The Power of Grace
Louisa Fletcher Tarkington once wrote, “I wish that there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again, where all our mistakes and all our heartaches and all our poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door and never be put on again.”
That Land of Beginning Again is sought by many people who come to a point of grieving the mess they have made of their lives. But most of us fear that we could never find such a Land of Beginning Again where all of our mistakes and heartaches and poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby coat and never be put on again.
It seems to me that Zacchaeus is such a person. He is the chief tax collector in one of the more important taxation centers in all of Palestine. Therefore, we know that he is rich and shrewd. As chief tax collector, every tax collector beneath him had to turn over a portion of their profits to him. Zacchaeus was a person who had reached the top of his profession and whose income far surpassed nearly all of his countrymen. But his chosen profession had also made him a despised man. He was hated throughout the country. The Jewish people hated him because tax collectors made their income by adding their own margin of profit to the taxes they extracted from others. Even worse, the money tax collectors turned over was used to pay for the upkeep of the Roman army in Canaan. Since Zacchaeus was collecting taxes for Rome, Jewish people looked upon him as both a thief and a traitor. Since he was Jewish, though, he was despised by the Romans. They used him to collect their taxes, but he was merely a pawn to them—someone to use then discard. Nobody liked Zacchaeus or wanted anything to do with him.
No wonder Zacchaeus may have found himself longing for the Land of Beginning Again.
One day, Zacchaeus hears the news that the teacher from Galilee is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus has heard rumors about this teacher and miracle worker who is known as a friend to sinners and to tax collectors. He is curious. He wants to see Jesus with his own eyes. He figures that if he can get a good look at this controversial teacher, he will be able to ascertain what kind of person Jesus is.
Being such an unpopular person, though, Zacchaeus knows that no one will give him a spot at the front of the crowd. The “good” people of Jericho will certainly not be willing to share space with him along the road. But, being a short person, if he is pushed to the back of the crowd, he will never be able to see Jesus. Furthermore, who knows what an agitated crowd might do to a chief tax collector. So Zacchaeus hurries ahead of the crowd and climbs up into a sycamore tree, the leafiest tree in Israel. He hides there waiting for Jesus to pass beneath him so that he can get a glimpse of Jesus from his place of secrecy.
The kind of fear that drives a person to secrecy and hiding is the hallmark of shame, which has been described as “the inner, critical voice that judges whatever we do as wrong, inferior or worthless.” Over the years, external and internal voices had been telling Zacchaeus that his livelihood is wrong and despised, and that he is inferior and worthless for doing it.
When Jesus arrives at the tree where Zacchaeus is hiding, he stops and calls out to him. Oh, what potential for further shame this presents! It was considered shameful in that culture for a grown man to run because running involved a man pulling up his robe and exposing his naked legs. How much more shameful it would have been for a grown man to be caught hiding in a tree (exposing more than just his ankles probably).
But Jesus was not looking for an opportunity to shame Zacchaeus. Instead, he calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
The crowd is ready for shame to be poured on. They fully expect Jesus to give a good verbal thrashing to the tax collector hiding in the tree. But a verbal thrashing would be nothing new to Zacchaeus. He has been scolded many times already. He has heard plenty of words of rebuke and condemnation. He has grown accustomed to being judged and disdained. What he has not grown accustomed to are words of love, forgiveness and acceptance, which is what he gets from Jesus. Jesus’ words of invitation, acceptance and forgiveness become the motivation for miraculous change for Zacchaeus. He says to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” The grace Jesus extends to Zacchaeus changes his life.
Many years ago, a Japanese magazine presented a creative advertisement. The picture of a butterfly appeared on a page. The entire page was dull gray in color—until the reader placed a hand over the picture. Then the warmth of the hand caused special inks in the printing to react, transforming the dull gray butterfly into a rainbow of flashing color.
It was the warmth of Jesus’ touch (through a gracious invitation to Zacchaeus) that was able to transform a shamed, lonely, hiding tax collector into a penitent individual who gives half of his possessions to the poor and who pays back four times what he had cheated from others. It is grace rather than shame that has the power to transform lives.