Weekly Meditation: 30th October 2016
Whenever I encounter the story of Zacchaeus I feel like a parrot; not because I want to join Zacchaeus in his sycamore-fig tree, but because – parrot-like – I always say the same thing. I talk about grace.
Zacchaeus was a little man, so when he found himself surrounded by a crowd of taller people, none of whom had any intention of making way to enable him to get to the front, he had to resort to climbing a tree.
That doesn’t make him a sympathetic character, though. Zacchaeus was a tax-collector, and not just any tax-collector; he was a very successful one. All tax-collectors were collaborators, almost traitors in working for the hated Romans, but to be a “chief tax-collector”, successful and rich like Zacchaeus, you had to know how to milk the system for its last denarius. In other words, they bent the rules, cheated, extorted far more than was their due.
Now, as then, no one enjoys paying taxes, but today we don’t hold tax-collectors in the opprobrium with which they were held in first century Palestine. We wouldn’t feel contaminated if we had to sit next to a taxman; we wouldn’t class him as worse than a murderer; we wouldn’t automatically think of him as ‘a sinner’ – but that is how it was in Jesus’ time.
To understand this story fully, then, we have to find a present-day substitute for tax-collectors – people who would not be welcomed with open arms in our churches, people we would shun as far as possible, people to whom we might even be openly hostile. It might someone who is a drug addict, a homeless person, someone with a strange disability like Tourette’s syndrome, a gay or lesbian; it might even be Richard Dawkins.
Then put him or her in the place of Zacchaeus, and watch the encounter with Jesus.
We don’t know if Zacchaeus went to look at Jesus out of plain curiosity, or because he didn’t want to miss out on what everyone else was doing, or because he really wanted to learn from him. All the Bible account tells us is that ‘he wanted to see who Jesus was’ (19:3). He received more than he expected, however, because Jesus looked up at him in his tree, and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house. That was a great honour to be singled out as the one with whom the famous teacher wished to spend time, the one whose hospitality he was willing to accept.
The onlookers must have thought Jesus was out of his mind, to enter the house of Zacchaeus(remember, for us he isn’t a tax-collector, he is an alcoholic, a con-man, a pole-dancer, a banker, someone with facial scarring; or even Richard Dawkins). ‘He has gone to be the guest of .....’, they said (Luke 19:7).
The grace that Jesus showed was transformative. For Zacchaeus, it meant full repentance, a complete reversal of his former way of life. He offered half of all he had to the poor, and promised that if there were people whom he had cheated (there would have been - lots of them) he would reimburse them fourfold (19:8). Zacchaeus became a reformed character, but it all began with the grace of Jesus who accepts sinners just as they are and allows his grace to work through them.
The same grace will work for meths-drinkers, bank-robbers, adulterers, trans-sexuals - even Richard Dawkins - but today, people may well first encounter Jesus through us, so it is our attitude that is crucial.
Jesus knew Zacchaeus was a cheat, but that did not alter the way in which he approached him. Jesus was not endorsing dishonesty, but he understood that Zacchaeus would not change until he had experienced grace – undeserved kindness and compassion. Jesus’ attitude should determine the way in which we interact with individuals and the way in which we welcome them into our churches. Christians have strong views about certain categories of people, and are rightly concerned about falling standards of morality, belief and honesty. However, we must not allow prejudice to interfere with the way we exercise our faith. If we make it evident that we condemn homosexuals, those who believe in evolution, those who don’t come to church (and I was once at a service where all those categories of human beings were condemned in the opening prayer!); if we draw away from those who are too poor, or too rich, or too strange, then we make it difficult if not impossible for people like that to experience the grace of God.
Jesus acknowledged that Zacchaeus had as much right to be accepted as any other Jew – ‘because this man, too, is a son of Abraham’ (19:9). In the same way, we must accept the right of everyone - even Richard Dawkins - to receive God’s grace.
A Christian once wrote to the editor of a secularist magazine:
‘... please die and go to hell ... I hope you get a painful disease and die a slow painful death. Whenever you least expect it God will get you. If you don’t like this country and what it was founded on, get out and go straight to hell. You are without excuse. Creation is more than enough evidence of the Lord Jesus Christ’s omnipotent power’ *
and Richard Dawkins writes of the “frenzied malevolence”* that generally characterises his correspondence from Christians.
Jesus is for everyone, whether we like them or not. He is for the down-and-outs such as the homeless and heroin-addicts, and he is for the up-and-outs like Zacchaeus. We must make his grace available to all, ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost’ (19:10).
Quoted on pages 212-3 : Dawkins, R, 2006, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, London.