The Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) brings us face to face with Jesus’ message of inclusion. But it also reminds us how important dialogue was in the ministry of Jesus. Dialogue is everywhere in all four Gospels. Matthew 15:21-28 is my favorite example. It reveals practically everything you need to know about the Hebrew conception of God.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
It’s all here: Encounter, pleading, exclusion/inclusion, confrontation, challenge, insult even, counter-argument, reconciliation, healing, shalom. Salvation in dialogue! This is Jesus at his Jewish best. And this is also Yahweh God in the Hebrew Scriptures. (I try to avoid saying Old Testament. There is nothing old about the “Old Testament.” It’s as new as your daily headlines.)
Controversy and challenging questions dodged Jesus throughout. Jesus was always in dialogue, especially with his opponents. Dialogue is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. This is a unique characteristic of the Hebrew religious tradition so far as I can tell. The Hebrew Bible is a thousand pages of constant dialogue between God and man. I haven’t studied the Quran but a quick scan showed me that the Quran has very little dialogue; it’s mostly a monologue of God issuing commandments to Mohammed.
Jesus was a Jew, and very often he engaged in dialogue concerning the Law of Moses and its application to human life. When he transgressed the boundaries of the Jewish Law, Jesus revealed his mission – to humanize the Law. This is my own phrase, but I was partly inspired by the writings of a friend in Scotland.
Jesus humanized the Law, he brought it down to earth, to the lives of real people. The religious class felt threatened and constantly challenged him. They were offended at his openness to Zacchaeus. For 2,000 years people have continued to be offended by Jesus’ openness! The church that followed in his name quickly began specializing in exclusion rather than inclusion. The church took over from the Pharisees and the Jewish religious class. Anyone who disagreed with church laws was declared a heretic or a sinner and was locked out, excommunicated. I wonder what Jesus would say to the many that the church called heretics and sinners. Maybe “they also are children of my father”? Would Jesus reject anyone? The only evidence we have by which to speculate is what’s written about him in the four Gospels – and based on that evidence it does not appear that Jesus would exclude many of the souls that the church has excluded.
Come to Jesus. Climb up a tree if you think you’ll get a better view of him – but make sure you come down. Go out into the mountains and rivers and lakes if you can hear his voice more clearly there – but don’t become a loner. Receive his body and blood in your mouth if you are here today. See him in the hungry and the outcasts – for he is certainly there! Seek him in the wisdom and experience of our precious elders who have walked the talk of faith.
There are many ways to come to Jesus. He loves variety; and he reveals himself in a diversity of ways. You can’t miss him. He is right next to you.