Zacchaeus had no intention of getting converted the day he climbed the tree. He just wanted a better vantage point from which to catch a glimpse of what the huh-bub was all about. But climbing the tree turned out to be an apt metaphor which represented his entire life’s journey. From his diminutive stature he had climbed and clawed his way up and over people to land the lucrative post of Chief Tax Collector. It was a tough gig in a religious town that often equated the tax collector with the prostitute. That particular pairing even made it into one of Jesus’ sermons. When reprimanding a self-righteous crowd: Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”~Matthew 21:31
Zacchaeus was used to being loathed, thus it was quite a novel thing to be treated with kindness. He responded immediately: So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. ~Luke 19:6 Grace was being offered and grace was being received. Everyone saw it.
Zacchaeus had no intention of getting converted but the crowd was hoping that he might get clubbed. They wanted this guy’s head. He was a traitor – unworthy and unclean of a good Jew or polite company. If each had not been financially harmed by the Chief Tax Collector, they knew of someone who had been. They had great hopes for a political savior. They were not prepared for a spiritual one. The exchange that was taking place was an outrage: All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” ~Luke 19:7
The word grace was taking shape before their eyes in the person of Jesus. They could see that grace chooses but isn’t choosy. It was a scandal!
Luke gives us a bit more information on Zacchaeus, the impure man whose name meant pure. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. ~Luke 19:3,4. It turns out Zacchaeus was a wee little man. A wee little man was he. Someone should write a song.
We now have the toxic blend of a corrupt government bureaucrat who has enriched himself at the expense of his fellow countrymen. Add the “little man” syndrome and you’ve got yourself a lad with whom you wouldn’t care to spend a day at the beach. Even with all these negative boxes checked, we must admit that he was fleet of foot and agile. Wanting to see what all of the fuss was about he shinnied up one of the ubiquitous sycamore-fig trees that adorned the town. Perhaps he was hoping to spot his next target – a rich Jew who might be late with his tax payments.
Whatever his motivations he was in no way prepared for what came next. The leader of the parade, the man that was causing all of the commotion, stopped…right under his voyeuristic perch and made eye contact: When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” ~Luke 19:5
In this one brief sentence Jesus demonstrates grace in a very public way. Grace knows our names and it offers healing to even a tortured, well-dressed, government approved thief who is hanging from a tree branch. But it goes further than that…grace wants to sit and break bread with us in the most intimate of situations. Grace wants to follow us home. And, in keeping with our greater theme of blessing our enemies – this grace was being extended toward a celebrated antagonist.
Grace is a word. Like any word it has a history, an etymology. Time can and does change words. Yet, because Jesus himself was referred to as “the Word” it’s important that we do the work of reaching back and acquainting ourselves with the original intent. In so doing we are often shocked into truth. The old meanings set fire to our imaginations and our lives become forfeit to another kingdom – in this case, the good kingdom.
What is interesting about the word grace is that it is eternally attached to an image. To understand the word we need look no further than Jesus. His words and his actions demonstrate the meaning. The word comes alive as “the Word” comes alive. And if you’re wondering what’s become of our larger subject, i.e. forgiving and blessing our enemies, then rest easy. You see, we are in the process of stripping down and rebuilding our “thinkolators.” Part of that is concerned with what we’re to think, but equally important to the task is learning how to think. And with grace our imaginations are given quite a lift. Grace is incarnate. It has walked amongst us. As John once said, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth….Out of his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. ~John 1: 14,16We don’t have to work all that hard to imagine grace. We see grace.
And now, back to our story. Yesterday we met a city. Today we meet a man:Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. ~Luke 19:1,2 Let’s allow now our imaginations to go to work. Luke gives us three pieces of information. First of all, we’re given a name – Zacchaeus – which means: “pure.” So, let’s just call him “Pure.” “Pure” was a wealthy man. In that culture – no less hollow and cognizant of fashion trends than our day – he was most likely adorned in the vibrant purple that said, “I’ve made it. I’m a better.” But in this case, Pure had achieved his wealth not through birth or through business acumen, but as a loathed toady of the state – he was the chief tax collector.
If you wish to depict a universal and timeless villain you can’t do any worse than a chief tax collector. Unless you happen to be a beneficiary of the largesse of the state, tax collectors rank among the lowest of the low as the subject of human affections. This was even more pronounced for the Jews. Here was one of their own, Pure, collecting egregious amounts of tax receipts for Rome. Moreover, he was following their mafia-like practices. A chief tax collector was allowed to shake a person down for whatever amount he could get away with so long as Rome received its cut. And Pure did just that. He was ruling the roost in a town once known for having shown mercy to Rahab, the town prostitute. And Zacchaeus, in his capacity as chief tax collector, found himself less respected than the Madame of the town’s brothel. If ever someone needed grace to show up to town it was a man who had made of mockery of his own name. He was a living, breathing misnomer.
Years ago CS Lewis made the argument that, while reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning. Words are meant to convey images. That is how we process truth. Words prompt our imagination to pull from its vast store of portraits to make sense of what we’re seeing or hearing.
I venture this little sidebar in order to provoke a more active participation and enjoyment of our Lord. As the Gospel writer John mentioned, “Jesus was full of grace and truth.” We see these in action throughout the gospel writings. The words are meant to move off the page into our hearts as our imaginations begin to flesh out the scenes. Let’s take just one episode from the life of Christ and have a go at it: Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. ~Luke 19:1,2
We can swing the camera a number of different directions in this brief set-up. Let’s begin with the first verse and the town of Jericho. This ancient city had a storied past. It was there that the ancient Israelites won a battle without firing a shot. They marched and worshiped their way around the city for seven days, gave a shout, and the walls came a tumblin’ down. The only person to be spared from the devastation was a prostitute named Rahab. She was shown grace and mercy for her kindness to a couple of Jewish spies. By the time of Jesus, Jericho had become a place thick with the religious elite, housing some 12,000 Priests and Levites. When Jesus gave the story of the Good Samaritan he says that both a Priest and a Levite sped past a beat up man in a ditch as they were making their way up from Jericho to do important holy stuff. It was here that Jesus performed a number of miracles in front of this glut of clergy. And there’s more. The word Jericho means “fragrant.” It was known as the city of palms. It was fed then, and still is today, by a wealth of natural springs. It is beautiful and green.
So, what did your mind do with the descriptions you have just read? If all went well, then some foggy notion of an ancient city, a massive building collapse, a terrified prostitute, of hasty and unfeeling clergy, healings and lush vegetation have begun to form. And all of this from the opening salvo of Luke 19. We’ve not yet entered the story proper. We’ll get to that and it will be a thing of beauty as we see it unfold. But what I want us to begin to learn to do is slow downand really engage with the story. Jesus has just entered the lion’s den, so to speak, of religious and political correctness. Luke doesn’t say that Jesus entered some random village. He tells us that he entered Jericho. That is important both from the context of its history and what is about to happen. If there’s a place to get into serious trouble with the spiritual cops it is Jericho. If there is a place to learn a bit more about grace…it is Jericho.
Remember Lewis’ words, “Imagination is the organ of meaning.” If I’ve done my job you should be wanting to hear more. And, if you’ve allowed your imagination to backfill these words with images, then you’ve done your job as well.
Rolling About in the Dirt
One of the mandatory classes I had to take in seminary was homiletics. Simply put it was a course that taught preachers how to preach. The final grade was based not only on the professor’s studied opinion, but on the opinion of the class as well. I never much cared for the notion of being graded by my peers, but those were the rules. As it turned out, most of my fellow seminarians didn’t like the cut of my jib when it came to my preferred style of preaching. Thus, the prospect of getting a poor grade in homiletics weighed heavily on me. I could well imagine sitting down with some future church committee as they browsed through the remnants of my sparse resume and having someone pipe up and say: “You seem like a nice enough young man, but it appears that you received a “D” in preaching. Would you care to explain that laddie?”As it turned out, the only person who cared for my sermons was the preaching prof. He overruled the critics, broke his own rules and gave me an “A”. That was an “A” for “Amen” baby!
Part of the problem with my classmates was that they wanted me to prescribe to a formula. The formulas were distilled either to “3 points and a poem” or to, “Tell them what you’re going to say. Say it. Tell them what you said.” Yet, when I read the gospels and the style of Jesus, I saw a free-flowing method that picked illustrations from the crowd in the moment. And, in context, Jesus had a roaring sense of humor. When he gave the bit about the Good Samaritan, a good portion of the crowd had to be chuckling and elbowing one another. A smaller portion of the crowd was most likely fuming and staring at their sandals. The latter would be the ones who fit the description of the religious leaders so agenda-driven that they refused to stop and help the man who lay beaten and bleeding in the ditch. To punch up his story even more, Jesus spoke of a Samaritan who was in fact, good. It would be like an Irishman preaching about the good Englishman during the potato famine.
All that to say that when we read the Scriptures God is inviting our imaginations along for the ride. To read the Scriptures in a sterile, “religious” way robs them of the intended grace. We are to feel, see and hear right along with the audience. To grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus means we place ourselves, as best we can, in the context of his life, his teachings, his death and his resurrection. Grace is not afraid to roll in the dust of earth. Grace risks getting dirty because it is meant to reclaim and adopt a bunch of rebellious kids. If we’ve not understood grace to be that –if it’s just some vague theological concept – we’ve missed out on a good deal of the joy.
More Than The Box
So, we’re to get it in gear in respect to grace. It’s not merely a past tense event. While we’re to refresh our minds and hearts to our place at the cross by the taking of the bread and the cup, grace compels us towards being the Christian we’ve become.
The verse we mentioned yesterday gives to us our life’s memo: But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. ~2 Peter 3:18. The word in the Greek for grow is: αὐξάνω(au-ksä’-nō) which means, “to cause to grow, to create favorable conditions for growth, to augment.” That’s on us. We’re back to hammering away on the word effort. While grace is indeed a free gift, it doesn’t open itself. It must be unwrapped.
It’s like the wee lad I had on my lap yesterday – my two year old Grandson, Leon. It was his second birthday and he was surrounded by a surfeit of gifts. He seemed thrilled to just take it all in – for every child, from time immemorial – has been as enamored of the box as with the contents. They think the wrapping an end in itself. Likewise, believers are often guilty of playing with the box while oblivious to the treasure within.
The thing about grace is that it unfolds as a lifelong gift, something new each and every day. And, as the verse mentions, grace is paired with a knowledge of Jesus. To know grace is to know him. To know him is to know grace. And to know him and to know grace requires an awakening of our imaginations. His is not some pedagogical system of dry, religious prescriptions. His was a life that was lived in the fullness of joy and gracious purpose. That’s where grace will lead us. Tomorrow we’ll have a go at how we can learn to awaken our imaginations to the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus. He has given us an abundance of brain cells. It’s time to put a few of those to use.
Grace is the precursor to grace. Grace is the entry point to the grace journey. And grace will deposit us to the front steps of heaven. It is a past, present and future companion. Understanding the purposeful expansion of grace into our lives Peter once said this: But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. ~2 Peter 3:18.
Here a definition of grace is helpful. Some have thought it to mean the forgiveness of sins. It is that but it is so much more. If we limit grace to forgiveness of sins then it follows that we must sin in order to receive more grace. Paul swatted down that specious argument in the Book of Romans when he said: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? ~Romans 6:1 Sounds like a fun theology but one that is totally misinformed as to the nature and meaning of grace. Moreover, the Scriptures tell us this about Jesus: And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth. ~John 1:14 If we give allegiance to the sinless nature and life of Christ, we cannot then define grace as the forgiveness of sins. No, it is something altogether different than that. So, what is the definition?
The one that I like and use is “the empowering presence of God.” Certainly that happens the moment one becomes a Christian and our sins are swept away. But that’s not the end of the Christian story. The small blip of conversion, while a big deal, is almost incidental to the greater purpose. We must start the car to begin the journey. But starting the car without engaging the transmission is a waste of the purpose for which the car was built. Idling is not the purpose of a car or a Christian.
Grace is the framework for the Christian from which all of our thoughts become centered and flow into blessing the world. By its very presence and substance, grace reminds us of a nefarious past that has been forgiven, even if that nefarious past took place just five minutes ago. The purpose of grace is not to linger over our failures but to obliterate them. Grace is the soul’s quicker, picker-upper.
Because the world in which we live is founded on law, it becomes our natural default without a steep tutelage in graceful notions. Whenever we say: “That’s not fair”; “He’s a jerk”; “She’s controlling”; “They’re a bunch of idiots”; and so forth, we have betrayed our yawning allegiance to law. When we speak or think in that way the power of grace remains sidelined and untapped of its potential. Because we still fall short of the high commands, our souls need grace each and every day just as our bodies need water. Most Christians understand that we need grace to be redeemed. Many fail to remember that we need grace to act redeemed. It’s all there in the song…
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear and Grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far and Grace will lead us home.
Perfect But Not Perfected
Grace doesn’t at all mean the absence of effort. As we’ve mentioned, we must try. And when we try we will inevitably fail. And the trying and the failing are all a part how God moves us from self-reliance to the empowerment of his Holy Spirit. The great obstacle to be overcome is our thoughts and our affections. They are rooted in both the world and in our own need for self- protection. By the latter I include: self-esteem; fairness; social acceptance; social advancement and what not. When we’re faced with the prospect of blessing, forgiving and praying for those who’ve hurt us, the battle lines are clearly drawn. That’s where the effort comes in. We are instructed to do something not only counter-intuitive to what we’ve been told to think, we’re being told to go against our perceived self-interest.
I speak to you as one sick patient to another. Although I’ve been in treatment for a good while, I’m far from total remission. In fact, to press the analogy, I think treating worldliness and self-protection as a lifelong affliction is the more realistic approach. Just as a diabetic learns to live with diabetes, we must face up to the fact that the fury within can arise at any moment and quite unexpected. We rarely plan out our fury or send a warning memo. It just happens. It’s why Jesus told us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” If evil, even self-generated, were not a live possibility then there would be little need to pray in that regard. But we’re told to ask for assistance to protect us not only from some metaphysical evil without, but from that which still thrives like a presumptuous squatter within.
The reason I bring this up is to challenge a sort of “one and done” theology that crops up now an again. If I understand these folks correctly, they seem to be saying that because of the cross we’re totally perfect with God – forever. Nothing more is to be done. If we’re talking about the security of salvation, I couldn’t agree more. But that’s not what they’re saying. They imply that any effort is fleshly – even that which makes us a bit more like Christ day by day. What they’re overlooking is the voluminous amount of Scripture that speaks of something called sanctification, or perfecting of the saints. That is the process by which we work out (not work for) our salvation – to uncover and bring to light what’s happened to us. And by working out I mean weeding out. We have a lifetime to clear out the rubbish. We need to die in order to complete the job. Even the most saintly of Christians will still be king or queen of an impressive County Dump landholding at the end. It’s only then that we rest from our labors. That’s when we needn’t bother with praying any longer the “Lead us not into temptation…” prayer.
The Blessing Entrepreneur
It is difficult for a legalist to bless others for the simple reason that their main interest is on score-keeping. In other words, they wish to quantify just how much and just how far they are to go in order that some imaginary box might be checked. Many have successfully eased their conscience by merely writing a check or showing up to cook pancakes for a local charity’s fundraiser. Others, astonishingly, feel that if they pull the lever for the correct political party they’ve completed the task of blessing others. In all of these a great violence is being done to grace, for grace knows no boundaries and never considers the cost. Moreover, grace is always situational and uncomfortably personal. We are to be about the task of blessing real people in real time. The law cannot empower, quantify or comprehend such a free-wheeling ethos. The law is always striving for completion, for tidying things up. Grace asks, “What’s next?”
I mention grace often. It’s the foundation for these writings. Grace is something I never take for granted. It is easily lost in a quantifiable world that demands both long-range planning and immediate results. One can be touched by grace but easily retreat into the law because the law claims to offer order and efficiency in the midst of chaos. But it’s a lie. What the law is really good at is creating more law, more bureaucracy, more nepotism and more territorialism. The idea of blessing people is formed into a program or an agency and often the sustaining of those structures becomes an end in itself. Stories abound of camera mugging do-gooders living opulent lifestyles while distributing middling morsels for those they’re allegedly in business to serve.
Heaven is unimpressed with our global posturing but is greatly interested in our neighbor, how we shop for groceries, how we act at a little league game and how we treat a child. Heaven bows in hushed silence when a believer lifts above the fog of the daily grind and commits a spontaneous act of kindness or generosity – i.e. blesses someone. Heaven is in the blessing business. And the genius of Jesus is that it is not institutional and centralized, but entrepreneurial and dispersed. Today we have the opportunity to bless or be a blessing to someone. If you want to feel the power of heaven surging through your day then open your eyes and ears and jump in. There’s a never ending supply of people who need you today.