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BIG Stories of the Bible: Jesus and Zacchaeus

The Monday night Bible Study group explored the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus last night, and even though this is a familiar story, we learned a lot from each other. I want to share a few of our learnings – and invite you to join the conversation.

Luke is the only gospel writer to tell this story. It comes as Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, and traveling through Jericho – which is like a border town. It is a place for a group to  gather and re-group for the final stage of the journey. And Jericho was a place that the kings of Israel would come once a year, in ordinary clothes, and then walk back up the mountain to Jerusalem – a ritual that reminded them that God is in charge of life, and we follow in God’s ways.

The story starts out as a comedy really. Jesus is passing through town. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector and a rich man, wants to see Jesus. But the crowd is large, and he is small in stature. So Zacchaeus runs around the crowd and climbs up in a fig tree in order to see Jesus as he passes by. We talked about running – what would make an important man run through a crowd? It had to be an eagerness, an excitement, a curiosity. But we also learned that in that culture, running was considered embarrassing and shameful. Adults – and particularly important adults – simply did not run. Perhaps you can see the comedy in your mind.

Let me go back and say – in Luke’s gospel, Jesus spends a good bit of time with tax collectors. He eats with them. He spends time with them. They are marginalized folk and he seeks to restore them in community. But Zacchaeus is also a rich man. And the rich are not so well treated in Luke’s gospel. Just a chapter or so before this story, a rich man asks Jesus – what must I do to inherit eternal life. And after some conversation, Jesus says – you are right. Do this, and also give away all that you have, and come follow me. But this was too much for the rich man. Then Jesus said – It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the realm of God.

Zacchaeus does not fit into any easy category. He is marginalized as a tax collector. He is complicit in the systems of corruption. He is rich and that sets him apart. One of our participants last night suggested – Maybe Jesus chose to go to Zacchaeus house because he had the biggest house – and Jesus had a lot of people traveling with him. It is a good point.

Zacchaeus was glad to offer hospitality to Jesus. And while we don’t know what these two men talked about, we do know it was a transforming experience for Zacchaeus. He offers to pay back anyone he might have defrauded, with the designated penalties written into the law. But he says -“If I have defrauded anyone…” We talked about how sometimes we hurt others without knowing we are doing so. What do you think? Did Zacchaeus know he was defrauding or hurting others?

In the end, Jesus says – salvation has come to this house. Salvation means wholeness, being well, being healed. And Jesus calls Zacchaeus a son of Abraham – reinstalling him into the community. Salvation came to his whole household.And Jesus says – the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. This reminds us of earlier parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son. And suddenly we see that at first Zacchaues was seeking Jesus, but in the end we know that Jesus has also been seeking Zacchaeus.

There is good news when we know that whatever our mistakes, our blindness, our struggle, God continues to offer us a radical grace and a healing. We all have the qualities of being disciples – even if they are not our most visible qualities. Each of us is called to let go of whatever gets in our way of living a life of love and grace, to be transformed, and to become part of the community again. Conversion has personal, domestic, social and economic dimensions.Luke never talks about it as a condition of the soul alone. Following Jesus means living differently.

What are your thoughts on this story?


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BIG Stories of Bible: Hagar and Sarah

Last night the Bible Study group explored the interweaving stories of Hagar and Sarah, which includes Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and God as well. The stories can be found in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21.

The story goes something like this. God has promised Abram that he will have a multitude of descendants. But Sarai remains barren years after the promise has been made. So Sarai decides to take matters into her own hands. She tells Abram to take her slave girl, Hagar, whom they got while they were in Egypt, and for him to have sex with her and produce a child. It was sometimes practiced this way in those days – where a surrogate mother would have a child for a woman who was barren. Interestingly, Sarai also gave Hagar to Abram as his wife – not just as a surrogate. Abram went along with the plan, and soon Hagar was pregnant. .

Hagar apparently got some attitude about herself when she became pregnant, and Sarai felt diminished and mocked. So Sarai complained to Abram – who now had power over Hagar – and Abram gave Sarai permission to do as she wished with Hagar. Sarai treated Hagar very harshly, to the point that Hagar ran away.

In the wilderness, God came to Hagar and asked where she was going. Hagar replied  that she was running from her harsh mistress. And then, stunningly, God told Hagar to return to Sarai. To submit once more to the suffering and anguish. This image of God is a troubling one. Why would God send anyone back into an oppressive or abusive situation. Phyllis Trible calls this a text of terror. It feels that way.

Some commentators suggest that God was aware that Hagar could not survive on her own in the wilderness. And if Hagar was away from Abram, then the son she was carrying would not have any connection to the gifts of Abram. So God had Hagar go back as a “suffering servant” figure to insure the safely of Ishmael. This is not a satisfactory reason for God to allow such suffering for most of us. How do you work this out in your mind:?

An interesting note – Hagar has a direct encounter with God and lives to talk about it. And she finds her voice and gives God a name – El roi – which means – the one who sees. She is the only person in the Bible who names God.

Chapter 16 ends with Hagar giving birth to Ishmael, the first son of Abram when he was 86.

Now we move 17 years into the future. Ishmael is growing into a man, but we have no idea who he is or what his relationships with Sarai and Abram are. Hagar disappears from the story for awhile. God comes to visit Abram and again says that Sarai will have a son. God does not speak to Sarai, until Sarai laughs at the idea of her having a child, and God rebukes her. But there is not annunciation story for Sarai. God also changes the names of Sarai and Abram to Sarah and Abraham.

Chapter 21 begins with the birth of Isaac. And along about verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. Some texts suggest he is mocking Isaac. Sarah is upset and tells Abraham to cast the “slave woman and her son” out. Note that Sarah does not call them by name. Abraham is not willing to do this, probably because he loves Ishmael his son. But God intervenes on behalf of Sarah, and tells Abraham to do as she tells him. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of many people through Isaac, and yet God will also form many nations under Ishmael. So Abraham agreed to cast the boy and his slave mother out. To say it another way, Abraham casts our his first born son Ishmael and his wife Hagar.

Abraham gives them bread and water – not nearly what is needed to survive the wilderness. Why is he so stingy? Why does God have to allow this casting out into homelessness and desolation? Why can’t there be another way? What do you think?

Hagar and Ishmael become famished as they run out of food and water. Hagar goes a distance from Ishmael so that she does not have to hear his cries and watch him die. But God hears his cries, and God comes to Hagar and shows her a well – the boy and the woman are refreshed. God says – I will make a great nation for Ishmael. Now the promise is not to Hagar but to Ishmael. Hagar is left out again.

There is too much to tell here. You need to read the story for yourself. But we have the story of two women who, instead of helping and supporting each other, compete with each other and both are hurt by that competition. We see a strong emphasis on patriarchy – from God and everyone in the story. We wonder at God’s support of the oppressors instead of bringing relief to the suffering. We see God going to the margins to reach out to Hagar, but then calling her back into abusive relationships. The story is complex and troubling.

Phyllis Trible offers this reflection on Hagar: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surragate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mot her, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.

What do you see happening in this story? What does the story have to say to us today?

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BIG Stories of the Bible: Abram and Sarai

The story of Abram and Sarai is found in the 12th chapter of Genesis. The first 11 chapters in Genesis is really a set of stories about God’s attempt to find someone who would live a virtuous life and bring blessing to all families on Earth. God starts by attempting relationship with the whole human community – but that did not go well. After 10 generations, God decides to destroy the masses and start over with one family – Noah’s family. But choosing a virtuous man does not guarantee that all descendants will be “Noah-like.” This plan doesn’t work either. Another 10 generations pass, and God does some thinking. God decides not to wipe out humankind again, but instead decides to choose an individual with no family in order to produce a family that ultimately will bring blessing to all the families of Earth. God chose Abram. And Abram is married to Sarai – who is barren.

Ironic that God chooses barrenness – but in this story and throughout much of the narratives in Genesis, barrenness is a metaphor for hoplessness. To be barren is to have no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future if you are barren. But in biblical faith, barrenness is the arena of God’s life-giving action. God can provide what we cannot provide for ourselves. And Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, reminds us that a departure from securities is the only way out of barrenness. To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.

In the first 3 verses of chapter 12, we hear God call Abram – to “leave your land (country), your birthplace, and your father’s home. Go to the land I will show you and I will make you a big nation, will bless you, will make your name great, and will bless all families on earth through you.” Note that what comes first is that God will make a great nation. The context is not Abram – but a people. Blessing Abram is secondary.

I find it extraordinary that the text says “all families” will be blessed. That is pretty radical and inclusive. This image of God is very big picture, very all embracing. How does this compare with our own images of God?

Blessing is central in this narrative. Think about what it means to be blessed – or to offer blessing to another. Blessing is a gft from God issuing goodness and well being into life. Blessing manifests in fertility and multiplication in life. To have herds and flocks, crops, human life. Also material well being/peace/general success in life. And note the interplay between blessing and promise. What’s the difference between the two? Blessing is inadequate and incomplete without promise. Promise is the most basic category. Promise is more than what creation can provide. Promise brings blessing into the sphere of redemption.

In these first 3 verses, we learn that through the family of Abram – the new nation that will come – all humankind will be blessed. What does this mean? One idea is that this group of people will show how a community can live, will care for each other, will create inventions, cures, write literature, music, etc. that will benefit all humankind. And the social and moral point is that Abraham’s descendants are not to live by themselves or only for themselves. Whoever they are dealing with – these people will be a community that connects its birth with a prediction, a promise, an obligation, a destiny – to be a blessing to all.

Verses 4-9 tell of the travels of Abram and Sarai. As they go Abram builds altars along the way in special places. And they end up in the land of Canaan. We did not spend much time talking about this part of the story, except to note that later, in the book of Joshua, God delivers some of these places (like Ai) back to the Israelites – and this is in recognition of Abram invoking the name of God and building the altars. It gives meaning to the phrase that the good of our parents has implications for the lives of future generations. Or in the negative, the curse of the parents is left on the children.

While they are living in Canaan, things are not going well. That is always interesting to remember when we are being faithful and following where God is leading. We don’t assume a promised land is going to be a place filled with difficulties and trouble. But sometimes it is. There is a famine. The crops fail. And the only way to survive is to go to Egypt, where there is food. We noted that the famine was not caused by Abram sinning – but sometimes things just are hard. This new land has a lot of potential, but it needs a healing from what other humans have done to it.

Now the last part of the story has Abram and Sarai gong to Egypt. It is important to remember how old they were – Abram in his mid 70’s, Sarai in her mid 60’s. Abram is aware that Sarai is beautiful, and that the Egyptian men will want her for themselves. Some in our group found it hopeful that older women can be so desirable! One commentator I read said that this is the storyteller throwing some humor into the story. But at this point, Abram begins to scheme – and we wondered, does this mean he is no longer trusting in the promise of God? What Abram does is say to Sarai – if asked, we will  tell them you are my sister.  He is trying to survive. He assumes that they might kill him so that she would no longer be married.

There is some thought that Sarai might be Abram’s half sister. This would not be uncommon for that time. If she is, the Abram is saying – tell the truth, just not the whole truth. Don’t tell them you are also my wife. If she is not his half sister, Abram is asking her to lie so he won’t die. What do you think of this plan?

One commentator suggested that Abram had few options available to him. And none were perfect. He chose to enter a situation fraught with danger and ambiguity and devise a careful strategy, albeit imperfect, self-serving, and dishonoring of Sarai. Does this sound like real life to you?

The Egyptians do find Sarai to be quite lovely, and she was taken into Pharaoh’s house (do you remember who else was taken into Pharaoh’s house to live in a later story – Moses). The king was good to Abram because of Sarai. Showered him with sheep, cattle, slaves – made him wealthy. But then, God intervenes with plagues and Pharaoh asks Abram – what have you done to me – lying about Sarai? He throws Sarai and Abram out of the land – but lets them keep all the possessions they had accumulated in Egypt.

A couple things to note: First, Abram goes into Egypt assuming the worst about Pharaoh – thinking Pharaoh will kill him. But Pharaoh proves to be better than expected. Letting them leave with all their possessions is very generous. Second, it was Abram’s actions that brought about the curse. The one who is to be a blessing to all families on Earth also has the capacity to bring curse. In his first contact with outsiders, Abram fails to bring forth blessing. Instead, it is Pharaoh who brings blessing. Pharaoh proves the better role model. And we learn the God’s purposes are also served by “others.”  The “chosen ones” can do good and bring harm, and the “not chosen ones” are not automatically bad or against God. We have to watch what we assume.

Thirdly, have we noticed who has not spoken at all. Sarai! Why is she silent?  Is this her way of honoring Abram? Is she simply not empowered to speak because she is a woman? Do you notice that the story really  develops around Sarai – not Abram. She is silent but powerful. She is mentioned 13 times in this text. She is not a minor figure in the story. Sometimes we need to pay the most attention to the silent ones.

So that is the story. What does it mean to you? Why is it such a BIG story in the Bible? I hope many of you will share your thoughts by posting a response.

Rev. Joe Hoffamn



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