Today we begin a four-week series of messages titled Your Life. This morning’s message is Your Life Matters. The next three weeks are Your Life Has A Purpose, Your Life Has A Future, and Your Life Is A Gift.
Finish this sentence for me, if you will –
Sticks and stones will break my bones…
…but names will never hurt me.
Allow me to ask this question – who came up with that saying? Really. Words can never hurt me? Yes, they can, and they do. They hurt terribly, and we have all been hurt by the words of others, and we all have probably hurt someone with our words. Words can leave emotional, spiritual, and psychological scars that follow us throughout our lives. Think for a moment not only about the names you have heard others call you, but about the names you might have cast at others. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? We are in the midst of a national conversation about the language we use in reference to others. If we can call it a conversation, that is, as we seem mostly to have shouting matches these days.
This morning I will read a passage that features a character who no doubt heard his share of names, but at the end of the passage Jesus offers him a name that tells him that his life matters.
Our Scripture text is Luke 19:1-10 –
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.
4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus would have heard a lot of names cast his way, among them cheat, crook, thief, traitor, and names about his stature, or lack thereof. What names have you heard over the years? I’ve had some nicknames over the years, and to be honest I didn’t like them very much, because a nickname is a way in which others can define us in a very narrow way, and it is often a way that is negative. Being called names is just one manifestation of what makes us feel insignificant, and that cause us to wonder, does my life matter? There are many ways in which people’s lives are devalued, and they are made to feel as if they do not matter.
Everyone asks that question at some point in their life – does my life matter – and most of us ask it multiple times over the years. Everyone wonders. It is one of the most basic, existential questions we ask.
There are two categories that we speak to when we talk about how our lives matter –
1. The need to know that my life matters.
Perhaps you saw this brief letter in the Sentinel-News on Wednesday, which carried the headline Disappointed in Response – Shame on a few churches in this area. It became known that a woman in Shelbyville returned home after being away six months to find her husband gone, no food, her dog locked up in the house, the water cut off, the next day and old eviction notice on table. Several area churches and agencies were contacted. Who responded? Operation Care & Salvation Army. Not one “church.” Easy to be a Christian when you don’t have to do anything, I suppose…
My first reaction was to run through several retorts in my mind, but then I realized that this letter was more than a complaint; it was a presentation of the question, does this woman’s life matter?
Zacchaeus, like anyone else, no doubt asked that question. And on this particular day he raced to see Jesus as he came through Jericho. And, perhaps, he raced to see him because he hoped to receive the notice and the attention of Jesus.
I can picture Zacchaeus in my mind, pushing his way through the crowd, trying so hard to get to a place where he could see Jesus, and we all know how hard it can be to move quickly through a crowd. As we try to move quickly through a crowd it often seems as though the crowd works against us and we fall further behind, and there is a sense of disappointment or even panic as we realize we might not get to where we are trying to go. Zacchaeus’ pushing through the crowd was symbolic of his desire to be noticed, to not only see Jesus but to be seen by him, and as he pushed through the crowd his efforts were really emblematic of his great desire to know that he mattered to someone. He probably didn’t matter to anyone in the crowd, but he could hope that he mattered to Jesus. And out of the crowd, Jesus did notice him.
Luke notes that Jesus saw Zacchaeus. He looked up and saw him in the tree. Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt. Out of this large crowd all jockeying for a position to see Jesus and the one person to whom Jesus speaks is Zacchaeus! I’ve been noticed! I’m not invisible! What a moment that must have been for him. Someone who not only wanted to see Jesus but certainly wanted to be seen by Jesus as well, and in that moment Zacchaeus represents us all, as we all want to know that our life matters, to someone. At that moment, Zacchaeus knew that his life mattered.
Everyone of us, at some point, wants to call out, does my life matter? Does anyone know of my existence? Does anyone know of my troubles? Will someone notice me? God is a God who takes notice. Jesus says that even the hairs on our heads are numbered (Luke 12:7). That makes me feel greatly relieved! Does it you?
2. The need of others to know that their life matters.
My mom told me many years ago that good pastoral care makes up for a lot of bad sermons, but no amount of good sermons can make up for bad pastoral care. She was exactly right, because people want to know that they matter. This is where churches most often let people down, in failing to communicate that they matter. How many of us have been there? Probably most of us, at some point.
This is one of the reasons why I am very excited about the potential for the Stephen Ministry in our church, because it extends, as we have said, the caring capacity of our church, which is incredibly important. Laine is doing such an incredible job of leading us through the training and the information is so good and so helpful.
Because I need to know that my life matters, and you need to know that your life matters, it should cause us to realize, oh, I need to remind others that their lives matter; I need to let them know they matter to God, and they matter to me. It’s not just me that needs to know this. It’s not just you that needs to know this. It’s everyone, so we must be free in sharing that encouraging word. We must communicate to people that they are a precious, loved creation of God, and anyone who tries to claim otherwise is just flat wrong, and when we hear language that diminishes the life and value of another it is incumbent upon us to refute and rebuke such claims!
Now, allow me to add a few further points –
1. Jesus did not require Zacchaeus to change before he would go to his home and visit with him.
It’s a beautiful part of the scene when Jesus says he will go to the home of Zacchaeus. Jesus even says that he must go. Jesus is very emphatic about going to Zacchaeus’ home. He did not say, Zacchaeus, you need to quit that job of yours, get a better set of acquaintances, and start behaving more respectably before I will come to your home and associate with you. Obviously, by the example of Jesus, we must accept people where they are and for who they are, but do we ever communicate they must change before they will matter to us?
I fear that sometimes that is exactly what we communicate. Sometimes, and perhaps we don’t even realize we are doing so, we communicate to people that they do not, or will not, matter to us unless they change their lives to become more acceptable to us. But people do not have to please us or work to become acceptable to us; they only need to be acceptable to God and, the truth is, all people are acceptable to God. We, however, are the ones who often add all manner of provisions and requirements that must be met before we find some people to be acceptable enough that we will associate with them.
Notice that as soon as Jesus makes the announcement and heads off to the home of Zacchaeus, out come the grumblers. He has gone to be the guest of a sinner, they say. Let me ask this – what version of that phrase do we use today? Do we ever say something similar? Perhaps our version is, you need to think more about your reputation, aren’t you concerned about it? Don’t you worry about what people will think of you? Aren’t your worried their influence will rub off on you? You can do better than that. You need to be careful about your associations. Whatever our version of he has gone to be the guest of a sinner is, let’s not use it. Let’s make sure we are absolutely done with it, and let’s not be afraid to associate with those who need our acceptance and love.
2. Followers of Jesus should never diminish the lives of others.
When I first wrote that phrase in my notes I wrote followers of Jesus do not diminish the lives of others. I scratched out do not and exchanged it for should never. I did so out of the recognition that we sometimes do diminish the lives of others.
As I worked on this message, it did not occur to me until late in the week that I should address the politics that now exist around any statement about lives that matter. When the Black Lives Matter movement began some months ago it set off a great deal of discussion about what lives matter. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement other movements sprung up. Many emphasized that All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, and on and on. Certainly, all lives matter, but to name one particular group as being lives that matter does not in any way diminish or overlook the lives of any other group. We are too quick to believe that by raising up one group we diminish other groups, which is not at all a reality. Sometimes it becomes necessary to recognize that there are groups of people who have suffered so much, who have been mistreated for generations, and have faced relentless prejudice, that we need to say, specifically, that their lives matter.
That is what Jesus did. By going to the home of Zacchaeus he said that tax collectors mattered. It didn’t mean other lives didn’t matter, but this tax collector, despised and ostracized by so many, needed to be spoken of specifically. Similarly, when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-38) he was making a statement that the lives of women mattered. When a woman was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, with a crowd eager to stone her, Jesus told her accusers if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7), again affirming that the lives of women matter. When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he was making a statement that Samaritan lives mattered. In a time when those who suffered from leprosy were cast out of society, Jesus touched the diseased bodies (Luke 5:12-13, and in doing so demonstrated that their lives mattered. Sometimes you simply must say that specific lives mattered.
3. Who are the Zaccheus’ of today that need to know their lives matter?
When Jesus responds to Zacchaeus in such a welcoming way he threatens his own standing with the people, because immediately, as I have already observed, people began to mutter, he has gone to be the guest of a sinner (verse 7). All of us, I’m going to assume, have at some point in life pulled back from someone who needed us, and we pulled back because of the disapproval – or fear of disapproval – of other people. We begin to hear the mutterings of disapproval and, out of fear of the opinions of others, we step back. Jesus, however, did not. In fact, Jesus never pulled back because of the disapproval of others, and that is a powerful lesson for all of us.
The other day I was in Louisville and stopped to get some lunch. I was sitting at my table, looking over my draft of this message, and across from me was a mom with three young children. I don’t know what the topic of their conversation was, but one of her children, a girl about four years old, responded very loudly to something that was said in the conversation, and this is the statement she made – nobody’s better than anybody, and nobody’s worser than anybody. I wanted to lean over and ask will you run for office some day? You’ve already got a pretty good campaign slogan.
Nobody’s better than anybody, and nobody’s worser than anybody! That’s some really great theology, isn’t it? It certainly reflects that attitude of Jesus! The truth is, everyone is a precious creation and child of God. No one is better than anybody, and nobody’s worser than anybody. The life of every person matters although, tragically, we live in a world that does not demonstrate this attitude. We live in a world where some people are treated as though they are better or worser, but the example of Jesus shows us this should never be so.
Zacchaeus was treated as though he was worser, but he wasn’t. Notice that in verse 9 Jesus says this man, too, is a son of Abraham. That’s the name Jesus used for Zachaeus. While others labeled him a thief, a crook, a cheat, or a traitor, Jesus called him a son of Abraham, meaning that Zacchaeus is family. What a powerful moment this must have been for Zacchaeus.
Who should we embrace and call family? Who needs to hear that their lives matter? Just as we matter to God, so do all others, and we must make this very clear. Amen!