Lifting up the lowly
Ordinary Sunday 31: 30 October, 2016
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain
A theme central to the way Luke's Gospel portrays the ministry of Jesus is to see Jesus as the one who lifts up the lowly, inviting them to take their place in the Kingdom of God. This way of understanding the mission of Jesus was highlighted for me by a recent experience of prison worship. The scene was a multipurpose room in one of our prisons where we regularly celebrate the Eucharist. There were half a dozen residents of the prison unit and a priest colleague of mine gathered around a table for the Mass. The gospel for the day was the rich man and Lazarus — the one from a few Sundays ago. Not wanting to focus too much on images of heaven and hell and chasms and heat, I thought about this poor man Lazarus raised up to the bosom of Abraham. I came to think, "How good is that, this poor man raised up by God to this exalted place when most people back on earth would not have been willing to give him the time of day."
I continued this theme in my homily by taking a broad sweep from the beginning of Luke's Gospel. God is always seeking to lift up the lowly:
Who is it that is chosen to bear Our Lord, but Mary, the humble young woman who says it all in her hymn of praise, the Magnificat:
- He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
- and lifted up the lowly;
- he has filled the hungry with good things,
- and sent the rich away empty.
Who was it that was invited to the side of the manger to share in the joy of the birth of Christ? It was the lowly shepherds.
Who was among the first to be called to his side but the ordinary fisherman Peter, the self-confessed sinful man.
As I was introducing these simple every-day characters I became particularly aware of my own emotional and spiritual responses; "Yes, this is what I believe, this is why I am here, this is what it is all about!" But I could not stop there! And what about that Roman centurion who understands Jesus well enough to know that Jesus need not even be present to heal his servant? And what about that hated Samaritan who is the only one who stops to care for the man beaten and left for dead by the roadside? And what about the young bloke who asked his father for his inheritance, in effect saying: "Dad, I wish you were dead". He comes to his senses believing that his father will take him back as a slave. Rather, the forgiving father runs to meet him with arms open wide in a welcoming embrace. By this time I thought I had made my point and handed my wide-eyed congregation back to my colleague who was the celebrant for the Eucharist. I'm not exactly sure what impact my words had had on those listening but I had well and truly convinced myself!
This procession of lowly and even despised characters painted a picture of a God who encourages people to rise above the confines ill-health, social exclusion, spiritual hunger. However, New Testament scholar Brendan Byrne insightfully reminds us there is always that third entity involved in Jesus' story telling and healing activity: the crowd, and by extension his readers — us.
In the story of Zacchaeus the crowd is the reason he climbs the tree. It is the crowd that labels him a sinner. As a tax collector, indeed as a leader among tax collectors, he would have been considered the lowest of the low.
Zacchaeus' attempt to see Jesus is not without his own effort. He refuses to be overwhelmed by the crowd, intimidated by his small stature or denigrated by his despised profession. He had a lot against him but somehow he knows that Jesus in the one who lifts up. Indeed Jesus goes to this unclean tax collector's house to eat with him. This is an action not lost on that crowd: "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."
Zacchaeus makes his declaration before Jesus:
'Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.'
This looks to us like a change of heart as the result of a conversion experience, but alas those troublesome scholars believe the best translation is in the present tense. These may be things Zacchaeus is already doing. On the surface this makes his proclamation much like that of the Pharisee we heard about last week but with an important distinction. He makes no comparisons with anyone else and does not belittle anyone else as the Pharisee does the tax collector.
We know that the religious leaders often misinterpreted the meaning of Christ but it is often the crowd too, and among them the disciples, who are in the same boat. Just as it is often the case, especially in Luke, that it is the lowly and disadvantaged who grasp the purpose of Jesus' mission. Jesus' response to Zacchaeus' efforts reminds me of the parable of the talents where the one who made best use of what he had been given was greeted with those wonderful words: "Well done good and faithful servant."
Reflecting on the contributions of those who might be considered disadvantaged I remembered Timna Jacks' story from the Age last week about a young student preparing for her VCE. The journalist gives her the name Tala. This is not her real name. Three years ago Tala was a refugee. She and her family were escaping the Middle East and were on a boat sailing from Indonesia. The boat capsized and Tala was separated from her mother. Tala was pulled from the water by sailors from a Royal Australian Navy Ship. The survivors were taken to Christmas Island. Tala hoped that her mother had been rescued but her world came tumbling down when she was asked to identify her mother's body. Her mother had drowned when the boat capsized. Her father abandoned Tala and her young brother when they came to Australia. Recalling the past brings tears to Tala's eyes, but she is looking to the future. As well as studying she cares for her younger brother and works part time. She gets little sleep, but she is determined to do well — her aim is to become a nurse in the Royal Australian Navy so she can help other refugees.
The article says:
She wants to study biomedical science or nursing but, like many refugees without Australian citizenship, she has been locked out of the major universities, where she has to pay international student fees (about $40,000 a year). Without citizenship, she is not eligible for scholarships or fee relief, so she must consider vocational options.
Like Zacchaeus, Tala has the courage to rise above the crowd. Christians cannot stand by idly like the crowd in Luke's Gospel. We cannot stand by in the crowd but must proclaim in word and action Jesus' invitation into relationship with God that lifts up and inspires the lowly to fullness of life. May we not remain among those grumbling crowds but respond with all the enthusiasm of Mary, Peter, the Good Samaritan, the Lost Son and Zacchaeus. Many of us have a way to go! I conclude with a collect from An Australian Prayer Book, 1978:
- Let us pray [that the love of God may raise us beyond what we see to the unseen glory of his kingdom.]
- God our Father,
- May we love you in all things and above all things and reach the joy you have prepared for us beyond all our imagining.
- We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
- One God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.