming to a disinterested and unjust judge, wearing him down until he gives her justice, also makes us uncomfortable.

We’re used to the image of God as judge. It is so pervasive that we have difficulty getting around it. Plenty of people are turned off anything having to do with religion or faith precisely because of the way this image of God is pushed on them.

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, c.1511
Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, c.1511

Luke isn’t much help. The judge in the story doesn’t even care about people. He only acts on behalf of the widow because she is bothering him with her incessant requests. We draw a parallel between the unjust judge and God and between the widow and ourselves—of course we do. It’s disturbing. While it appears that Luke sees the judge as a contrast to God rather than a comparison, we still worry. After all, many of us have laid requests in front of God over and over and over, only to be met with silence.

A word of caution. Many people seem to think that the teachings of Jesus were meant to reassure us, to make us feel good about ourselves and each other and God and life in general, but those people are not paying attention. Jesus did offer words of comfort and reassurance, but he also worked in plenty of unsettling things. Jesus was not satisfied with the status quo, neither that of society nor that of our mindsets.

This is one of the few parables to come with an explanation. Now he was speaking a parable to them about the necessity always to pray and not to lose heart…

We get that it is an argument from the lesser case to the greater—this unjust human will eventually do the right thing if you bug him long enough, therefore how much more will God?

Still. We may be forgiven for remaining uneasy.

A word of definition. Theodicy. Merriam Webster defines it this way: “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil”

If we haven’t seen an answer to our prayer, does Jesus mean that we have not persevered long enough in asking? How long is long enough? Worse, how about the folks who seem to get nothing but bad despite their good? How about the whole story of Job, to name an example?

When we watch children drown in the Mediterranean, innocent people bombed in Aleppo, poor girls kidnapped in Africa, simple and decent people having their homes destroyed by hurricanes or floods, it begs the question of why. And of who hasn’t prayed long enough. And of whether God is paying attention.

Parable of the Unjust Judge by John Everett Millais, c. 1863
Parable of the Unjust Judge by John Everett Millais, c. 1863

Plenty of people answer the problem by saying there is no God. It is an effective answer, neatly addressing the apparent lack of supernatural intervention.

The rest of us, and maybe some of the atheists as well, keep struggling with the question.

One answer—and not one that I condone—is that the people meeting such disaster had it coming: the God is judge and those people are guilty approach. It is simple-minded rather than simple, and it makes God into a monster who condemns children and innocent people for the supposed sins of others. The prophets threw out this approach centuries before Jesus told the story of the judge and the widow (try out Jeremiah 31 or Ezekiel 18), and yet it finds advocates today. It seems to be a view most often held by people who have not yet ventured into one of the ‘those people’ groups. Eventually, life and time change their circumstance along with their views. Nothing changes us like experience, and none of us should ever pray for what we deserve.

Another answer, one that works part of the way, is that God is present among us. When we suffer, God suffers. I like this approach much better, and it is more comforting. It also presents God in a much better light. At the same time, we are left with questions of sovereignty. We are usually more interested in God fixing things than in God suffering with us.

There are as many answers as there are theologians, I suppose, and some of the answers are more satisfying than others. None of them feels complete.

charliebrownAnd so we return to Charlie Brown, who not only keeps trying to kick the ball, but who keeps trusting Lucy to hold it for him. There is so much grace in his trust in a proven adversary, and there is so much faith in his persistence. While our eyes are on the ball, Charlie Brown seems to realize something larger is at work, and that the moment at hand, this kick, is both an eternal thing and just a passing moment.

When the tree eats his kite—again—it is only a momentary affliction. It will pass, and Charlie Brown will make another kite, and another, knowing that his doing of these things is more important than the outcome. On some level, if Charlie Brown managed to kick the ball and fly the kite, on that day he would cease to exist. He would become someone else, still Charlie Brown but now the one who kicked the ball and who flew that kite.

Maybe that is Charlie Brown heaven. I don’t know. I do know that the grace of this parable is not in the judge’s answer. The grace of it is in the widow’s persistence.


Cleansing of the Ten Lepers. Codex Aureus Epternacensis. c.1035-1040

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 17:11-19

If they had waited for something to change, nothing ever would have. If they had waited for a miracle, they would never have seen it.

Healing of Ten Lepers. Stained glass window, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore.
Healing of Ten Lepers. Stained glass window, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore.

Ten lepers stood at a distance outside a village, separated by their disease, calling out to Jesus for mercy across a no man’s land. Maybe they only expected a coin, or some bread. Maybe they knew who Jesus was and had heard stories about him, had heard that he healed the sick.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that he’s going to do anything. Instead, he tells them all to go and show themselves to the priests. They get the point, that they are going to get word that they are healed. All ten of them head off, though they are still lepers when they start walking: the story says that they were healed after they were on their way.

This is a story of borders and of barriers, of the walls we build to separate ourselves from other people and the walls they build to keep us out. It is about looking over the walls, peeping through the cracks, stepping into the gap.

Luke writes that Jesus was walking along the border of Samaria and Galilee. The geography of the story is a little vague, but the point isn’t—Jesus was walking in the borderlands, the regions in between here and somewhere else, places where people dropped out or were shoved out, where people slipped into the cracks of society.

That’s where the ten lepers were standing, in the gap, a lost place, near a village but not part of it, one of the places that people in the mainstream only see from the corners of their eyes and forget, or never notice. Luke says that Jesus saw them all.

We might wonder who we fail to see. Some of them are hidden in the deserted places, the alleyways and halfway houses and other deserts that we build into our societies. There are the homeless and the poor, but other people who are in plain sight may be just as invisible, or at least when we look at them we are blind to their injuries and their loss. Sometimes it is because pain can be hidden so well. Sometimes we are more nearly like the priest in that other, more famous, Samaritan story. We see the man lying by the side of the road, but we choose to walk away.

This Samaritan came back. Out of the ten men who go off to find themselves healed, only this Samaritan turns around and comes back to Jesus. Now we might point out that the other nine were doing precisely what Jesus told them to do—go to see the priests, he had said, and they kept going. So why does Jesus welcome the one who disobeyed? Why does he question the absence of the other nine he had sent away?

Christ Cures Ten Lepers. Woodcut. From the Wellcome Trust.
Christ Cures Ten Lepers. Woodcut. From the Wellcome Trust.

That is a problem, isn’t it?

Maybe it is the difference between knowing the rules and knowing why we have them. If you understand the why, you don’t need the rules anymore.

A theologian might say that this is the message of the gospel—live in the presence of the Spirit of God. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

The Samaritan understood that the ritual didn’t matter; ritual was only a method to respond to God, and this man knew a better way.

A Samaritan and a leper, twice outcast from mainstream Jewish society, and he understood how to respond to God better than the rest of them. Maybe he understood precisely because of the walls that had separated him. For years he had witnessed life through the cracks, looking into life from lost places.

What might people whom we don’t notice see as they watch us? We may not want to know. That might be part of the reason we try not to notice them.

Meanwhile, what miracle are we standing still and waiting for? Maybe we should start walking, and see what happens along the way.