42. Accepting Love (1)

Focus on Christ Meditations: 42.  Accepting Love (1)

Lk 15:1,2    Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In the previous meditation I suggested that in coming to the Gospels it is easy to focus on Jesus as a teacher or as a miracle worker, for those things are so obvious, but there are other things about Jesus that are more important, even though they are not given prominence in the Gospels. The first such thing that we considered was the fact that Jesus came to reveal the Father in heaven, the glory of God, and the purpose of the Godhead.

The second thing, that we now move on to, is even more important as far as our personal lives are concerned and that is the nature or character of Jesus Christ. Now you might say that this has been implied in all that has gone on so far, and that is true, but I would like to make the implicit into explicit by looking again in the Gospels, and I want to try to do this by looking at Jesus’ way of treating people and then, in a later study, how we see it in Jesus’ teaching.

So I wonder what sort of examples come immediately to your mind when we ask the question, “To whom did Jesus show the love of God?” Now put so blandly as that the response might be, “Everybody!” but that is the same as “I love everyone in my street.” That doesn’t become real until we see specific examples. Perhaps we should ask the question first, how is love demonstrated? My shorthand response is, by accepting people as they were and seeking the best for them. (We’ll say some more in the next study)

I think it was about thirty years ago I adopted what almost became a mantra for me (and I had heard it nowhere else then, although I have since), that “God loves you exactly as you are at this moment, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than you are at the moment.” This means two things: first TOTAL acceptance of you the person (not necessarily your behaviour) at this moment and then, second, love desires yet a better you in the future with His help and enabling. So, when we come to specific examples of Jesus loving people, I would suggest that we need to look for his initial acceptance of that person and then signs that he wants something better for them. My choices are purely random and limited and so there are almost certainly others who you might want to add to this list.

In general terms we are told that he met with “tax collectors and sinners”, for example, While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples.” (Mt 9:10)  He had just called Matthew the tax-collector to follow him and now he is eating with him and his friends! This upsets the puritanical Pharisees (see v.11). There is no indication that Jesus challenged him over his morals as a tax-collector, change was implied when Matthew went with Jesus. From then on it was relationship and acceptance. Now in this case and, I suggest, the case of every one of the men Jesus called to follow him, it is clear he takes them as they were. For them the next three years are going to be a time of learning and change. He takes them as they were, but will change them.

In addition to this incident, Luke adds, “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:1,2) These people were outcasts of society and the thing we all want – and especially if we are an outcast – is  loving acceptance. We don’t want haranguing, we don’t want criticism (we know our faults already, we want to know how to overcome them and we know self-effort doesn’t work), we don’t want judging (we feel guilty enough already) and so we don’t want telling off in whatever form it comes. The thing I have found over the years in both my life and watching the lives of others, is that we change most when we are loved, not when we are nagged, not when we are exposed, and not when we are made to feel defensive. We need loving acceptance and Jesus brings it.

Perhaps nowhere is that seen more clearly than in the case of Zacchaeus (see Lk 19:1-10). This man was a chief tax collector and it is likely that he oversaw a large area. It is also probable that he was a crook who took bribes and took more taxes than he should have done, and he certainly wasn’t liked. He was probably rich and had a select group (a limited group!) of friends – also tax-collectors or others on the take. So he is a classic instance of someone we would like to point a finger at and shout, “Repent you godless, self-centred, corrupt sinner!”

But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead he invited himself to lunch or dinner or whatever meal was due.  Now it is one thing to be invited but to invite yourself to someone else’s house is not only bold and ‘not done’ but it is certainly a sign of imposed friendliness that says, “Hey, I like you and I’d like us to share our lives together over a meal.” Except the account doesn’t give any indication that Jesus told Zacchaeus what he expected of him – and it wasn’t to carry on being a traitor to Judaism and it wasn’t to carry on being a crook who was lining his pocket at other people’s expense. No, there is no record that Jesus confronted him with any of these things. No, as I suggested above, I suspect Zacchaeus knew the truth about himself, knew what was wrong, knew what was right, and just needed loving acceptance to help him to feel secure enough to face all that!

Ah, you might say, but perhaps that happened but Luke wasn’t told about it. I doubt it. Look at the way Zacchaeus responded to Jesus and the way Jesus responded to him. There is a sense of light-hearted joyful freedom about what takes place. You don’t see that sort of response when there has been judgmental chiding and challenges to repent. No, that was the approach of the Pharisees and I would almost guarantee that the Pharisees and the tax collectors – especially powerful ones like Zacchaeus –   walked on the opposite sides of the street of life, so to speak, and the tax collectors called them  ‘religious hypocrites’ and in turn the Pharisees called them ‘sinners!” and that in a most derogatory way. No, challenging or telling off someone does not produce an immediate response of generosity – even if it is using the unlawful gains of the past! The change comes from being accepted!

The ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ were the primary group of obvious people to whom Jesus expressed his Father’s love by accepting them as they were, and that brought the fruit of change. There were others but as space runs out, we shall look at some of the others in the next study. But for personal thought, how about you and me? Would we have accepted Zacchaeus as Jesus did? Indeed, do we lovingly accept as they are, the ‘sinners’ (all those we view as less than us) around us in our lives? Jesus does.

17. Needs within Despair

The Anguish of Job – Meditation 17

Job 6:14 A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Our opening verse today sums up what follows. Job has just expressed his sense if inability to help himself. This is an important point for those of us who would call ourselves ‘friends’ or even ‘comforters’. In the depths of despair, our friend feels utterly unable to do anything about it. I have rarely experienced depression, but on the odd occasion when it has occurred, I have been aware that there was no point someone saying to me, “Come on, snap out of it!” You just feel utterly incapable of doing anything that will change what you feel. Now that may not be so in reality but that is what you ‘feel’ at that point. Job identifies himself as a ‘despairing man’. That is what he feels – despair – a sense of utter loss and hopelessness. Have you realised that these studies are not only about how to be a comforter, but also about the depths that human experience can go to?

What is Job’s primary need in this state of despair? Devotion of his friends! What does devotion mean in this context? It means stick-ability! The ability to stay close to our friend! Now that needs thinking about. Our friend has gone down into the depths of despair and they feel alone, utterly isolated in their blackness. What they need is a sense of someone alongside them, there in the blackness, someone who understands it and is there for them, utterly accepting and without judgment. I have commented before about a girl I knew who was in the depths of mental illness, in the blackness of utter confusion, and yet, as I related to her, I sensed the presence of the Lord with her, right there in the midst of that confusion, a loving, caring and accepting Presence, there for her. Can we be Jesus to our friend in these circumstances? Only with the grace and enabling of God!

That is what Job needs, but what has he received? See how he continues. He paints a vivid picture: “But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams, as the streams that overflow when darkened by thawing ice and swollen with melting snow, but that cease to flow in the dry season, and in the heat vanish from their channels.” (v.15-17) Oh, what a condemnation of us perhaps! My brothers are undependable. Job wants people he can depend upon, people who will always be there for him, but they are not like that, these ‘friends’. They are, he says, like streams that get filled and deep in the winter but in the summer dry up and disappear.

He paints the picture some more: “Caravans turn aside from their routes; they go up into the wasteland and perish. The caravans of Tema look for water, the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope.” (v.18,19) He imagines Arab caravans in the wilderness, searching desperately for water in these streams, but there is done, just like he’s searching desperately for a life-giving resource in his friends. He sees how those Arab traders respond to their plight: “They are distressed, because they had been confident; they arrive there, only to be disappointed,” (v.20) just like he had been. When his friends had turned up there had been confident hope, but as Eliphaz started out, he was disappointed. He concludes: “Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.” (v.21). They had come and seen him and saw him as ‘ something dreadful’ and their hearts fell and they were fearful. What, they thought, had happened to him? What had God done to him? And they jumped to wrong conclusions.

As he thinks about this, he muses, what have I ever asked from you except simple friendship: “Have I ever said, `Give something on my behalf, pay a ransom for me from your wealth, deliver me from the hand of the enemy, ransom me from the clutches of the ruthless’?” (v.22,23). Had he ever made demands of them that required them to pay out, or come to his aid against enemies? No, never. He only asked for simple, accepting friendship. Look, he says, I’m open for you to show me if I am genuinely wrong: “Teach me, and I will be quiet; show me where I have been wrong.” (v.24). I realise that honest words can be painful, but I’ve listened to what you’ve said and you prove nothing: “How painful are honest words! But what do your arguments prove?” (v.25) Why are you bothering to try and correct the words of a despairing man, words which you want to write off as just meaningless like wind : “Do you mean to correct what I say, and treat the words of a despairing man as wind?” (v.26). This seems so heartless that you give me the impression that, “You would even cast lots for the fatherless and barter away your friend.” (v.27).

And then he makes a final plea: “But now be so kind as to look at me. Would I lie to your face?” (v.28) Please, look me in the face. I’m trying to be honest, I wouldn’t lie to you, I would tell you if I had sinned (implied). He goes on, “Relent, do not be unjust; reconsider, for my integrity is at stake.” (v.29). Please, step back from this stand you’ve taken against me, be fair, because this is my integrity and my reputation you are talking about here. And finally, “Is there any wickedness on my lips? Can my mouth not discern malice?” (v.30) Please, listen carefully. Am I saying anything that is patently wicked? Have I not always been careful what I say, please be gentle with me!

These are the pleas of this man of integrity whose only ‘sin’ is to be in the midst of immense suffering for apparently no reason. The reason, as we had the privilege of seeing, is that he is going through God’s testing process, but it’s a process that doesn’t only test him; it also tests his three friends! If we are such a ‘friend’ we need to realise that when our friends are in trouble, it is also a test for us!