What does it mean to be free? What is a free society? We hear a lot today about these words. Freedom, justice, and even coupled with words like tolerance. A major buzzword is also the concept of human rights. Just ‘Google’ human rights and see what you come up with.
Can tolerance even exist in a free and just society? This is a good question. It needs to be fleshed out. I fear that in our society we are talking about symptoms of this problem and making political decisions before understanding the philosophical conclusions of this question. Most definitions of the word tolerance define tolerance in a negative light. To tolerate someone is to put up with them, even though you a) are repulsed by them, b) disapprove of their lifestyle, or c) are their enemy.
If you invited me to dinner and I went with you, and then the next day you overheard me talking to someone–and that person asked, “How was dinner last night?” What if I replied, “It was tolerable..” What if they said, “How was the company?” To which I respond, “They were tolerable…”
I know of no one who wants to be tolerated. People do however want to be respected. Tolerance has been redefined through intellectual fraud to mean unequivocal affirmation of all views–ALL roads lead to the top. This is untenable. If we are going to have freedom, we must be able to disagree. To live in a “tolerant” society means that freedom isn’t possible. You cannot tolerate someone and disagree with them. You can respect someone and disagree.
You will hear that those who feel they ascribe to absolute truth are oppressive over those who merely want to live their lives autonomously. Now, one of the leading scholars on the subject of freedom was Isaiah Berlin. He lived in the 20th Century. He argued that freedom could not flourish in a monistic culture–that it had to be within a pluralistic society. He said it this way, “The enemy of pluralism is monism — the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit.” I am in disagreement with Mr. Berlin here.
If there is more than one path to the top of a mountain, does it not follow that once you reach the top you should be able to see all the paths once you get there? Well, I have been to the top of a mountain and I can tell you, it is impossible to see where all paths lead. To know for sure, you would need a birds-eye view. You would need to be above but also have a panoramic, or wide lens shot. Now, I notice, that many times when I ask someone, “Does God exist?” They will say, “Which one?” So for now–lets say, God exits. Back to the question: WHere would you need to be to know if all paths lead to the top? The question is…up. Who besides a bird has that position. God.
By claiming all paths lead to God, isnt someone claiming to be in that position of complete knowledge? Arent they claiming to be God? Yet they call the Christian arrogant?
All truth is exclusive. If I say only Jesus leads to truth–I am excluding those who say all roads lead to truth. If you say, all roads lead to truth–you are excluding the guy who says, only Jesus leads to truth.
Now–If I asked a group of people what they think Jesus would say about human rights, and about how the oppressed and the oppressor should be treated, I can predict the answer with an unequivocal certainty. They would say the oppressed should be liberated and the oppressor should be held accountable and punished.
It is true that in our world we all affirm the existence of evil. When evil happens to us, we all demand justice. These are univocal concepts. We all affirm these—even if someone claims they deny them. You can tell how someone feels about the existence of evil by how they respond to injustice being performed toward them. Mere philosophical babble such as, “I do not affirm the existence of absolutes” mean nothing. “What is right for you is ok for you, but what is right is right for me. Don’t foist your views on me.” By saying this, they ARE foisting their view on you. The view that there is no exclusive truth is— This is an exclusive position. They are asking you not to believe a word they have to say. Roger Scruton says somewhere that if someone tells you there is no such thing as truth, they are asking you to think they are a liar.
I am deeply bothered by the cry for human rights—especially by modern liberals who claim that injustice is being perpetrated on the weak by the strong—and the only solution is for those who possess the ideology of modern political liberal enlightenment are able to intercede. What you rarely hear in their vociferous case for human rights, is an equally voluble case for the right to be human.
You can tell the moral barometer of a nation by how it treats its unborn.
I wanted to share a quick thought with you from a book by Chesterton. G.K. Chesterton says something quite profound in his book, What’s Wrong With the World. He is talking about how we decide what a good society should look like and he talks about what is called the “Medical Mistake.” He basically says in his writing that politicians routinely draw upon medical rhetoric when talking about the health of the nation. They speak of how sick it is, and how electing them into office will make it better. The problem as proffered by Chesterton, is that this system of using medical rhetoric is flawed. He says it this way:
“Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.
But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health. No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache. Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles. Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.
This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out. We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing. We should not by any means all admit than an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one. Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong. The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health. Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity. We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them. Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public-house. It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.
I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil Is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.”
I fully agree with Chesterton here. That is the question: What is right? What is the model? Is it God—maybe Jesus? If it is Jesus…then who exactly is this Jesus? I think we can glean something from the book of Luke on this very question.
Jesus Heals a Blind Beggar
35 As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” 43 And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.
Jesus and Zacchaeus
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” 
ECCLESIASTES 4:1 Provides a background for reflection on the blind man and Zacchaeus. That remarkable verse reads:
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”
We are going to get an amazing story that sheds light on how Jesus views both the oppressed and the oppressor.
When Jesus arrives in the town of Jericho, two events occur that need to be examined together. In the first Jesus heals a man, oppressed. In the second Jesus extends love to an oppressor. The New Testament’s chapter divisions, following the fourth-century Greek paragraph divisions, break the two Jericho stories apart and place them in different chapters. But when viewed together they form a pair. It is common knowledge that for some decades Christians around the world have increasingly been discovering that the God of the Bible sides with the oppressed. In Scripture the poor, the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the marginalized all receive God’s special attention and compassion. But what can be said about the oppressor? The natural assumption is that he or she must be opposed. The Magnificat states, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones … and the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk 1:52-53). All who seek to support the oppressed must surely oppose the oppressor! Is it possible to oppose oppressors and at the same time extend “comfort” to them? The two stories that took place on the edges of Jericho provide an opportunity to reflect on Jesus dealing with the oppressed and then the oppressor.
THE BLIND MAN BESIDE THE ROAD
In the first story (Lk 18:35-43) Jesus “drew near to Jericho” and interacted with a blind beggar in the setting of a crowd. We are presented with a blind beggar and we are given two identifiers that show him to be blind. First, we are told he is blind, and second; he hears a multitude going by. He uses his ears as his way to see. Now, in the Middle East, hospitality is a crucial aspect of life. One way to show honor to a guest in a town is to meet him and escort him into the village from a great distance. By this time, Jesus is a national figure. Picture the winning Superbowl team arriving in their home city on an airplane. The fans will meet them at the airport. It is this type of fanfare that Jesus is receiving. It is common knowledge that he claims to be the Messiah, and many believe him to be the King of the Jews. He is expected to reinstitute the Kingdom of David. Jesus is clearly on his way to Jerusalem—and it conveniently happens that it is Passover. Now, for the Jews, Passover is a celebratory time in which remembrance is paid to their political emancipation from slavery in Egypt. The other Jewish remembrance is Yom Kippur. This is an observance of the Day of Atonement, our sins, and the sacrifice that takes our sins away. For us as Christians, our Passover is our Yom Kippur. So, the people see Jesus as a political revolutionary. They want to know what his next move is going to be. Is he going to start a revolution? Is he going to overthrow Rome? What is going to happen? This is the feeling of the crowd.
The crowd most definitely wants to speak with Jesus and find out his plan—so without question a banquet has been prepared in his honor. They hope to speak politics and religion with him late into the night.
Now, a blind man happens to be on the fringe of the crowd, most likely at the gate of the city, and is interested in what is happening. When he finds out that Jesus Christ is coming into the town, he cries out, Jesus Son of David, Have Mercy On Me!” Remember, this guy is at the town gate. He hears the conversations. Jesus is a popular figure. This blind, illiterate, beggar has an incredible knowledge of Jesus just from hearing conversations. He is excited—so, he cries out. The crowd essentially shuts him up, but this doesn’t stop our blind beggar. He keeps on: “Jesus Son of David, Have Mercy On Me!” At this, Jesus hears him, and summons for the man. Now this is interesting on two levels. Keep in mind, the man is blind, and needs help. Secondly, this is the first instance in the New Testament of Jesus being referred to with this kingly title. This is a name of royalty that harkens back to the Old Testament. Jesus is called on as a king and responds as a king. Jesus commands the people trying to shut the man up (oppressors) to escort the blind man (oppressed) to Him. This is a rebuke of the crowd and an acknowledgement of his kingly title.. We then see this: “And when he came near, he (Jesus) asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”
Many people find this to be a stupid question. Why would Jesus ask such a thing?
In the Middle East, Begging is a recognized profession. It is both recognized by the beggars and by the culture at large. This is a very theocratic society in the way they follow laws. They are expected to give alms to the poor. A beggar will cry out, “Give to God!” The person gives alms to the poor and at the same time is giving a sacrifice to God. If this happens in a public place, the beggar will loudly proclaim in polished phrases a prayer for God’s blessing on the person who just blessed him, lavish them with kind words, and celebrate their goodness. This is good for standing with God, social reputation, business, and for community standing. It is an indispensable part of the culture.
Now, I do not in any way want to diminish the plight of beggars or the poor in the Middle East, but many of them are stout. What I am trying to say is—they manage. This is a decent living. The problem is—to keep this lifestyle up; you must have a legitimate handicap. A bum leg, you might manage in life. Missing an arm, still not so good—you could still get by. Ah—but blindness—this is guaranteed lifetime income.
So here is a question: What will become of the man, who has a decent living as a beggar, IF he is healed? He has no education, no skills, no training, no work experience. What will he do next? I have heard of Missionaries affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination who have reported that they offered free surgeries to those with some physical problems—in nearly every situation—the person has refused. Why? Because, their life would be radically altered, seemingly for the worse!
If the blind man is healed, he loses his income.
Here is the lesson to learn from the beggar: Grace is free, but it is NOT cheap. Jesus is testing the man. He asks him what he wants because he wants to know if the man is willing to take on the responsibility of what it takes to receive the Grace of God.
The blind beggar passes the test and Jesus heals him. This is a slap on the wrist to the crowd. Now what happens next? The crowed showers praise on Jesus and they enter into the banquet hall? Hardly.
I am reminded of a story I heard once where a University was hosting Jimmy Carter and his wife. The entire faculty prepared dessert items and a large set of tables was prepared for the former President and First Lady. There was more food there than could be consumed by the entire population of the room. When Carter arrived, Mrs. Carter had a bite of a cookie, a sip of tea, and they left for a meeting. That was all. All that food and the banquet didn’t happen. Can you feel the disappointment?
This is what happened here. We see that “He entered Jericho and was passing through.” Jesus had no time to socialize with this crowd in the banquet hall. He had to make a 17-mile hike to Jerusalem.
Here is where the story gets interesting:
There was one guy in Jericho who really wanted to see Jesus. We know him as a tax collector, but you can also know him as the town collaborator. His role is basically that of a farmed out tax collector by the Roman government. They get him to collect people’s monies, and ask NO questions about his methods. Needless to say, he profits greatly from the transaction. He is not well liked.
The truth of the matter however; is, that he is a powerful man. While Jesus is “passing through,” Zacchaeus, our town collaborator decides he wants to see Him. What should he do? His is a powerful man, he has the ability to enter the crowd, make them disperse, and get to an elevated position. Why doesn’t he? Very simple: Keep in mind, we are told he is short. If he were to enter that mob, a quick hand to the mouth by a person from behind, and a knife to the back—and Zacchaeus would fall to the ground and the assailant would never be found. You can’t just arrest 5,000 people. No. Zacchaeus does two strange things.
He Runs down a back alley. The back alley part is a given—he has to stay out of sight. He doesn’t want his name called out by the mob. Remember they think highly of Jesus. He doesn’t want Jesus’ attention drawn to him and his behavior. The fact that he runs is a problem. Men in this culture do not run. They wear long robes. In order to run, you have to gird up the fabric and show your legs. This is uncivilized. Think about the father in Luke 15 running to meet the son. This is an act of supreme humility. He takes the chance of disgracing himself in order to run. Next, he climbs a tree. Powerful men do not climb trees at parades. This is an act of a child in our American culture. Not even children would do this in his culture. The fact that he climbs a sycamore tree gives us some important information.
Zacchaeus didn’t want to be seen, so he climbed into a tree with dense foliage hoping no one would see him. Why is a sycamore fig mentioned? Sycamore fig trees have large leaves and low branches. One can climb into them easily and just as easily hide among their thickly clustered broad leaves. Both of these features were important to Zacchaeus. Additionally, such trees were only allowed some distance from town. Zacchaeus chose to climb a tree growing outside Jericho, assuming the crowd would have dispersed by the time Jesus reached the tree. Sycamore figs, of the variety that grow in the Jordan valley, are mentioned in the Mishnah and in the Babylonian Talmud. They were cultivated for their value as beams for the roofs of houses. Also important for this subject is the Mishnah reference to sycamore trees that reads, “A tree may not be grown within a distance of twenty-five cubits from the town, or fifty cubits if it is a carob or a sycamore -tree.”‘ Danby explains that a tree was seen as a kind of tent and if any form of ceremonial uncleanness occurred under the tree, that uncleanness was automatically transferred to anyone under any section of the tree. People who had trees on their property were obliged to cut all branches that overhung a property-line wall. Carob or sycamore trees were a special problem because they are large trees with wide-spreading branches. What is clear is that this large tree, with its spreading branches, was outside Jericho on the road up to Jerusalem. A cubit being about eighteen inches, a sycamore fig had to be at least seventy-five feet from any town, and naturally it could be a great deal further away. In spite of its brevity, the story tells us Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore tree, and the word occurs solely in this reference in the New Testament. Zacchaeus did not want to be seen by the crowd!
John Badeau, the American Ambassador in Cairo, Egypt, under John Kennedy, records in his memoirs that he once climbed a tree in the back garden of the ambassador’s walled residence in order to fix some lights for an embassy garden party. This private act became known and caused such a stir that Badeau was soon asked by a very puzzled President Nasser (during an audience) if the story were true. Nasser had heard the unbelievable tale and was so amazed he felt the need to check its veracity with the ambassador himself. In the Middle East, powerful, prominent men do not climb trees, even in the privacy of their own walled gardens. Zacchaeus breaks with his culture both by running and by climbing a tree. He hopes desperately that neither act will be observed and carefully chooses a tree with thick foliage, some distance from town.
Now, keep in mind—Jesus is moving through the town and has therefore refused any local hospitality! This is going to show up in a minute. You must consider what is about to happen in the light of this.
Zacchaeus hopes he will not be spotted—he hopes the crowd will dissipate—but it doesn’t—and—he spotted by the crowd. Now, if the crowd can see him, we know Jesus can see him. The crowd begins to move toward Zacchaeus. You can sense that hostility is growing and 4-letter insults are being hurled his direction. Everything they have wanted to say to him in his office for years, and have been unable to say because of his authority, they are now saying, because they feel Jesus gives them that authority. There is a whiff of violence in the air. Jesus at this point is expected to respond with righteous indignation. Zacchaeus is the oppressor here and they expect to see a similar situation that we saw with the blind man—The oppressed loved and the oppressor rebuked. The polecat is up the tree, and Jesus is about to say something like this to him: “Zacchaeus, you are a collaborator! You are an oppressor of these good people. You have drained the economic lifeblood of your people and given it to the imperialists. You have betrayed your country and your God. This community’s hatred of you is fully justified. You must quit your job, repent, journey to Jerusalem for ceremonial purification, return to Jericho and apply yourself to keeping the law. If you are willing to do these things, on my next trip to Jericho I will enter your newly purified house and offer my congratulations.” Such a speech would have provoked long and enthusiastic applause. Instead, Jesus invites Zacchaeus down, and tells him he is going to stay the night at his house! He is taking the side of the sinful oppressor! This is both unthinkable and unprecedented.
Keep something in mind here. Many people say that Jesus was a political guy and that he only played on his popularity. This I want to posit is a weak political move by Jesus. He doesnt seem interested in scoring political or social points at all. Instead, he seems to be interested in changing this collaborator’s life. Another word about popularity: Jesus was crucified due to popular demand. I rest my case.
Jesus didn’t have time for the crowd, but now has changed his plans and is going to stay with the town collaborator? The anger against Zacchaeus is shifted to Jesus. Jesus is well aware of this culture. He knows what it means to be oppressed—he grew up in it. He feels their pain. The problem is this—he didn’t come for the oppressed or the oppressor exclusively. He came for the lost—for All. Even though he may as a man feel personal anger toward a town collaborator for the oppression he surely saw as a child, he has reprocessed his anger into grace. For Jesus this always manifests itself in a costly demonstration of unexpected love. We see it in the parables, but ultimately, we see it on the Cross.
What is Zacchaeus’ response? He is joyful. Repentance as Jesus shows us in Luke 15 is the joyful acceptance of being found. This is what happens with the lost sheep. The sheep isn’t remorseful for breaking the law, it is joyful for being found. There IS a place for remorse, but the initial response in repentance is joy of acceptance.
They enter the house of the collaborator. At this point, Zacchaeus feels an inward pressure to respond to Christ. He has to respond. He speaks from his heart. He is a different man than before he went into that tree. He is changed and what he wants to do has been changed. When we come to Christ, we aren’t given a list of “to do’s,” instead, our desire to do things changes based on our love for Christ—motivated by forgiveness.
Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ gift out of the deepest level of who he (Zacchaeus) is, and the model of his response is what Jesus has done for him. Zacchaeus receives costly love and is thereby empowered and motivated to offer costly love to others. His engagement in mission has already begun. The reader knows that Zacchaeus entire life will change. Salvation includes a radical transformation and reformation of life as it is lived out day by day in the present. This dynamic is clearly demonstrated in this story. Jesus continues with his second concluding statement. Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “since he also is a son of Abraham” (v. 9). Abraham went forth not knowing where he was going.
Zacchaeus is, at last, starting to follow in Abraham’s footsteps. His new journey of faith will take Zacchaeus into many unknown places. Furthermore, the community had understandably ostracized Zacchaeus. Jesus is affirming Zacchaeus acceptance in the eyes of God, regardless of how the community reacts. Zacchaeus also “is a son of Abraham,” declares Jesus. Finally, Jesus says, “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (v. 10). Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man and reaffirms his ministry as a good shepherd who seeks the lost and brings them home. The righteous who think they “need no repentance” have no need of him (Lk 15:4-7). He will search for and bring home the lost. This story is remarkable in yet another regard. As he began his ministry Jesus promised that his task was proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion (Lk 4:16-30). This story is one of the few places where all three of these aspects of Jesus’ ministry are on display. Here Jesus offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love, which is the heart of the proclamation. Jesus also engages injustice advocacy by indirectly lifting oppressive aspects of the tax system from the town of Jericho. In this story Jesus demonstrates compassion for the beggar, the town and the collaborator.
This is the message that has to be transmitted to our culture. Why Jesus? Because, there is no other choice.
 Chesterton, Gilbert K. (1910). What’s wrong with the world. (pp. 3–7). New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Lk 18:35–19:10). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Lk 18:40–41). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.