What could be going on here in the text that so compellingly breaks down our tepid versions of the story? It is simply this: Jesus clearly expected that more than one of those healed should recognize what had happened. And he clearly felt it reasonable to expect that more than one of them should return to him... To "turn back and give praise to God." Rather than continuing on to the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though he had instructed them to go to the Temple. Even though the Temple is precisely where people go to "praise God." ...Wait, what? Are we beginning to see something deeper take shape yet? Jesus is suggesting something. We're supposed to be left asking questions. We're supposed to be left considering the message which the miracle gave so much gravity to. So what's the message? Maybe this: The closer they got to that Temple, the less they should have felt like they needed to go.
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When I hear Christians rail about the differences between "Allah" and "Yahweh," I have to wonder: When did this become the kind of question you can answer with two columns of verses chosen from different books? And when did it stop being the kind of question that can only be answered in the deepest recesses of a human heart?
The real thing to realize here is that making Jesus exclusive in the way a lot of us do does not make him greater. It makes him smaller. A tiny God for a privileged few... Essentially, if you ignore the inclusiveness Jesus models - beyond any religious or non-religious affiliation - how can you be honoring him? You are "holding the line" in a battle you were never asked to wage. You are fighting over national borders while claiming to serve the King of the Universe. And when people trumpet John 14:6 to say "no one comes to the Father except through the Son," they are missing a crucial detail... It's Jesus' call. Which means... It's. Not. Yours.
When Paul encountered Jesus, his entire lens for understanding the universe changed. He went from being someone who was on the road to Damascus in order to persecute and kill by the Law, to being someone who could walk into Athens as a Jew and talk about the brotherhood of mankind by the Spirit. I'd say that's an element of this story worth preserving in Christian teaching. Worth championing in Christian missions. Worth clinging to in Christian gospel... It's the freedom to walk into any religious forum free of pride, and not declare "My truth is the only truth and yours is nothing," but instead, "God is behind all of our truths, and we have so much in common, and I want to tell you why." Maybe a few magicians were able to talk us into forgetting that. As a result, Athens disappeared - dissipated and vanished from the whole evangelism conversation. But all it takes to undo that spell is to stop forgetting, and start remembering.
We have no record of Jesus requesting anything of Zacchaeus, but his loving inclusion did pave the way for radical change to happen. There is power in that sort of love. The kind of love that is not conditional. It doesn't offer relational embrace only if the one receiving it promises to change. It's not a love that burdens others with obligations and more reasons to feel guilty. Real love isn't loaded with that sort of empty, forced reciprocation. it's reckless and wild and free. Jesus extends embrace without condition, without pretense, without contingency. This is the sort of love that can reverse years and decades of ugliness and brokenness and hurt and pain.