Give Me Actions Not Words: The Gospel is For All Not Just The Ones We Approve Of

Posted: April 23, 2015 in Gospel of Luke

Once upon a time, Benjamin Franklin said, “Well done is better than well said.” Also, some of you may remember from your childhood, that great philosopher Jonathon Winters. He once said, “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.” And finally, the Russian philosopher, P. D. Ouspensky once said, “Effort plus motive equals result.” All of these things point toward the title of my sermon today, “Action Not Words.” We live in a world where words seemingly mean little but it is a man’s actions that matter. Actions come as the result of motivation and motivation comes from the desires of our soul. Words can be tossed around very easily. Often actions contradict our words. William Barclay in biblical commentary volume, “the Gospel of Luke,” offers us a story in his analysis of this passage when he says,

“There was meeting …at which several women were giving their testimony. One woman kept grimly silent. She was asked to testify but [she] refused. She was asked why and she answered, ‘Four of these women who have testified owe me money, and I and my family are half-starved because we cannot buy food.”

These words begin to bring some focus on what we need to talk about today – Jesus demands not just a change of words but a changed heart, a changed life. To get the most meat off the bone here, we must look at the central characters in this short play. The first character in this play is not even an actor. It is the script itself. Yes, I am speaking of the Gospel of Luke. We will see how the script plays a role in this story. Second, another key player in this story is again not a human character. It is the city of Jericho. Why does this story take place in this biblically significant city? Third, with Gospel of Luke and the city of Jericho as a backdrop, we will take a look at the little man, Zaccheus and what his story tells us. Fourth, we will look at the unnamed extras in this play, the Israelites and what their actions tell us. Finally, we must look at the central character of all Scripture, Jesus Christ, and what his actions in this story tell us that we need to know. Although the content of the old 1980’s song by Def Leppard may be meaningless and unworthy of discussion here, we can, however, borrow the song title for our purposes today. Action Not Words. Give me action not words. That’s what Jesus sings into the microphone of our soul. Action! Action not words!

The first thing that is unique about this passage is the fact that it appears only in the Gospel of Luke. It does not appear in the other two gospels that are summaries of Jesus’ earthly life, Mark and Matthew. It is not mentioned in the Gospel of John either. Why does Luke include it in his gospel. We must remember that Luke wrote his gospel so that Gentiles could understand the story of Jesus. He was also a physician. Thus, as a physician, he saw people that maybe mainstream people would not want to associate with. He saw the troubles of women and children in first century society. Thus, his gospel often elevates those who are outcast, those who are women, and those who are children. His gospel was written with the intent of showing that the message of Jesus was for everyone, the outcast, the woman, the child. Those of low estate in first century Palestine were of great concern to Luke. His gospel focuses on the fact that Jesus offers salvation to all, Jews and Gentiles alike. In the first century church, there was great emphasis on not placing labels on people other than the fact that we are all children of the Most High Priest, Jesus Christ. Because of Luke’s intent in writing his gospel, we see that Zaccheus would have caught his attention. He was an outcast. Though wealthy, he was shunned by mainstream Jewish society. His story then fits Luke’s gospel. Jesus’ story is inclusive of hated tax collections. It is a story of reconciliation into the family of Jesus of one who society would consider unworthy.

The second thing that we need to notice here is that we are talking about the city of Jericho. This is where the action of this story takes place. After the Lord God gave the city of Jericho into the hands of Joshua and the people of Israel, Joshua pronounced a curse on the city: “Cursed before the Lord be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho. At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation, and at the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates” (Joshua 6:26). It was rebuilt during a particularly low point in Israel’s relationship with God. Ahab had married and idol-worshiping non-Jew Jezebel and began worshiping her god, Baal. All of Israel became idol worshipers. And because of his idolatry and the straying from God, while Jericho was being rebuilt, Ahab’s oldest and youngest son died in the effort. Christ passed through Jericho, Luke 19:1. This city was build under a curse, yet Christ honored it with his presence, for the gospel takes away the curse. Though it ought not to have been built, yet it was not therefore a sin to live in it when it was built. But it is an example of the fact that Jesus can redeem that which has been cursed. Jericho, though a great commercial city in that day because of its strategic location and had much beauty to it because of its commercial wealth, it was a city that was considered a holy place. It was to the Jews an unholy place because of the curse of Joshua. However, Jesus redeems it with his presence there. It is evidence of the fact that the story of Jesus is one of inclusion and reconciliation. It is one of redemption. Jesus can redeem that which others consider cursed and unworthy. The gospel calls out to the unwanted, to the shunned, to the despised and offers them reconciliation into the family of God. Just as today, Christ followers walk through Jericho because Jesus walked there. The city is now considered worthy because it was redeemed by the presence of Jesus, the presence of the Good News, the presence of the gospel.

And then there is Zaccheus, wealthy agent of Rome. The town would have known him, both envied and despised him. Rome had no interest in this province except for its strategic location as a land bridge to Egypt and what taxes it could extort. But Rome could not be everywhere and so it outsourced its Internal Revenue Service. Contracted with natives of the country to do the job. They paid Rome in advance and received the right to extort whatever they could from the locals. Tax collectors have never been particularly popular. Have you heard about the latest proposal for a simplified form? All they ask is: What do you make? What do you spend? What have you got left over? Send it to us.
But in those days the title tax collector automatically meant traitor and thief to the average Jew. In their minds he was stamped as corrupt. In their minds he had abandoned their community and was therefore abandoned by God as well. He was on his way to hell. His name would have been said as a sneer. When born, his mother had chosen Zaccheus because it meant – the righteous, the good, the pure. Isn’t part of his problem right here? Everybody knows him, or thinks they do. He is the wealthy crook. Sinner and tax collector were said in the same breath. All anybody knew was that he was rich and resented. No matter that he might be a lot of other things as well, truly caring husband, loving father, struggling to create a safe and secure life in a dangerous and uncertain world, somebody’s son. They had named him and that was that. Fat cat tax collector. Don’t we do that a lot, imprison one another in a name. Sum others up in ways that destroy their humanity. You hear it among the young —nerd, jock, geek. In more subtle ways, it happens in the adult world. We too label and lock up our minds. She’s the talker. He’s the chauvinist. And so we sum them up, simplify them into stick figures we do not need to understand because, of course, we know who they are.
Labels are dangerous, deadly, labels like failure, average, unstable, stupid, insensitive, black, white, feminist, chauvinist, intellectual, elitist, homosexual, racist, because they reduce human beings to categories, see only aggregates, rather than as complicated beautiful mysterious struggling individual human beings. Tax collector. That summed him.

Because of this rejection by society and finding no particular solace in his wealth, Zaccheus was ready for the gospel. Just as yesterday, the blind man was persistent in his pursuit of Jesus, Zaccheus so wanted the gospel, he climbed a tree to just to be able to see Jesus. He was desperate for change. Jesus doesn’t care who he is. All he cares is that there is someone ready and willing for the gospel. Jesus did not care about the labels placed upon a person. He just wanted all to come to know Him. He wanted all to be joined with him in heaven. He came to seek the lost. He came to reconcile us to Himself. Zaccheus responds to the gospel. He comes down from the tree. Isn’t symbolic that we have climbed into trees ourselves in our sins and we need rescue. We need to Jesus to get us to leave our tree and come to him. Zaccheus responded by coming down. Zaccheus responds to the gospel. Zaccheus is restored by the gospel. He is made whole by Jesus. He is not despised by Jesus. He is redeemed by Jesus.

The next characters that we see are the Jews in this scene. They are grumbling because Jesus invites himself to the home of a known sinner. They are more comfortable with a world where they can write people off and make the world black and white. Labels. Write-offs. It makes their world smaller and easier to deal with. The Jews used the law to write people off. Instead of the law convicting us of our sins and pointing to our need for repentance, forgiveness, and a Savior, the Jews used it to make people into permanently excluded classes of people. Aren’t we like that today. Do we write-off gay people as no longer good enough for the gospel? Do we write-off the unwed mother as no longer good enough for the gospel? Do we write-off the stripper and the drug addict and the alcoholic and the adulterer as no longer good enough for the gospel? Jesus says that we are wrong. He came to seek the lost not the found. He came to bring the lost sheep back into the fold. We are to love the unlovable. We are to see all as worthy of the gospel. We cannot afford to sit in our ivory towers and condemn a world gone wrong. We are to get out there and get messy and spread the gospel to a dying world not just save it for ourselves.

And then we come to Jesus himself. He is the main character of course. He invites himself into Zaccheus home. He didn’t care about labels. He didn’t care at all. He was concerned about he soul of the man rather than the labels of the man. Jesus. Jesus sees the change of heart in Zaccheus. He knows that because of the gospel, Zaccheus has vowed to repay fourfold any taxes that he collected that were usurious. “He received him joyfully” implies that Zacchaeus hurried down from the tree and received Jesus joyfully into his house. Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house—where we are now standing—because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Salvation is granted by Jesus here. It comes from Him not because of efforts or vows. Jesus saw the heart of the man had changed. He is given the gift of salvation. He reconciles Zaccheus into the family of God’s chosen. No matter your past, no matter what you have done. Jesus can redeem you. Jesus gives the gift of salvation to hearts that seek Him. Salvation comes to those who seek Him. There is no sin so great that you cannot be redeemed by the main character of this story.

Action not words. Our understanding of redemption for our own lives must be expressed in love for those who are considered unlovable by society. It might not be cool. It might be socially and politically correct. We are called to love without exception. All are to be included in the hearing of the gospel. Just because someone is gay, they are not to be excluding from the hearing of the gospel. They are not to be excluded from our love. Just because someone is an adulterer does not exclude them from the hearing of the gospel. They are not to be excluded from our love. Just because someone is a prostitute does not exclude them from hearing the gospel. It does not exclude them from our love. Just because a person has political views that are radically opposed to yours does not exlude them from hearing the gospel and it does not exclude them from our love. Our actions must be more than mere words. We are to love our neighbors even when they are unloveable.

We learned from Luke that the gospel is for everyone. No one is excluded. We don’t get to make that choice. We learn from the city of Jericho that curses are the result of disobedience and are meant for correction not permanent exclusion. Jesus’ presence there means all things can be redeemed. We learn from Zaccheus that a changed heart is evidenced by its fruit! All can be redeemed. We must love all and carry the message to all. We learn from the people of Israel that just because you don’t have a broken past doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything if your heart is full of pride. If you say all the right things but cast people aside and condemn them and refuse to love them, your fruit is rotten! We learn from Jesus that his was a ministry to find the lost – to return them to their rightful place in the family. Saved at 7 or Saved at 70, being found by Christ is what matters. Jesus did not care about labels. He did not exclude. He included. If we are to be more and more like Christ, we are to do no less. Include not exclude. Love not hate. Action not words! Amen.

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