The Return of the Gift
One of the greatest human needs is personal worth. We all want to be somebody important and we need people to value us. No one wants to be a nobody, and no one seeks titles such as “useless” or “no good.”
The value others assign to us lifts our hearts to the heavens. The sound of applause is intoxicating. Words of praise are sweeter than honey. Yet a chorus of boos can deflate the human spirit in an instant. When others belittle us, it hurts more than any slap in the face.
Just as important—if not more so—is the worth we assign to ourselves. Others will always rate our value, but we also value or devalue ourselves. It is possible for our peers to pat us on the back constantly while we devalue their praise by constantly kicking ourselves for our shortcomings. We can also do the opposite, exalting ourselves for no good reason.
In the past, it was common for people to measure their worth by their heritage. This was especially true in the first century. God chose the decedents of Abraham to be His own, and that made them special. Of course, many thought this meant that all others were of less value; the further a person’s family tree was from Abraham’s, the more worthless he was. And because some Jews had “polluted” their heritage by marrying pagans, they had a hard time finding acceptance in the covenant community. The least of all were the Gentiles, a people so low the Jews called them “dogs.” In first century Palestine, there were two types of people, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, and the difference between the two was the difference between having worth and being worthless.
Our ancestry is not so much a measure of our value in our day. We tend to believe a person can rise above his bloodline and become somebody even if his father was “a nobody.” To do such a thing in Christ’s time might have been considered going against society if not God Himself.
But even if we, in our time, believe in a person’s right to “rise above,” we still have societal ways of measuring worth. We deem the guy who can score touchdowns more valuable than the fellow who fumbles the ball. The beauty queens get attention while “the ordinary” go unnoticed. The highly talented, intelligent, and creative get our adoration as the stars, but that leaves the majority of us in an “unimportant” void in-between.
Another way we gauge our importance is by what we have. Two people pull up in a parking lot. One is driving an expensive sports car and the other drives a car that barely makes it to its parking space. Which one of these fellows is “a somebody” and which is “a nobody”?
In the first century, many thought God favored the rich—and for good reason. The old covenant promised great prosperity to those who kept Torah, and the book of Deuteronomy lists the abundant blessings that would come upon those who obeyed God.(1) These people would be the first and not the last, the head and not the tail. They would possess health and wealth, and those who disobeyed would get quite the opposite. This mindset is perhaps why the disciples were astonished when Jesus said that it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.(2) If a man who had earned the old covenant blessing could not enter in, who could?
This kind of reasoning was also common in the pagan world. Of course, the gods favored the rich—they were rich, were they not? If the gods liked you, they give you wealth and power. If they hated you, they made you poor and weak. And if the gods favored the upper class, this justified the rich oppressing the poor. It is amazing what we become capable of when we think God likes us better than someone else.
We judge each other by who we are and what we have, and the last great measure of human worth is what we do. In Jesus’s day, there were those who kept Torah and those who did not. Some kept the Sabbath properly and worshipped correctly, keeping all the Jewish feasts and customs. Others failed to keep their obligations. There were those who kept themselves pure, not touching that which was unclean, and there were the unclean who were impure because of who they were or because of what they touched or ate.(3)
To be part of true Israel, a person had to be a decedent of Abraham, but he also had to keep Torah. Both were necessary to be part of the covenant community. Foreigners could find inclusion, but they never reached the status of true family.(4)
Those who deemed themselves worthy separated themselves from the unrighteous. Yahweh did not want lawbreakers in His presence, and what God rejects so must His people. Not only were the sinners not allowed to participate in the glorious Temple rituals, no one would associate with them in daily life. The righteous would not dine with them, stay in their homes, or even touch them for fear of becoming unclean.(5)
Such a fate was far more serious in the ancient Eastern culture than it would be in the modern Western culture. Back then, people were more corporate in their thinking; the individualism of the West is relatively new to humanity’s consciousness.(6) A first century Jew shared in the worth and identity of his community, and being shunned from Israel was like dying. The banned no longer lived and had no value.
In our modern culture, we still divide into “us” and “them” according to our deeds. There are those who are good at being good and those who are not, and one looks down upon the other. However, different groups have different definitions of being righteous. Our standards can be anything from going to church to recycling. We can always find a way to define ourselves as good and our neighbor as bad.
When Adam and Eve partook of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, humanity tied its worth to self. We began to measure our value by who we are, what we do, and what we have. Fortunately, Jesus came to break that tie and restore the bond of human worth to God. He brought a completely new way of seeing our value—by looking at Him and not by looking at ourselves. He came to make human worth a gift, and in giving this gift, He not only restored relationship with God but He brought peace between us and our neighbor.
Jesus would finalize His gift at the cross, but it was already present in His life and ministry. Even the events at His birth foretold that God was about to turn the whole world upside down.(7) We marvel that God sent angels to announce the birth of the Messiah. Yet even more wondrous than their appearing was to whom they appeared. We might think the most important announcement ever given would come to the ones the world deemed most important. Perhaps the angelic beings would interrupt Caesar’s day to tell him the true King of Kings had arrived. If not Caesar, at least they would wake up Herod, the king of Palestine. And if not him, certainly they would inform the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
The angels came to none of these, however. They came not to the greatest but to the least—the humble shepherds. In that day, shepherding was one of the lowliest professions on Earth. But God did not see unimportant people when He looked at shepherds. He saw people of great value and chose to announce to them that a ruler like no other had come, for this King would subvert the measures of the rich, the powerful, and the self-righteous and raise the value of even the lowliest to the heavens.
And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” (Luke 19:5)
Sometimes we think God barely wants to be with us. Perhaps if we could do a little less of the things God does not like and do a little more of the things we know He likes, He would want to spend some time with us. After all, he is way up in heaven, and we have to coax Him down somehow, right?
Jesus wiped away such thoughts with the words “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. If we made a list of the worst sinners in the United States, who would be at the top of our list? Without question, the tax collector would be at the top of everyone’s list in first century Palestine. Chief tax collectors did not fill out an application for their job; they paid for it. The Romans gave the position to the highest bidder. Tax collectors bought the right to cheat their own people.
Taxes hit the common man the hardest. People had to pay Rome but also King Herod. They paid tributes and direct taxes on land and duties, and extra taxes on everyday items such as salt. There were no tax breaks for the poor or deductions for children. In fact, there was a head tax, which meant the bigger the family, the higher the taxes. In addition, Jews had to give tithes to build Herod’s temple and support the priesthood.(8)
Some estimate that the total tax burden on the average family was 30 percent or more of the household’s total income. This might not sound that bad when you add up all our modern taxes; most of us pay at least that. However, Palestine in Jesus’s time was an agrarian society, and most citizens had only a fraction of the wealth we do today. Even without an excessive tax burden, a “good year” meant the average family could keep a roof over its head and all its stomachs full. On a bad year, the family had to sacrifice, maybe even go hungry part of the time. Add a 30 percent tax burden to a family that barely has the essentials already, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Paying taxes was a matter of life and death. The Romans would sometimes destroy whole villages for being late with payments. The tax collectors themselves were little more than thugs. Rome gave them the power to do what was necessary to get Rome’s money, including torturing not only men but also women and children.
The very rich offered “relief” for those who were behind on their payments, paying a debtor’s taxes if he agreed to sign over the rights to his land and become an indentured servant. However, the land meant everything to the Jews. It was God’s gift, a part of the Jewish identity, and its loss meant the debtor had failed both his family and his God.
The tax collectors were cogs a machine that was squeezing the life out of the Jewish people, and it is no wonder everyone hated them. For some strange reason, we do not think it is as bad to rob a rich man as it is to rob a poor man. It is one thing to cheat a fellow who will not miss a little of his money, but to take a man’s last morsel of food? That is low. And that is exactly what the tax collectors did. They were growing rich off the misery of the poor.
Perhaps Zaccheus heard about the Rabbi Jesus, who actually befriended tax collectors. How could this be? Righteous Jews did not associate with sinners. Torah keepers were supposed to cast off evil men and isolate them from the faithful. Because people like Zaccheus were an abomination to God, they were not allowed to worship in the Temple; they were unworthy of God’s presence. But if Jesus was a rabbi like no other who embraced the wicked, this was something Zaccheus had to see. He was short, so he climbed up in a tree to get the best possible view of the Lord.
Many onlookers probably wondered why Zaccheus wanted to get close to Jesus: “What is this evil man doing up in that tree? Doesn’t he know the Messiah will give sinners like him what they deserve?” Imagine the little tax collector’s surprise when Jesus stopped, looked up, and called him by name. “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house!”
Zacchaeus deserved shame, but Jesus honored him. The Lord did not wait for this evil man to become worthy of God’s presence; He gave God’s presence as a gift. He simply announced that He was coming to stay with a man whose life was a mess.
No doubt, prior to this day, people threatened Zacchaeus countless times with the wrath of God. In the past, all the condemnation in the world could not penetrate this chief tax collector’s seared conscience. Yet this hardened sinner had no defense against love. When Jesus gave honor instead of shame, it broke Zacchaeus’ heart. Love conquered him, and he became love’s willing slave.(9)
God’s Law in the Old Testiment required a man who cheated another to pay back what he stole plus 20 percent.(10) Tax collectors of the day commonly overcharged people and kept the difference for themselves. After Jesus blessed him, Zacchaeus proclaimed that he would pay back four times what he had stolen. And not only that, he would give half of all he had to the poor. Jesus answered by saying that the little tax collector was a son of Abraham.(11)
In Jesus’s time, everyone had an opinion about who were the true sons of Abraham. The Pharisees thought they were worthy of this distinction because their lineage extended uninterrupted back to Abraham. And they were pure not only in their lineage but in their deeds. The Sadducees thought the same about themselves, but they had closer ties to the Temple. Surely, that made them God’s favorites. A third group, the Essenes, believed the Jewish Temple was corrupt, so they isolated themselves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. In their mind, they were the true “Sons of Light,” and when the Messiah came, He would do away with all the sinners and use their community to establish a new Israel.(12)
Everyone thought that only the most righteous got the title, “Son of Abraham,” yet Jesus gave it to a tax collector. He responded to outrageous sin with outrageous love, not with judgment. This was a living illustration of the nature of the kingdom of God, and at its heart was the unconditional love of Christ. Jesus revealed infinite love in His ministry, and He finalized God’s gift at the cross.
In the story of Zacchaeus, we see the human response to divine love, and that is to love in return. Some say that Zacchaeus became a son of Abraham when he changed his ways. However, the story clearly shows that God’s grace came first, and grace turned a heart of stone into a heart that belonged to God. We see this pattern throughout the ministry of Jesus. He loved first without condition, and people responded by loving Him in return.
And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things [that] you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Matthew 11:2–6)
Jesus ended his answer to John’s disciples with “blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” Why would healing the infirm or preaching the Gospel to the poor offend anyone? To answer this question, we must understand that Jesus’s miracles were not just miracles; they were also statements about the nature of God’s kingdom. Likewise, the way He treated the poor was also a revelation.
Many in that day thought the sick were God’s rejects. In John, chapter 9, Jesus’s disciples encountered a man born blind. They asked the Lord if it was his sin or the sin of his parents that caused the man’s blindness,. Most people believed those who had leprosy and those who could not walk, see, or hear were just getting what they deserved. This idea probably came directly from Torah, which says God will curse the disobedient and their children with infirmity.(13)
The Law of Moses said certain animals, people who were bleeding or wounded, dead bodies, and lepers were unclean. And that which God curses man also curses. Torah restricts the lame, blind, and deaf in temple worship, but in Jesus’s day, the Pharisees included those with these physical afflictions among the unclean as well.(14) Not only the infirm but also certain sinners were on the “do not touch” list. Recall when Jesus dined with a Pharisee in Luke, chapter 7, and a woman who was a sinner washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. The Pharisee was appalled at the sight of a sinner touching a holy man.
The idea of clean and unclean permeated the lives of Torah-keeping Jews. Cleanliness was more than an matter of being sanitary; they believed unclean things were an abomination to Yahweh, and He would not tolerate them in His presence. If a person touched something unclean, he would become unclean and suffer the Lord’s loathing. Then, to get right with God and the community, he would have to follow elaborate steps to become clean again. To the Jews, clean and unclean were more about relationship than germs.
And along came Jesus, who laid His hands on the sick to heal them. In our day, we view this as a technique, sometimes placing our hands on someone who is sick or hurting when we pray for them. We do this because this is what Jesus did. Yet when Jesus touched the infirm, it was far more than a method; it was a statement. He was touching someone you were not supposed to touch. The lame, the blind, and the lepers were unclean—unworthy. The Law said, “Become clean and God will touch you.” Just the opposite, Christ touched people, and they became clean.(15)
Under the old covenant, God withdrew from what was unholy; under the coming kingdom, God embraced people who were unholy and made them holy. God was giving Himself as a gift without regard to who a person was or what that person had done. Cleanliness no longer came from not touching this or that or from washing correctly. It came from possessing the gift of God in Christ Jesus.
Imagine being lame, blind, deaf, or a leper in that day—you were God’s “reject.” If you were born blind or infirm, you bore the label “unclean” your entire life and you died with it; you had no hope of being pure. If you were a leper, you had to announce your presence by crying, “Unclean!” Everywhere you went, you had to make it clear you were not only sick but unworthy of God and of all Torah-keeping Jews.
Then the Rabbi Jesus comes your way. You might think He would be merciful and heal you from a distance. After all, the good teacher would not touch what was unclean. Instead, He approaches you, and (you can hardly believe it!) He touches you. In an instant, your body is whole. But the Messiah has not only given you health, He has also given back your worth as a human being. There can be no doubt that you are God’s beloved, not an abomination. Christ has healed your body and your soul.
The poor, in many respects, were in the same category as the infirm. In most people’s minds, the poor, while not unclean, were still without God’s favor. Today, we do not realize what an enigma Jesus was in this setting. No one had ever seen anyone like Him—someone who went first to the most unworthy and then chastised those who boasted in their personal worth.
There is only one thing that could turn the world upside down and make the first last and the last first: the arrival of the gift of worth in Christ Jesus. The gift gave infinite worth to the outcasts—to the finite—and shamed the proud.
In 63 bc, the conquering Roman general Pompey marched into Jerusalem. His first stop was the Jew’s most sacred building, the Temple. He walked straight into the second court, which was forbidden to foreigners, marched up the steps leading to the third court, and then he, a pagan, entered the most forbidden place on Earth, the Holiest of Holies. There, he stood and laughed at Israel’s God.(16) This was a harbinger of very hard times for God’s chosen people, but
the Romans were not the first to bring oppression to the people of Palestine. Ever since God’s people returned from Babylonian captivity around 400 years earlier, things were not right in Israel. God’s people were supposed to be the head and not the tail, the first and not the last. Except for a period of about 100 years after end of the Maccabean Revolt in 165 bc, one Gentile nation after another dominated God’s people. First, there were the Babylonians, then the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and now the Romans.
When the Romans came, they brought their pagan gods with them. Philip, the son of Herod the Great, went so far as to build a temple for Caesar worship in Caesarea Philippi (formerly the city of Paneas). Roman taxes broke the back of the common man making many destitute. We have accounts of people resorting to eating grass and the bark of trees to survive. In the cities, multiple families often lived below the poverty level in cramped conditions on very small parcels of land.(17) The Romans enforced their will with an almost unimaginable brutality. Josephus, a first century historian, wrote that the Romans crucified over 10,000 Jews in Jerusalem alone and countless thousands in the surrounding cites.(18)
The people needed a Messiah—a Savior/King—to deliver them. God sent their Savior, but he was not the kind of king they expected. The people looked to the past to form their image of a deliverer: the Messiah would be the Son of David. Whenever David had a Gentile problem, he picked up his sword and put the pagans in their place.
Just a few generations before the time of Christ, another Messiah figure, Judas Maccabaeus, appeared to rescue Israel from another blight of pagan oppression and defilement of the Temple. The Jews called him the “Hammer of God.” Judas won what seemed to be a miraculous victory against great odds, and when he, their hero, entered Jerusalem, the people spread out palm branches as he rode past.(19) Almost 200 years later, they did the same thing for Jesus when He entered Jerusalem.
The Gospels reveal that many people expected Jesus to be their King, but no one expected that He would bring forgiveness to the Gentiles, not destruction. He would come not to raise the Jew above the Gentile but to make the Jew and Gentile brethren. Such a work was so wondrous, so stunning, so unbelievable that many could not fathom it. Christ had come to save His enemies.
Early in His ministry, Jesus left His own people and went among the Gentiles to a place called the Gadarenes.(20) We know this place was Gentile territory because of its pig farmers; Jews did not mix with swine or Gentiles. Tombs were also off limits, but a graveyard in Gardarenes is exactly where Jesus was headed. There, living among the tombs, naked and totally insane, was a Gentile possessed by a legion of demons, and he looked more like a wild animal than a man. Jesus delivered this foreigner with a word and cast the demons into a nearby herd of pigs. A most unclean Gentile met the King of the Jews that day, and the King loved him clean through.
This was no chance encounter; the Lord did not just happen upon this man. Jesus went looking for this Gentile in the midst of uncleanness that would turn a Torah-keeping Jew’s stomach. The Jews believed Gentiles could seek Yahweh, but they would have to embrace Torah and become clean first. Once they qualified, they could have access to the covenant community. The Lord did not wait for this fellow to repent and become clean. He did not even wait for an invitation. He went looking for the worst Gentile imaginable.
It is a great miracle that Jesus cast a legion of demons into a herd of pigs and delivered the man, but even more astonishing was what the miracle said: God was embracing the Gentiles. He, in fact, was going to look for them. What would this say to the disciples who witnessed the miracle? It would say grace has no limits—the gift of worth is for anybody. There are no qualifications. If God was giving favor to people He was supposed to destroy, the kingdom of God had come, and it was bigger than the disciples ever imagined.
Grace is God being where He is not supposed to be, accepting what He is not supposed to accept, and touching what He is not supposed to touch. God’s great gift of worth in Christ Jesus brought a new way seeing God, our neighbor, and ourselves. It broke down the boundaries not only between God and humanity, but also between the rich and the poor, the somebodies and the nobodies, and even the righteous and the unrighteous. In Jesus’s ministry and teaching, God had begun the work of summing up all things in Christ. God once again was giving the gift of Himself through Christ, and those who have God have infinite worth.
1. Deuteronomy 28.
2. Matthew 19:23–26.
3. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (IVP Academic, 1992), has an excellent section on the Jewish idea of clean and unclean. For a more detailed study of this subject, I recommend The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, by Bruce J. Malina (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
4. In the Old Testament, we read that the nation of Israel split into two nations: Judah, which was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, was to the south; and Israel, which was made up of the other ten tribes, was to the north. The Judeans kept their Hebrew bloodline intact while those of Israel did not. Many Judeans, therefore, thought God favored them more than other Jews. In Philippians, chapter 3, when speaking of his own righteousness, Paul wrote that he was of the tribe of Benjamin. In other words, he was of one of the tribes that got it right.
5. Acts 10:28.
6. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our Western World, by Richard Tarnas (Ballantine Books, 1993), and The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, by Bruce J. Malina (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), are both excellent resources on this subject.
7. Luke 2:8–15.
8. In their book The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Fortress Press, 2001), Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann give a very detailed analysis of the social and economic conditions of the first century world. They describe in detail the effect high taxes were having on the common man.
9. Luke 19:1–10.
10. Leviticus 6:4–5.
11. Luke 19:9.
12. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World, by Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2002), contains a wealth of information about the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes.
13. Deuteronomy 28:21–22 and Exodus 34:7.
14. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (IVP Academic, 1992).
15. No study of the historical Jesus is complete without the works of N. T. Wright, whose insights are brilliant. For an introduction to Wright’s work, I would recommend The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (IVP Books, 2011). If you want to take a deeper look, try his more scholarly work Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 [Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997]).
16. Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus, by Richard A. Horsley with John S. Hanson (Trinity Press International, 1999), is an invaluable tool for understanding the tensions between the Romans and the Jews.
17. The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century, by Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann (Fortress Press, 2001).
18. The writings of Josephus describe the history of first century Palestine in great detail. This prolific writer also gave us an account of Jewish history from Adam to the Jewish–Roman wars. His works are not easy reading, but fortunately, there is a condensed version: Josephus: The Essential Works, translated by Paul L. Maier (Kregel Academic & Professional, 1995).
19. When it comes to understanding the Jewish Temple, I turn to The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, by Alfred Edersheim (Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
20. Mark 5:1–17.