When Life Crowds You Out
When Life Crowds You Out
On the wall of a subway in New York City was an advertising poster that depicted a dignified older gentleman recommending a particular product. Someoneprobably a little boyattempted to deface the advertisement by drawing a balloon coming out of the gentleman's mouth and writing in it the dirtiest thing he could think of. He meant to write, "I like girls," but he made a mistake, and wrote, "I like grils." Someone had come along later and written with a felt-tipped pen, "It's 'girls,' stupid, not 'grils.'" Still another party had come along and written under that comment, "But what about us grils?" What about the people that nobody seems to like, who feel they've been crowded out of the middle of life? What about grils?
A young man sat in my apartment with tears rolling down his face and told me the other kids thought he was weird. They often isolated him. He told me in so many words that he felt like a gril. A woman in her mid-twenties once told me she wanted to get into the middle of the garden of life. She wanted to be the kind of flower people notice and appreciate. She was saying to me, in so many words, "I'm tired of being a gril." I know an older gentleman who deeply loved his wife and lost her to death. They had been a lovely couple to behold and were deeply devoted to each other. When she was gone, he said to me with tears, "Life seems to be passing me by. It's rushing on all the time, and I don't seem to be able to get on to it anymore. I'm on the outside looking in, and it makes me desperately lonely." He was telling me in so many words that he feels like a gril.
Luke 19:110 records the story of a man named Zacchaeus who was a gril. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus when he came to town, but he couldn't. As people pressed forward to see the Lord, Zacchaeus got shoved aside and crowded out. His response provides a bit of wisdom for grils today.
Zacchaeus acknowledged that he'd been crowded out.
The first thing Zacchaeus did was to acknowledge that he'd been crowded out of life. It may be that Zacchaeus was crowded out because of his success. He was a very wealthy man. Jericho was one of the principal trading cities of the day, and Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which meant that he made his money from the prosperity of local businesses. In other words, he was at the top of his profession.
Sometimes, as soon as you get to the top, people will separate from you, either because of awe or envy, and turn you into a gril. For example, Marilyn Monroe wrote a note just before she died, in which she admitted she spent many evenings alone at home because no one ever called her or invited her to go anywhere. Everybody thought she had so many places to go and so many people seeking her company that there was no use in calling. Sometimes successful people are treated that way. Other times, people draw away because of envy. When a young woman does well in school, or a businessman does well in a difficult market, their peers immediately turn them into grils because they resent their success.
Zacchaeus may have been crowded out because of the way he had become successful. Zacchaeus wasn't much more than a high-class thief; he worked on what we would call a "cost-plus basis." When the Romans moved into an area, they granted tax-collecting rights to whomever bid to charge the highest taxes. Then that person collected the taxes they owed Rome plus as much as they wanted to line their own pockets. Roman soldiers escorted them to ensure people paid up. Zacchaeus, who was a Jew, was working for the conquerors of his fellow Jews. Worse yet, he was cheating them to make himself rich. A fellow like that isn't popular. That might have been what made Zacchaeus a gril.
He might also have been a gril because the crowd was insensitive to him. They'd heard about Jesus, and they wanted to see him. They had heard that Jesus was loving, and they loved being loved. Yet, while thinking about love and seeing Jesus, they became unloving and insensitive. As a result, Zacchaeus got shoved aside. They were so anxious to have a good time that they forgot to include Zacchaeus, who also wanted to have a good time.
Zacchaeus announced that he'd been crowded out.
Regardless of what made Zacchaeus a gril, when he realized he'd been crowded out, he climbed a tree. There was a little bit of boy in this man. He wanted to see Jesus, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it. That's the most important sentence in the sermon: He was willing to admit that he was lonely. He was willing to admit that he was crowded out. He didn't care who saw him climb that tree.
That's an unusual way for a gril to act. Most grils are afraid of facing themselves. Do you remember when your mother told you that pretending a bully didn't bother you would make him go away? That was rotten advice. Pretending the bully isn't there will not make the bully go away, and pretending you're not a gril won't make you stop being a gril. But that's what a lot of grils do. As a result, some grils become vain. They begin to believe they don't want to be part of the group. They believe their loneliness is just the price they have to pay for prominence, or that everyone is out of step except them. There are other grils who, when they get crowded out, hurry to find someone who will flatter them.
Zacchaeus didn't do either of those things. He went right up a tree where everybody could see him. He said: "Look at me! I'm grilish. This shows how much I want to be a part. It can't be denied." That's a courageous and beautiful response.
There is a church in Copenhagen, Denmark, that houses the great Thorvaldsen statues. They're carved out of cold stone, but they look like warm, living personalitiesso warm they melt your heart. One statue depicts Christ with his arms extended. When I first walked up to that statue, it looked as though his eyes were closed. A man seated in the front pew said to me, "You have to get on your knees to see his eyes." I got down on my knees and looked up, and there was such grace and compassion in those eyes, it was almost more than I could bear. In a strange way, when Zacchaeus climbed that tree, he was actually getting down on his knees. He was saying, "I'm a gril, and I need somebody to care about me. How about you, Jesus?"
It was necessary for Zacchaeus to climb the tree or get down on his knees. Think of it this way: Suppose you walk into your house one night and happen to see, through the window of the house next door, your husband engaged in an adulterous act with your neighbor. You go into the house completely destroyed, but you pull yourself together by the time your husband comes home. Suppose he doesn't say a word about what happened when he comes in. You know what happened, and he knows what happened. But he doesn't mention it. Imagine, on the other hand, that your husband walks in the door and comes to you, takes your hands, and tells you exactly what has happened and why. Isn't it going to make a difference that he confessed?
Jesus responds to Zacchaeus.
When Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the tree, he said to him, "Zaccheus, make haste and come down." You know what Zacchaeus did? He hastened down and ran right to Jesus. The crowd immediately became upset. They didn't like Jesus' spending time with this fellow. Their applause turned to murmuring; their smiles turned into sullen looks. Jesus rained all over their parade. That must have meant a great deal to Zacchaeus, because suddenly he wasn't the only outcast in that group. Jesus was an outcast, too. Those two outcasts, open with each other, walked off together.
When one person is open with another person, that other person becomes open, too. Disclosure begets disclosure. There's nothing in the story that indicates that Jesus preached to Zacchaeus. It just says the two of them were together. The next thing you know, Zacchaeus promised to return everything he had taken fourfold. The law only required a thief to return twofold, and if the thief confessed his guilt, he only had to return what he had taken plus one fifth. Zacchaeus went beyond that, promising to repay his theft fourfold and then to give half of all his possessions to the poor. He was moving into the middle of life. Zacchaeus repented, turning against everything that had been wrong in his life, because of an encounter with Jesus.
There are three steps to getting back into the middle of life. One is to acknowledge that you're a gril. The second is to be open about your grilishness. The third is to accept the openness extended to you in Christ.
Go with me to Jericho once more. It's early in the morning. We spot the house of Zacchaeus just as he steps out the door. He's very old now. See how the people all stop and talk to Zacchaeus? They smile and laugh and he continues on his way. It's obvious everybody likes Zacchaeus. He's not a gril anymore.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "When Life Crowds You Out."
Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.