I teach Sunday School to 4th and 5th graders. And I learn a lot. Recently, we had two stories about Jesus’ ministry. One was about Bartimaeus (based on Luke 18:35-43), who is a blind man until Jesus heals him, and the other was about Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), who is a rich, dishonest tax collector who is made “poor.” We covered these stories over two weeks. The thing that struck me was the parallels.
In both cases, Jesus picks the person out of a crowd. [Bartimaeus is hollering, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Zaccheus has climbed up a tree, because he is so eager to catch a glimpse of Jesus, he is short, and there are many people crowding Jesus.] Jesus asks Baritmaeus what he wants, and he responds, “My sight!” But Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he is going to his house to have dinner. Jesus, basically, invites himself over. In both cases, the crowd is not happy about Jesus giving his attention to these people. They tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, and they mutter among themselves that Zacchaeus is a cheat. Jesus gives Bartimaeus his sight because of his faith, but he gives Zacchaeus his heart back. Zacchaeus exclaims that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and repay every one he has cheated four fold. Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus.
Fortunately for me (and my bank account), Jesus hasn’t come to my house for dinner. But I think he may have invited himself in.
I really like Jesus Christ Superstar. And during Lent, the soundtrack is on random play in my head. When the stories of Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus came together in Sunday School, the crowds’ lyrics from the Temple (when Jesus is driving out the money lenders), suddenly made a lot of sense. It is a mash-up of all the healing stories. At the temple, the people are pressing in on Jesus and demanding…
* See my eyes I can hardly see
See me stand I can hardly walk
I believe you can make me whole
See my tongue I can hardly talk
See my skin I’m a mass of blood
See my legs I can hardly stand
I believe you can make me well
* See my purse I’m a poor poor man
Will you touch? Will you mend me Christ?
Won’t you touch? Will you heal me Christ?
Will you kiss? You can cure me Christ!
Won’t you kiss? Won’t you *pay* me Christ?
I’ve wondered, where does that line “See my purse I’m a poor poor man” come from? And in the past I’ve thought of the Rich Young Ruler who asks how to get into heaven. He is told to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and come follow Jesus. But he can’t do it. He went away disappointed, because he was a very rich man. But I’ve been thinking about it upside down, and now I have an answer. It’s Zacchaeus. Jesus heals his purse by emptying it and freeing Zacchaeus from it. And it doesn’t even cost Zacchaeus everything. Just half. And a change of heart.
While my family was in Chicago for vacation, we got to experience the Bartimaeus story first-hand. At 12:03 PM, we were on the Orange Line from the airport to our hotel in the Chicago Loop. People that were unlike the ones we meet in our daily suburban lives were getting on and off the train. One guy, probably in his early thirties, carrying a sack and wearing a tattered reflective vest over his tattered clothes got on the train. He didn’t sit down, he roamed the car a little, picked up a paper off a seat, and then said, “So hungry. Someone please. Buy a paper? So so hungry. Someone please?”
It was the “so so hungry” that pulled at me. That convicted me. The guy had me thinking about Bartimaeus immediately. I was a member of the crowd, hoping he would pipe down. I was wondering, is there a Jesus among us? He continued, “A dollar. Someone please? A dime?” Someone did buy the paper from the guy, and he said, “I got 11 dollars now!” I was still sitting on my wallet.
As he continued, I was touched, but I was not moved. I couldn’t bring myself to help this guy for the usual reasons that scroll through my mind at these times: The guy probably is going to spend it on drugs or alcohol. I give money and volunteer at church to help people. I pay taxes to help this guy. What if the guy is dangerous? What if he decides to strike up a conversation? What if he decides to follow us off the train?
The refrain of “so so hungry” begged me to make eye contact, reach for my wallet, and give the guy a dollar for a paper. But I became less scared and more apathetic as time passed. It became easier to let the “so so hungry” fade into the background. Fortunately for me, the guy did strike up a conversation with his customer. “See!” I told myself, “You were right! You could be stuck in that conversation right now!”
Finally, thankfully, we were delivered when we reached our stop. The train intercom announced, “Doors open on the left at Roosevelt.” And we left the hungry, tattered man behind. Or so I thought.
At bedtime, K, our younger son, was in tears because he wanted to help the poor, homeless, and hungry. We had seen a lot of them that day. But it was the “so so hungry” guy that was stuck in my heart. How did I get so jaded?
Back in Olathe, on Saturday, March 29, K did go and help with serving a meal to the less fortunate. That made him feel pretty good and he liked doing it.
We have been passing the prayer around the dinner table these days. My silent prayer has been to heal my purse; I’m a poor, poor man. Our older son says, “Thank you for life, the universe, and everything,” most of the time. But not because he’s read the book. K used to follow suit, but now he is asking God to help the poor, to help us to help the poor, and thanking God that we have food to eat, a roof over head, and family that loves us. Only he is much more eloquent than I am. And he really means it.