It’s sometimes amazing what we can learn when we look through someone else’s eyes.
Recently, on a trip to the Middle East, I was told of a group of Omani Muslim men who gathered together to hear stories of Jesus read to them from the New Testament. Without any extra commentary, they were asked to share what struck them most about Jesus in these stories.
Before sharing further, I must let you know that the culture of the Omani people (and those of the other peoples of the Arabian peninsula and traditional Middle East are far closer to the customs and habits of the people of Jesus’ day than perhaps any other cultures existing today (certainly closer than that of modern-day America).
In this particular instance, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zaccheus was read (Luke 19:1-10). We are typically startled by Jesus’ willingness to fellowship with a chief tax-collector, who although a Jew ethnically was considered by his own people to be a traitor in league with the Romans and a swindler whose wealth was made on the backs of his townsfolk. It’s no surprise that this encounter seems scandalous to our sensibilities, but that’s what we love about Jesus – his love is not just for the respectable, but for the tarnished. Some of us take great hope in such grace.
The Omani Muslims also expressed their astonishment at the scandal of this story. But for them the source of scandal was different. When asked what they learned of Jesus, one of the men remarked that he couldn’t believe the impudence of Jesus; the other men added their agreement. When asked to explain, he said, “In our culture, what Jesus did was extremely rude. No one has the right to invite himself into the home of another. We honor hospitality, but never do we presume upon another’s kindness. Their home is theirs to offer, not ours to demand. Even the chief of a tribe has no right to demand the hospitality of his members. Even the king of the land cannot force one of his subjects to host him. A man’s home belongs to him alone and no one can invade it on his own authority – he must wait to be invited. The only one who could rightly do something like this is God, because everything in the end belongs to Him!”
As these words hung in the air, the import of what he had said began to sink in on the hearts of the Omanis. Maybe this Jesus was not just a man, even a human king. Maybe, just maybe, he had the right to demand Zaccheus’ hospitality, because maybe, just maybe, He was….
Perhaps we have much to learn from traditional Middle Eastern culture when it comes to understanding the message of the Bible. As we approach the Christmas season and hear once again the mind-boggling story that for the salvation of sinners God became a human being in the baby known as Jesus, we are reminded of the many evidences strewn throughout the New Testament of this incredible truth – Jesus’ claims to fulfill prophecy, his certainty of equality with his Father, his miracles accomplishing what only God can do, his appeal to his own authority in decreeing what is right and wrong in human behavior, his love for the outcast and unloved, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for sinners who clamored for his death. All these truths we point to regularly as reminders of Jesus’ divinity, that God became incarnate in a real human being, a Jewish baby who grew to become a man of certain weight, hair color, speaking Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who endured in his own body and soul the weight of the sins of the world while he hung up a cross, and allowed that incarnate life to slowly drain out of his human body.
For over forty years I have studied the Bible to learn more of the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s appointed Savior for the human race. But until last month, I had never encountered evidence for the divinity of Jesus based on an “argument from hospitality”!
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” An act of impudence, even rudeness, from Jesus? Or the declaration of God incarnate, enacting His will to rescue a Jewish tax-collector whose hope for heaven had long since grown cold? Zaccheus’ response hints at the right answer: “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.” In response, Jesus speaks with the authority of the Supreme Potentate of the eternal kingdom: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham….”
I thank God for those Omani Muslims and the innocent insight they brought to this all-too-familiar text! I pray they come to discover the full import of the life of the One they are studying.
I have so much to learn.