GRACE FOR THE DESPISED
by Jeff Hagan
(Tacoma, WA, USA)
I'm sure most of you are familiar with the biblical account of a tiny little guy by the name of Zacchaeus. Well, far from just an entertaining story popular among Sunday School children, the incident with Zacchaeus gives us an incredible example of God's grace and love. We see in this story not only a glimpse of the love Christ has for sinners, but also the results that can come from such love. We see from the example of Zacchaeus the fruit it can produce in a life, and also the resistance it finds among those who witness it.
To provide some context it must be mentioned that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector. Because of this, the Jewish community would have hated him as it meant he collected taxes for Rome. Collecting taxes for the Romans caused Zacchaeus to be viewed not only as a traitor but as a wicked sinner as well. And because he was a Jew, his employer (the Romans) would have also had a great disdain for him. Most likely his co-workers would have despised him too because as chief tax collector he would have been ripping them off; he would have been skimming off the top of their ill-gotten gains. I imagine he may have got into this work to feel a sense of power. Being just a little guy, I imagine he had a Napoleon complex and this “power” probably gave him somewhat of a bolstering of his ego. So, virtually what we have in this little man is nothing short of a despised thief, a kind of loan shark, who used his authority to extort his own people in order to gain wealth for himself and for the government at odds with his people. His horrible reputation would have actually been accurate, which makes what Jesus did even more notable and shocking.
A Seemingly Simple Act:
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.' So he hurried down and came down and received him joyfully” (Luke 19:1-6, ESV).
Jesus singled out Zacchaeus regardless of the fact that he did absolutely nothing to deserve or attract His attention. All Zacchaeus was doing was trying to get a better look at the guy causing all of the commotion. He simply climbed a tree to see what was happening. There was no prayers, no crying, no acts of repentance, not even any words. Just as is always the case, the initiative belonged to Jesus. It's interesting to take note of what Jesus did NOT say. He didn't say, “I WANT to stay at your house,” or “WOULD YOU be a sport and have me over for some coffee?” What He said was, “I MUST stay at your house” (emphasis added). The request, if you will, was more of a command than an actual request.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that Zacchaeus must have been absolutely shocked by the fact that Jesus actually wanted to spend time with him. But even so, how did he react? What was Zacchaeus response to this unmerited act of grace? He came down from his perch and received Jesus, and he was very happy to do so. He didn't hesitate to respond to Jesus. In fact, the passage says he “hurried” to Him. Not only did he “hurry” to Jesus, he also did something remarkable which I'm sure astonished those who knew him or knew of him. We read in Luke 19:8, “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, 'Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
In this particular case we see the fruit of grace produced instantly. It was so immediate it almost appears as a knee-jerk reaction bordering on generosity most would identify today as bad financial stewardship. Jesus came to Zacchaeus before he had a chance to display any kind of receptive attitude, not to mention remorse or desire. The charity displayed by Zacchaeus was not some kind of condition for grace – it was the result of grace.
We don't see Jesus requiring anything of Zacchaeus. The passage does not give us any sort of sermon Jesus gave to inspire such an act; we don't even see any suggestions from Jesus, no urging; and we don't see Jesus attempting to guilt Zacchaeus into returning what he had stolen. All we see is a response to grace that is more sacrificial than anything Jesus may have suggested. What Zacchaeus did surpasses mere obedience as nowhere in the Law is there a demand for a person to give half of what they own to the poor. In like fashion, paying back someone you have defrauded four times the amount is going far “above and beyond.” Zacchaeus really proves himself here. Saying he did the right thing sounds too weak because he did that and more. And, he did it immediately, joyfully, and generously.
“A grateful heart is a generous heart, and a generous heart is a liberated heart. It is no coincidence that the very thing to which Zacchaeus was most enslaved – money – is the very thing that he was inspired to give away so freely” (Tchividjian, Tullian. “One Way Love,” p.128).
Sadly, far too often Christians talk about grace using countless conditions or qualifiers. They add all kinds of “ifs,” “ands,” “buts,” clauses and pauses. Just pay attention for yourself. When the topic of grace is brought up keep your eyes and ears open and you'll see, or hear, them. In fact, if people take the time to read this, depending on which forum they come across it in, look at the comments that will follow. If history is any indication, many comments will carry the theme of “Yes, of course grace, but...,” most likely accompanied by much harsher comments adhering to the same line of reasoning. It seems their greatest concern is that people will take advantage of grace and use it as an excuse to live a life full of sin. They seem to think people will take grace and use it as a ticket to live life any way they see fit.
I disagree. Where disobedience runs rampant, it is not the result of too much grace but instead it is a result of a failure to grasp how deep God's love for us flows even in the midst of our sin and selfishness. Grace and obedience aren't enemies, they are not at odds with each other as those quick to shout “Antinomians!” claim. In fact, they are allies, just look at Zacchaeus for an example.
It's not just nowadays that we often see a negative reaction to grace. The very incident we are discussing records the reactions of the people who witnessed it. We see in Luke 19:7 that “when they saw it, they all grumbled, 'He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.'” If tabloids would have been invented back then, this incident would have made for a great story. The crowd was all bent out of shape because Jesus chose to associate with not only a sinner, but perhaps the most despised man in the region at the time. Their focus turned to Jesus, but not in a positive way. This is what is commonly called “guilt by association” and it runs rampant in the Church today. It's a sad thing, very unfortunate. So much inaccurate, judgmental assumption exists in this realm of “guilt by association.”
At any rate, Jesus left no room for guessing when it came to what his mission was. Our example of Zacchaeus ends with these words from Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). This is a pretty clear proclamation. This is Jesus relating with the sinner and showing His love to those who deserve it the least. Shortly before Jesus spoke the above words he said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Then what does He go and do? He brings a rich person into the kingdom.
Like it or not God pours His grace out on the foolish, weak, despised, and “nobody's” so that only He gets the glory that is due Him. What would our impression of grace be if God only pursued those with perfect Sunday School attendance? An endorsement like that would only reinforce our all too natural instinct for law-propelled conditions. But, what He does do instead is go after those who have no question in their mind that they are in need. This is incredible news! For those of us that realize our lives have been lived in such a way that there's more evidence of failures than successes it's GREAT news!
1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
One last thing - when you start being honest about who you are, when you realize there is no good in you apart from God's grace and there never will be, when you understand the freedom found in the Gospel is the freedom to stop striving and to stop pretending that you are anything more than a sinner in constant need of a Savior, that's when you are finally starting to get an idea of what true grace really is.*
*Article inspired by, and adapted from, the source cited within.