Sinner Up a Tree

The interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus is so well-known to Christian people that we’ve made up a silly song about it (“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…”). In this case, that song isn’t the only problem with the story being so familiar; another problem is that, because we know the particulars so well, we miss the profundity completely.The story of Zacchaeus and Jesus is a powerful portrait of both Jesus’ extension of undeserved grace and of a forgiven sinner’s expression of unrequired obedience.

It’s easy to forget that Zacchaeus would have been a double-outcast in his time: hated by the Jews for collecting taxes for the oppressive Roman Empire, and hated as a Jew by his Roman employers. It’s safe to say, in other words, that Zacchaeus was likely not suffering from an overabundance of friends. Who knows when the last time (before hosting the Savior of the World) Zacchaeus had entertained a guest in his home?

Everyone knows the story: Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (which means that even the other tax collectors didn’t like him – he was skimming extra money for himself off of their hard-won, pre-skimmed earnings), was a small man, and so had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he passed by on the road. Jesus, out of the large crowd that would have been following him, picked Zacchaeus out and said, “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Not, “If you shape up, I’d be willing to spend some time with you.” Not, “If you clean up your act, I’ll grace your home with my presence.” Jesus was compelled to be with Zacchaeus.

Jesus is compelled to be with sinners…it’s why he came. In Zacchaeus’ home, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

The crowd, of course, is very disappointed in Jesus. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,” they mutter. Reading this passage now, as “mature” Sunday-schooled Christians, we know that the crowd is in the wrong. “How could they misunderstand Jesus so completely?” we think. “How can they be so mean to Zacchaeus?” We forget how nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying it is for us when someone in our lives gets something they don’t deserve or avoids some penalty that they do deserve. “That’s not fair!” we cry. We are just like that crowd surrounding Zacchaeus, despite our protestations to the contrary.

Perhaps the most powerful thing in this passage, though, is Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus once the Savior is in his home. He says, “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.” His obedience flows naturally from him the moment Jesus enters his life. Jesus never tells him what to do. Just as Jesus doesn’t require a changed heart or lifestyle to enter his home, he doesn’t then demand charity and reparations (“Now that you’re a Christian, Zacchaeus…”). The Gospel, God’s one-way love for sinners, creates what the Law, God’s holy standard, can only require. And it creates more!

Zacchaeus goes above and beyond the call of duty, promising to give a half of his possessions to the poor, and promising to repay anyone he had defrauded four times the amount owed. No doubt, Zacchaeus had been told many times what the law required, but hadn’t moved an inch to follow it. Faced with the power of God’s one-way, undeserved love for broken, sinful people, though? Zacchaeus pledges to do more, happily, than the law ever would have asked of him.

What we see here (and in our lives) is that love inspires what the Law demands—the Law prescribes good works, but only grace can produce them. Gratitude, generosity, honesty, compassion, acts of mercy and self-sacrifice (all rquirements of the law) spring unsummoned from a forgiven heart. By definition, good works can’t be forced or coerced: they’re instinctive, reflexive, spontaneous. What’s so obvious in this story is that works of love flow spontaneously from the one who hears and believes God’s final “I Love You”–a love that has no strings attached.

Jesus impacts Zacchaeus in two amazing ways: both examples of God’s amazing grace. First, Zacchaeus’ joyful charity is not the preface to God’s grace, it is its result. Jesus extends grace to a terrible sinner, before that sinner repents (it is grace, after all, that produces change—not the other way around). Second, that undeserved grace creates a new life of unrequired obedience, bringing forth more “good works” than any laying down of the law ever could.

This is how God works on us. He picks us, the least deserving, out of the crowd, insists upon being in a relationship with us, and creates in us a new heart, miraculously capable of pleasing Him. Hallelujah! What a Savior!

"I've Graduated from All Religions"

In a 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff was asked if he was currently a member of a religion. He answered, “No, I’ve graduated from them.” Colbert asked, incredulously, “You’ve graduated from religion?” and Cliff said, “Yes.” Colbert then said that God is sitting up in heaven when we graduate from this life with a scorecard, and asked Cliff which scorecard (Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc) he wanted to be graded on. Cliff said he would like to be graded on the scorecard of “truth and facts.” Colbert’s inspired response? “I’ll take faith and grace.”

This interview brings to mind Jesus’ words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jimmy Cliff has decided to “graduate” from religion and wants to be assessed on truth and facts. Well, what are the facts? What is the truth? When the requirements are things like, “Honor your father and mother” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” the truth seems to be that we’re not doing so well. The facts are that we’re coming up a little short. Or a lot short.

To be judged on the scorecard of truth and facts is a hard yoke and a heavy burden. Jesus must, then, be talking about something else. And thankfully he is. Truth and facts lead to a heavy burden because it involves a righteousness earned. Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light because he’s talking about a righteousness given. He’s talking about faith and grace. Truth and facts mean we’re judged on our own merits, or lack thereof. Faith and grace mean that we’re judged on Jesus’ merits, and judged righteous.

May we always rely on a righteousness that is given and never fear a righteousness that is required. And may we never ever “graduate” from a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.

Jesus Is for Losers

Often, when a sports team is losing and the game is almost over, fans will start to head for the exits. Sometimes they want to beat the traffic home, but often, they’re just disgusted with the way the game is going and can’t watch any more. It’s interesting to note the human movement: when the team seems sure to lose, the people move away, literally leaving the arena. If a miracle happens, and the team looks like it might win, they come streaming back.

This is what we do. We are desperate to associate with winners, and terrified that we’ll be associated with losers. This is true in high school cafeterias, high powered board rooms, NBA arenas, and even in church pews. We want winners around us, and we shield ourselves (always politely, of course!) from losers.

Jesus moves the other way.

Our Savior would be found coming into the arena as the clock was ticking to zero on the home team’s failure. Jesus showed over and over again that his life’s work was to associate with losers. The most common insult sent Christ’s way was “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (e.g. Luke 19:7). St. Paul knew the power of Christ’s habit: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

In common parlance: Jesus came for losers. People hardly ever give their all for anyone, but for a real winner, someone might give up something. God, though, shows his love in one special way: while we were losers, he sent his son for us. While we were at our worst, God gave us his best.

Jesus went repeatedly to the down-and-out, the leper, the demon-possessed, the sick, and even the dead. The movement of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is toward overwhelmed losers like you and me…radically different than what we expect, and radically better than what we deserve.

Dear Friends,

It’s been a much quieter week for me. Last week was loud and exhausting. And (other than Miami Heat games, Dallas Cowboy games, Ultra Music Festival, and the music in my car) I’m not a fan of either loud or exhausting. Not many are. So, I’m grateful that God has granted me a quieter week.

Still, the very public “break-up” between The Gospel Coalition and me weighs heavy on my heart. And I want to say just a few things about it now that I’ve had some time to reflect.

First, I want to say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for saying things in my own defense. One of the things that the gospel frees you to do is to never have to bear the burden of defending yourself. Defending the gospel is one thing. But when a defense of the gospel becomes a defense of yourself, you’ve slipped back under “a yoke of slavery.” I slipped last week. I’m an emotional guy. And in my highly charged emotional state, I said some things in haste, both publicly and privately, that I regret. I never want anything I say to be a distraction from the mind-blowing good news of the gospel and last week I did. I got in the way. When you feel the need to respond to criticism, it reveals how much you’ve built your identity on being right. I’m an idolater and that came out last week. Because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose…and last week I fought to win. I’m sorry you had to see that. Lord have mercy…

Second, I want everyone to know just how much I absolutely love and adore my friend, Tim Keller. Tim is traveling but we’ve been in touch and are planning to talk this upcoming week. We are both committed to one another and the friendship we’ve enjoyed for many years. There are few people on this planet that I hold in higher esteem than Tim. He knows that. I love him. He has been a mentor and older brother to me for a long time and both he and Kathy have been near and dear to Kim and me. The thought that I said anything at all that would hurt Tim or call anything about him into question makes me both sad and sick. I’m really sorry about that. Please forgive me.

Third (and finally), I want you to know that while Christians have differences on a wide variety of issues, I believe that the world is big enough and the harvest is ripe enough for well-meaning brothers and sisters to agree to disagree. The world desperately needs to see Christians standing side by side and back to back, loving one another. And last week I found myself standing face to face with some Christians in a posture of non-love. I’m really sorry about that. As both Liberate and The Gospel Coalition move forward I want people to know that, while there may be differences, we’re on the same team.

The saddest thing about all of this is that, because of the public visibility of those involved, this conflict gained a lot of attention. The reason this grieves me so deeply is because the Bible says God wants the way Christians love one another to be a visual model of the way God loves us. He wants us, in other words, to live our lives together in such a way that we demonstrate the good news of reconciliation before the watching world. He wants us to be loving and patient and forbearing and deferential to each other. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). I’m guilty—we’re all guilty—of saying things and thinking things and doing things and failing to say, think and do things that exhibit the kind of treatment we’ve received in the person and work of Jesus—“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

The late Francis Schaeffer once noted that bitter divisions among Christians give the world the justification they’re looking for to disbelieve the gospel. But when reconciliation, peacemaking, and unity are on display inside the church, that becomes a powerful witness to this fractured world. This conflict has “given the world the justification they’re looking for to disbelieve the gospel”, and I am sorry for my contribution to this conflict. Thankfully, God’s grace covers all our sin. I’d be lost and hopeless without the rock solid assurance that, if we are in Christ, we can never ever out-sin the coverage of God’s forgiveness. That alone makes me want to sin less.

So, whenever you see any of us who claim to be “Christ followers” behaving in a manner that is unlike Jesus, please forgive us. And please let that be a reflection on us, and not on Him. As imperfect people, we will continue to let you down and disappoint you, but Jesus will never let you down—he will never disappoint you, leave you, or forsake you.

I’m honored to be on “the same team” as Christians of all theological stripes and convictions. I love living in a “large tent” with lots of different kinds of people. In the meantime, however, please bear with us all as we grow and change together.

I love you guys. I really do. I am now and will forever be,

Sincerely Yours,

This post originally appeared at Reprinted by permission.

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