Thomas Nelson / W
NO PERSON HE WON’T TOUCH
The Shady People
“As Jesus was going down the road, he saw Matthew sitting at his tax-collection booth. ‘Come, be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him” (Matt. 9:9 nlt).
The surprise in this invitation is the one invited—a tax collector. Combine the greed of an embezzling executive with the presumption of a hokey television evangelist. Throw in the audacity of an ambulance-chasing lawyer and the cowardice of a drive-by sniper. Stir in a pinch of a pimp’s morality, and finish it off with the drug peddler’s code of ethics—and what do you have?
A first-century tax collector.
His given name was Levi, a priestly name (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27–28). Did his parents aspire for him to enter the priesthood? If so, he was a flop in the family circle.
You can bet he was shunned. The neighborhood cookouts? Never invited. High school reunions? Somehow his name was left off the list. The guy was avoided like streptococcus A. Everybody kept his distance from Matthew.
Everyone except Jesus. “‘Come, be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him” (Matt. 9:9 nlt).
Matthew must have been ripe. Jesus hardly had to tug. Within a punctuation mark, Matthew’s shady friends and Jesus’ green followers are swapping e-mail addresses. “Then Levi gave a big dinner for Jesus at his house. Many tax collectors and other people were eating there, too” (Luke 5:29 ncv).
And so Jesus ends up at Matthew’s house, a classy split-level with a view of the Sea of Galilee. Parked out front is everything from BMWs to Harleys to limos. And the crowd inside tells you this is anything but a clergy conference.
Earrings on the guys and tattoos on the girls. Moussified hair. Music that rumbles teeth roots. And buzzing around in the middle of the group is Matthew, making more connections than an electrician. He hooks up Peter with the tax collector bass club and Martha with the kitchen staff. Simon the Zealot meets a high school debate partner. And Jesus? Beaming. What could be better? Sinners and saints in the same room, and no one’s trying to determine who is which. But an hour or so into the evening the door opens, and an icy breeze blows in. “The Pharisees and the men who taught the law for the Pharisees began to complain to Jesus’ followers, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30 ncv).
Enter the religious police and their thin-lipped piety. Big black books under arms. Cheerful as Siberian prison guards. Clerical collars so tight that veins bulge. They like to grill too. But not steaks.
Matthew is the first to feel the heat. “Some religious fellow you are,” one says, practically pulling an eyebrow muscle. “Look at the people you hang out with.”
Matthew doesn’t know whether to get mad or get out. Before he has time to choose, Jesus intervenes, explaining that Matthew is right where he needs to be. “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call sinners to turn from their sins, not to spend my time with those who think they are already good enough” (vv. 31–32 nlt).
Quite a story. Matthew goes from double-dealer to disciple. He throws a party that makes the religious right uptight, but Christ proud. The good guys look good, and the bad guys hit the road. Some story indeed.
What do we do with it?
That depends on which side of the tax collector’s table you find yourself. You and I are Matthew. Don’t look at me that way. There’s enough hustler in the best of us to qualify for Matthew’s table. Maybe you’ve never taken taxes, but you’ve taken liberty with the truth, taken credit that wasn’t yours, taken advantage of the weak. You and me? Matthew.
If you’re still at the table, you receive an invitation. “Follow me.” So what if you’ve got a rube reputation? So did Matthew. You may end up writing your own gospel.
If you’ve left the table, you receive a clarification. You don’t have to be weird to follow Jesus. You don’t have to stop liking your friends to follow him. Just the opposite. A few introductions would be nice. Do you know how to grill a steak?
Touching Our Pain
Jesus has been there. He experienced “all the pain, all the testing” (Heb. 2:18 msg). Jesus was angry enough to purge the temple, hungry enough to eat raw grain, distraught enough to weep in public, fun loving enough to be called a drunkard, winsome enough to attract kids, weary enough to sleep in a storm-bounced boat, poor enough to sleep on dirt and borrow a coin for a sermon illustration, radical enough to get kicked out of town, responsible enough to care for his mother, tempted enough to know the smell of Satan, and fearful enough to sweat blood.
But why? Why would heaven’s finest Son endure earth’s toughest pain? So you would know that “he is able . . . to run to the cry of . . . those who are being tempted and tested and tried” (Heb. 2:18 amp).
Whatever you are facing, he knows how you feel.
A couple of days ago twenty thousand of us ran through the streets of San Antonio, raising money for breast cancer research. Most of us ran out of kindness, happy to log three miles and donate a few dollars to the cause. A few ran in memory of a loved one, others in honor of a cancer survivor. We ran for different reasons. But no runner was more passionate than one I spotted. A bandanna covered her bald head, and dark circles shadowed her eyes. She had cancer. While we ran out of kindness, she ran out of conviction. She knows how cancer victims feel. She’s been there.
So has Jesus. “He is able . . . to run to the cry of . . . those who are being tempted and tested and tried.”
When you turn to him for help, he runs to you to help. Why? He knows how you feel. He’s been there.
Untying Our Knots
Learning to tie your shoes is a rite of passage. Right in there with first grade and first bike is first shoe tying. But, oh, how dreadful is the process.
Just when you think you’ve made the loops and circled the tree . . . you get the rabbit ears in either hand and give them a triumphant yank and, voilŕ!—a knot. Unbeknownst to you, you’ve just been inducted into reality.
My friend Roy used to sit on a park bench for a few minutes each morning. He liked to watch the kids gather and play at the bus stop. One day he noticed a little fellow, maybe five or six years of age, struggling to board the bus. While others were climbing on, he was leaning down, frantically trying to disentangle a knotted shoestring. He grew more anxious by the moment, frantic eyes darting back and forth between the shoe and the ride.
All of a sudden it was too late. The door closed.
The boy fell back on his haunches and sighed. That’s when he saw Roy. With tear-filled eyes he looked at the man on the bench and asked, “Do you untie knots?”
Jesus loves that request.
Life gets tangled. People mess up. You never outgrow the urge to look up and say, “Help!”
Jesus had a way of appearing at such moments. Peter’s empty boat. Nicodemus’s empty heart. Matthew has a friend issue. A woman has a health issue. Look who shows up.
Jesus, our next-door Savior.
“Do you untie knots?”
Changing Our Songs
As we behold him, we become like him.
I experienced this principle firsthand when an opera singer visited our church. We didn’t know his voice was trained. You couldn’t have known by his corduroy coat and loafers. No tuxedo, cummerbund, or silk tie. His appearance raised no eyebrow, but his voice certainly did. I should know. He was in the pew behind mine.
His vibrato made dentures rattle and rafters shake. He tried to contain himself. But how can a tuba hide in a room of piccolos?
For a moment I was startled. But within a verse, I was inspired. Emboldened by his volume, I lifted mine. Did I sing better? Not even I could hear me. My warbles were lost in his talent. But did I try harder? No doubt. His power brought out the best in me.
Could your world use a little music? If so, invite heaven’s baritone to cut loose. He may look as common as the guy next door, but just wait till you see what he can do. Who knows? A few songs with him might change the way you sing.
Loving the Prodigals
May I remind you and me that our past is laced with outbursts of anger, stained with nights of godless passion, and spotted with undiluted greed?
Suppose your past was made public? Suppose you were to stand on a stage while a film of every secret and selfish second was projected on the screen behind you?
Would you not crawl beneath the rug? Would you not scream for the heavens to have mercy? And would you not feel just a fraction . . . just a fraction of what Christ felt on the cross? The icy displeasure of a sin-hating God?
I tasted something similar at the age of sixteen with my own father. He and I were close, best friends. I never feared his abuse or absence. Near the top of my list of blessings is the name Jack Lucado. Near the top of my toughest days is the day I let him down.
Dad had one unbendable rule. No alcohol. He saw liquor dismantle the lives of several of his siblings. If he had his way, it wouldn’t touch his family. None was allowed.
Wouldn’t you know it? I decided I was smarter than he. A weekend party left me stumbling into the bathroom at midnight and vomiting a belly full of beer. Dad appeared at the door—so angry. He threw a washrag in my direction and walked away.
The next morning I awoke with a headache and the horrible awareness that I had sickened my father’s heart. Walking into the kitchen (to this day I could retrace those steps), I saw him seated at the table. His paper was open, but he wasn’t reading. Coffee cup was full, but he wasn’t drinking. He stared at me, eyes wide with hurt, lips downturned with disbelief. More than any other time in my life, I felt the displeasure of a loving father.
I came undone. How could I survive my father’s disgust?
Jesus, enduring a million times more, wondered the same.
Christ carried all our sins in his body . . .
See Christ on the cross? That’s a gossiper hanging there. See Jesus? Embezzler. Liar. Bigot. See the crucified carpenter? He’s a wife beater. Porn addict and murderer. See Bethlehem’s boy? Call him by his other names—Adolph Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Jeffrey Dahmer.
Hold it, Max. Don’t you lump Christ with those evildoers. Don’t you place his name in the same sentence with theirs!
I didn’t. He did. Indeed he did more. More than place his name in the same sentence, he placed himself in their place. And yours.
With hands nailed open, he invited God, “Treat me as you would treat them!” And God did. In an act that broke the heart of the Father, yet honored the holiness of heaven, sin-purging judgment flowed over the sinless Son of the ages.
And heaven gave earth her finest gift. The Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world.
“My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Why did Christ scream those words?
So you’ll never have to.
NO PLACE HE WON’T GO
To the Golf Course . . . and the Nursery
Sometime ago I was asked to play a game of golf. The foursome included two preachers, a church leader, and a “Matthew, b.c.” The thought of four hours with three Christians, two of whom were pulpiteers, did not appeal to him. His best friend, a Christ follower and his boss, insisted, so he agreed. I’m happy to report that he proclaimed the experience painless. On the ninth hole he turned to one of us and said, smiling, “I’m so glad you guys are normal.” I think he meant this: “I’m glad you didn’t get in my face or club me with a King James driver. Thanks for laughing at my jokes and telling a few yourself. Thanks for being normal.” We didn’t lower standards. But neither did we saddle a high horse. We were nice. Normal and nice.
Discipleship is sometimes defined by being normal.
A woman in a small Arkansas community was a single mom with a frail baby. Her neighbor would stop by every few days and keep the child so she could shop. After some weeks her neighbor shared more than time; she shared her faith, and the woman did what Matthew did. She followed Christ.
The friends of the young mother objected. “Do you know what those people teach?” they contested.
“Here is what I know,” she told them. “They held my baby.”
I think Jesus likes that kind of answer, don’t you?
To the Trash Dump
The woman flops down on the bench and drops her trash bag between her feet. With elbows on knees and cheeks in hands, she stares at the sidewalk. Everything aches. Back. Legs. Neck. Her shoulder is stiff and her hands raw. All because of the sack.
Oh, to be rid of this garbage.
Unbroken clouds form a gray ceiling, gray with a thousand sorrows. Soot-stained buildings cast long shadows, darkening passageways and the people in them. Drizzle chills the air and muddies the rivulets of the street gutters. The woman collects her jacket. A passing car drenches the sack and splashes her jeans. She doesn’t move. Too tired.
Her memories of life without the trash are fuzzy. As a child maybe? Her back was straighter, her walk quicker . . . or was it a dream? She doesn’t know for sure.
A second car. This one stops and parks. A man steps out. She watches his shoes sink in the slush. From the car he pulls out a trash bag, lumpy with litter. He drapes it over his shoulder and curses the weight.
Neither of them speaks. Who knows if he noticed her. His face seems young, younger than his stooped back. In moments he is gone. Her gaze returns to the pavement.
She never looks at her trash. Early on she did. But what she saw repulsed her, so she’s kept the sack closed ever since.
What else can she do? Give it to someone? All have their own.
Here comes a young mother. With one hand she leads a child; with the other she drags her load, bumpy and heavy.
Here comes an old man, face ravined with wrinkles. His trash sack is so long it hits the back of his legs as he walks. He glances at the woman and tries to smile.
What weight would he be carrying? she wonders as he passes.
She turns to see who spoke. Beside her on the bench sits a man. Tall, with angular cheeks and bright, kind eyes. Like hers, his jeans are mud stained. Unlike hers, his shoulders are straight. He wears a T-shirt and baseball cap. She looks around for his trash but doesn’t see it.
He watches the old man disappear as he explains, “As a young father, he worked many hours and neglected his family. His children don’t love him. His sack is full, full of regrets.”
She doesn’t respond. And when she doesn’t, he does.
“Mine?” she asks, looking at him.
“Shame.” His voice is gentle, compassionate.
She still doesn’t speak, but neither does she turn away.
“Too many hours in the wrong arms. Last year. Last night . . . shame.”
She stiffens, steeling herself against the scorn she has learned to expect. As if she needed more shame. Stop him. But how? She awaits his judgment.
But it never comes. His voice is warm and his question honest. “Will you give me your trash?”
Her head draws back. What can he mean?
“Give it to me. Tomorrow. At the landfill. Will you bring it?” He rubs a moist smudge from her cheek with his thumb and stands. “Friday. The landfill.”
Long after he leaves, she sits, replaying the scene, retouching her cheek. His voice lingers; his invitation hovers. She tries to dismiss his words but can’t. How could he know what he knew? And how could he know and still be so kind? The memory sits on the couch of her soul, an uninvited but welcome guest.
That night’s sleep brings her summer dreams. A young girl under blue skies and puffy clouds, playing amid wildflowers, skirt twirling. She dreams of running with hands wide open, brushing the tops of sunflowers. She dreams of happy people filling a meadow with laughter and hope.
But when she wakes, the sky is dark, the clouds billowed, and the streets shadowed. At the foot of her bed lies her sack of trash. Hoisting it over her shoulder, she walks out of the apartment and down the stairs and onto the street, still slushy.
For a time she stands, thinking. First wondering what he meant, then if he really meant it. She sighs. With hope just barely outweighing hopelessness, she turns toward the edge of town. Others are walking in the same direction. The man beside her smells of alcohol. He’s slept many nights in his suit. A teenage girl walks a few feet ahead. The woman of shame hurries to catch up. The girl volunteers an answer before the question can be asked: “Rage. Rage at my father. Rage at my mother. I’m tired of anger. He said he’d take it.” She motions to the sack. “I’m going to give it to him.”
The woman nods, and the two walk together.
The landfill is tall with trash—papers and broken brooms and old beds and rusty cars. By the time they reach the hill, the line to the top is long. Hundreds walk ahead of them. All wait in silence, stunned by what they hear—a scream, a pain-pierced roar that hangs in the air for moments, interrupted only by a groan. Then the scream again.
As they draw nearer, they know why. He kneels before each, gesturing toward the sack, offering a request, then a prayer. “May I have it? And may you never feel it again.” Then he bows his head and lifts the sack, emptying its contents upon himself. The selfishness of the glutton, the bitterness of the angry, the possessiveness of the insecure. He feels what they felt. It is as if he’d lied or cheated or cursed his Maker.
Upon her turn, the woman pauses. Hesitates. His eyes compel her to step forward. He reaches for her trash and takes it from her. “You can’t live with this,” he explains. “You weren’t made to.” With head down, he empties her shame upon his shoulders. Then looking toward the heavens with tear-flooded eyes, he screams, “I’m sorry!”
“But you did nothing!” she cries.
Still, he sobs as she has sobbed into her pillow a hundred nights. That’s when she realizes that his cry is hers. Her shame his.
With her thumb she touches his cheek, and for the first step in a long nighttime, she has no trash to carry.
With the others she stands at the base of the hill and watches as he is buried under a mound of misery. For some time he moans. Then nothing. Just silence.
The people sit among the wrecked cars and papers and discarded stoves and wonder who this man is and what he has done. Like mourners at a wake, they linger. Some share stories. Others say nothing. All cast occasional glances at the landfill. It feels odd, loitering near the heap. But it feels even stranger to think of leaving.
So they stay. Through the night and into the next day. Darkness comes again. A kinship connects them, a kinship through the trashman. Some doze. Others build fires in the metal drums and speak of the sudden abundance of stars in the night sky. By early morning most are asleep.
They almost miss the moment. It is the young girl who sees it. The girl with the rage. She doesn’t trust her eyes at first, but when she looks again, she knows.
Her words are soft, intended for no one. “He’s standing.”
Then aloud, for her friend, “He’s standing.”
And louder for all, “He’s standing!”
She turns; all turn. They see him silhouetted against a golden sun.
Into the Wilderness
The wilderness of the desert. Parched ground. Sharp rocks. Shifting sand. Burning sun. Thorns that cut. A miraging oasis. Wavy horizons ever beyond reach. This is the wilderness of the desert.
The wilderness of the soul. Parched promises. Sharp words. Shifting commitments. Burning anger. Rejections that cut. Miraging hope. Distant solutions ever beyond reach. This is the wilderness of the soul.
Some of you know the first. All of you know the second. Jesus, however, knew both.
With skin still moist with Jordan water, he turned away from food and friends and entered the country of hyenas, lizards, and vultures. He was “led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry” (Luke 4:1–2).
The wilderness was not a typical time for Jesus. Normalcy was left at the Jordan and would be rediscovered in Galilee. The wilderness was and is atypical. A dark parenthesis in the story of life. A fierce season of face-to-face encounters with the devil.
You needn’t journey to Israel to experience the wilderness. A cemetery will do just fine. So will a hospital. Grief can lead you into the desert. So can divorce or debt or depression.
Received word this morning of a friend who, thinking he was cancer-free, is going back for chemotherapy. Wilderness. Ran into a fellow at lunch who once talked to me about his tough marriage. Asked him how it was going. “It’s going,” he shrugged. Wilderness. Opened an e-mail from an acquaintance who is spending her summer at the house of her dying mother. She and hospice and death. Waiting. In the wilderness.
Here and Back Again
Holiday time is highway time. Ever since Joseph and Mary packed their bags for Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus has caused people to hit the road. Interestingly, the Christmas trips we take have a lot in common with the maiden voyage of Jesus’ folks. We don’t see shepherds in the middle of the night, but we have been known to bump into an in-law on the way to the bathroom. We don’t sleep in stables, but a living room full of sleeping-bagged cousins might smell like one. And we don’t ride donkeys, but six hours in a minivan with four kids might make some moms wish they had one.
“’Tis the season to be traveling.” Nothing reveals the true character of family members like a long road trip.
We dads, for example, discover our real identities on the interstate. In the spirit of our Mayflower and Conestoga forefathers, we don’t want to stop. Did Lewis and Clark ask for directions? Did the pioneers spend the night at a Holiday Inn? Did Joseph allow Mary to stroll through a souvenir shop in Bethlehem to buy an ornament for the tree?
By no means. We men have a biblical mandate to travel far and fast, stopping only for gasoline.
Wives, however, know the real reason we husbands love to drive: the civil war in the backseat.
Did you know sociologists have proven that backseats have a wolfman impact on kids? Fangs, growls, claws. Social skills disappear into the same black hole as dropped French fries. Sojourning siblings are simply incapable of normal human conversation. If one child says, “I like that song,” you might expect the other to say, “That’s nice.” He won’t. Instead, he will reply, “It stinks, and so do your shoes.”
The best advice for traveling with children is to be thankful they aren’t teenagers. Teens are crawl-under-the-car humiliated by their dads. They are embarrassed by what we say, think, wear, eat, and sing. So, dads, if you seek peaceful passage (and if you ever want to see your unborn grandchildren), don’t smile in a restaurant, don’t breathe, and don’t sing with the window down or up.
Holiday travel. It isn’t easy. Then why do we do it? Why cram the trunks and endure the airports? You know the answer. We love to be with the ones we love.
The four-year-old running up the sidewalk into the arms of Grandpa.
The cup of coffee with Mom before the rest of the house awakes.
That moment when, for a moment, everyone is quiet as we hold hands around the table and thank God for family and friends and pumpkin pie.
We love to be with the ones we love.
May I remind you? So does God. He loves to be with the ones he loves. How else do you explain what he did? Between him and us there was a distance—a great span. And he couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t stand it. So he did something about it.
Down Our Streets
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a group of religious leaders was invited by the White House to come to Washington and pray with the president. How my name got on the list, who knows. But I was happy to oblige. Thirty or so of us were seated in a room.
The group was well frocked and well known. Several Catholic cardinals. The president of the Mormon Church and a leader of the B’hai faith. Esteemed Jewish and Muslim spokesmen. Quite ecclesiastically eclectic. Had Christ chosen to return at that moment, a lot of questions would have been answered by who was left standing in the room.
You might wonder if I felt out of place. I lead no denomination. The only time I wear a robe is when I step out of the shower. No one calls me “The Right Most Reverend Lucado.” (Although Denalyn promises me she will. Once. Someday. Before I die.)
Did I feel like a minnow in a whale’s world? Hardly. I was special among them. And when my turn came to meet George W. Bush, I had to mention why. After giving my name, I added, “And, Mr. President, I was raised in Andrews, Texas.” For those of you whose subscription to National Geographic has expired, Andrews is only a half-hour drive from Midland, his hometown. Upon learning that we are neighbors, he hitched his britches and smiled that lopsided smile and let his accent drawl ever so slightly. “Why, I know your town. I’ve walked those streets. I’ve even played your golf course.”
I stood a tad taller. It’s nice to know that the most powerful man in the world has walked my streets.
How much nicer to know the same about God.
Yes, he is in heaven. Yes, he rules the universe. But, yes, he has walked your streets. He’s still the next-door Savior. Near enough to touch. Strong enough to trust.