I don’t honestly remember much from my classes in college and graduate school. I find that I’m not alone in that either. We go, we learn (cram), get tested and forget. Nevertheless, there are a few, a few, very specific things that I remember almost perfectly. Back in 1996, I was sitting in a class on Christian Counseling that was led by Dr. Gary Rupp. He was talking about forgiveness. And he said something that lodged in my brain. I don’t think I will ever forget it. He said, “The most important thing to know about forgiveness is that you can’t forgive anybody.”
Now that made me stop. What could he mean? What he meant was, only God can forgive. When we forgive people, the forgiveness we give only works because God is powering our forgiveness. Well, I left that class knowing that I did not know what I thought I knew about forgiveness. That lead to a directed study, which lead to a journal article in the Princeton Theological Review, which led to a book I co-wrote with Charlie Jones. That book is available here.
I have been doing a lot of studying and reading on forgiveness. In that study I came to Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus, and I could not believe the great message of forgiveness that I got from reading it. But I couldn’t remember hearing or reading anything on forgiveness from the story of Zacchaeus. Well, I thought I would change that.
Jericho in Jesus’ day, was famous for its gardens, palm trees and streets lined with sycamore trees. Mark Anthony had given the city to Cleopatra as a gift of affection. Herod has his winter palace here. Jericho was at the crossroads of the major trade routes just above the Dead Sea making it one of the most lucrative cities in the region.
Without getting into presidential politics, let me tell you a little about the Imperial Roman tax system. Roman citizens paid big bucks for the privilege of being able to levy and collect taxes on imports and exports in their city, town or region. There were three main offices for collection: Caesarea, Capernaum, and (you guessed it) Jericho. These “tax-buyers” would then hire people to collect the taxes for them. In this scheme then, a tax buyer who had paid for the rights to charge and collect taxes would sub-let the right to a chief tax collector like Zacchaeus, who in turn would hire people to collect them.
Tax collectors had a reputation for being extortionists because of the huge sums they collected. Jews who were tax collectors were seen as traitors for serving the oppressive government, in addition to being extortionists. Being in such a position it is no wonder that Zacchaeus was rich, and it was also no wonder that he was not well liked.
He wanted to Jesus, but being a short man he could not. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree so he could see over the crowd. Now these trees lined the main road of Jericho and were loved for their shade. The branches on these trees start very close to the ground, making them very easy to climb.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus was hoping to simply see Jesus pass by, but Jesus stopped and looked up at him in the tree. This was more than he had bargained for. Jesus initiates the conversation with Zacchaeus, despite his eagerness and even abandon in climbing into a tree to see him.
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.'” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “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.” Jesus responds saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” What that last sentence really means is that Jesus was looking for the opportunity to be forgiving. He was looking for it.
That is a very challenging thought. We need to be looking for the opportunity to forgive. I want to show you four things that we can see in Jesus’ gracious forgiveness of Zacchaeus: two things that Jesus did not do and two things that Zacchaeus did in response to what Jesus did not do. First lets look at two things Jesus did not do. What we don’t do is often just as important (if not more important) than what we do do. Don’t you agree?
1. Repentance did not come first—Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to repent or even to speak to him. Jesus initiated the discussion himself. Jesus was looking for the opportunity to be gracious. There are many places in the Bible where it is clear that repentance of the offender is a necessary part in the offenders receiving forgiveness. That said, there are a number of passages that show while repentance is necessary, its preceding or following the offer of forgiveness is not really what is important. In this case, forgiveness was the very thing that occasioned repentance.
The Law required thieves to repay property plus 20%. Zacchaeus was going far beyond that by returning four times what he had taken. Then giving half of his possessions to the poor further showed his joy in forgiveness. Jesus did not suggest that he return anything to the people, let alone give away his possessions—yet this was the joyous response of Zacchaeus to Jesus’ forgiveness. Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to repent. That’s the first thing.
2. Jesus did not bring up Zacchaeus’ sins and shortcomings—This is also remarkable to the story. It is clear from Jesus’ dealing with the Pharisees that he was not averse to discussing people’s specific moral problems. But in this case, he does not mention any at all. There are no words of criticism for Zacchaeus’ robbing from his own people to satisfy his own greed. He gave no sermon on the injustice of the Roman government in so heavily taxing the people, or in not assuring that taxes were collected fairly and justly. Jesus simply said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
The crowd did not admire the fact that Christ was so gracious. It is one thing to forgive someone. It is quite another to go home and eat with a guy who has been extorting an entire region of people for years. They were waiting for the lecture on everyone’s responsibility to take the law seriously. Or perhaps one about how Rome was on the way out and how God’s patience with them was just paper-thin, and would end at any moment. Where was the prophet when you needed one?
Ironically, Jesus was sounding much more like the prophets than the crowd was willing to admit. For example Hosea 6:6 says, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” And how about Micah 6:8? “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” And then there is Zechariah 7:9 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.'”
I think the crowd expected Jesus to make an example of Zacchaeus, or at least make him admit is sins, publicly repent, and ask for forgiveness. But Jesus chooses not to do or ask those things. He simply invites Himself over for dinner. Jesus was not looking for an opportunity to be righteous. He was looking for an opportunity to be gracious. Let me say that again, that’s a real important thought. Jesus was not looking for an opportunity to be righteous. He was not looking for an opportunity to dispense justice from the throne even though he had the right, even though he was right. He was not looking for opportunities to show how perfect he was. Jesus was looking for the opportunity to show how forgiving he was. Jesus did not bring up Zacchaeus’ shortcomings.
Next there are two responses of Zacchaeus to Jesus, two actions, two things that are seen in Zacchaeus’ life after experiencing this encounter with Grace with a capital “G.”
1. Forgiveness resulted in true repentance—Jesus says earlier in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” In this instance, Christ forgives him first and repentance follows. Jesus apparently did not keep a hard and fast order concerning repentance and forgiveness. Repentance is important, necessary for the offender, but lack of repentance does not lead to the conclusion that one is justified in withholding forgiveness.
Forgiveness many times becomes the occasion
for repentance. Grace is a very powerful thing. Grace can accomplish what a year of commonsense sermons and lectures on mortal “dos and don’ts” cannot. How many times did Jesus use such critical means in talking with people? Almost all of them were aimed at the religious leaders, the ones who were preaching the need for moral reform and personal purity! It is interesting that whenever God sent prophets to Israel (like Amos and Jeremiah) who were morally critical, they did not see many turnarounds by the people. Even Jesus had a much better record of evangelizing when he used grace tactics over critical ones. Think about it: Jesus was most critical with the Pharisees. He painfully and publicly revealed what they really were to the public. Their response was hatred; hatred that resulted in murder. Forgiveness resulted in repentance.
2. Forgiveness resulted in motivation for personal moral excellence—Forgiveness was not only the occasion for repentance, but gave the motivation for Zacchaeus’ obedience—even joyful obedience. There is a big difference in achievement between a person doing something they see as a requirement, versus another who loves and desires to perform the same task. For a requirement, we will do what is minimally acceptable. At one time, I worked for a big telecommunications company headquartered in Princeton. I had the job of figuring out problems between vendor invoices and our purchase orders. My supervisor made a deal with me that if I could clear the whole thing off by the end of the month she would take me to lunch anywhere I want to go. This was no small task, there was millions of dollars involved in this mess. It was not long before I found myself asking questions like, “What if I can’t find 2-3 files. Will you still take me?” For a requirement, we want to know what we can get away with and still look good.
For a desire, we will go the extra mile. Forgiveness frees us to love obeying the law. We willingly do as much as we can. Forgiveness became more valuable to Zacchaeus than his money or possessions. It is interesting however that Jesus did not tell Zacchaeus to stop being a tax collector, or give away the other half of his possessions—or that he could not stay wealthy. As the parable of the Publican and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 suggests, it is possible to be a godly tax collector. Forgiveness resulted in motivation for personal moral excellence.
How can we become people who look for opportunities to be gracious and forgiving? What can we do? There are two things that we can take from Jesus’ example here in His encounter with Zacchaeus that can help us become more forgiving people.
First, be more concerned about being forgiving than being right. Now I don’t mean here that by being forgiving you are admitting that you are not right. Not in the least. What I am saying is that we should be much more proficient at exercising our privilege to forgive than our right to be right. This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
You remember the story: A wealthy king was looking through his books and settling his accounts and realized that one of his royal servants owed him what in today’s dollars would be billions. Of course, he called the servant in. The servant admitted that he did not have the money and begged for more time to pay it back. Instead of giving him more time, the king forgave the debt (notice again that the servant did not ask for forgiveness).
It was not too much later that this same servant found a servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. The servant who had just been forgiven billions, cornered this servant, slammed him up against the wall and demanded what was owed. The servant did not have it, and begged for more time to pay it back. But the servant refused, and threw him in jail.
News of this got to the king who became furious, and ordered the servant back. “How could you treat him that for a $1000 debt, when I forgave you your billion dollar debt to me?” The King reinstated the debt of the servant and threw him in jail until he could pay every penny back. “That,” Jesus says, “is how my Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.” Be more concerned about being forgiving than being right.
2. Look for the good in others and as much as possible look past the bad. We need reasons to change, to grow and to succeed. People will not change if they don’t have a reason to. If you don’t give a person a good reason to change they will continue doing exactly what they have always done. Very often we focus on giving the person the wrong reason.
One of the cardinal laws of personal relations is this: people thrive under praise and deteriorate under criticism. If we want to be exceptional in our relationships we have to master this basic principle. People thrive under praise and deteriorate under criticism. Look for the good in others and praise it. Praise it often. Praise it sincerely.
People are reward oriented. Jesus knew this and often connected reward with obedience through faith; both heavenly rewards and earthly rewards. Nothing motivates a person more to respect you and respond to you than honest praise. Nothing brings up our defensiveness faster than criticism.
Mandi and I were given a challenge a while ago that we are still working at, and I think this is a good opportunity to pass the challenge on to you. For the next 90 days, totally eliminate all criticism of your spouse…even positive criticism. Now that’s 90 days in a row, not 90 days out of the year.
Now some of you are thinking, “Are you serious? If I did that I wouldn’t be able to talk to him!”
Maybe you shouldn’t.
And I bet there is at least one person in here who is thinking, “How is my husband/my wife going to know what they are doing wrong if I don’t tell them?”
Praise what they are doing right and watch how fast they learn.
Zacchaeus exceeded all the requirements of the law by returning four times what he had stolen and giving away half his wealth to the poor. Surely this is more than any who would rather Jesus criticized him could have hoped for. Jesus here demonstrates against such thinking that a good meal and a smile can do more than years of social ostracizing by a grumbling moralistic crowd.