Do you ever feel like everyone wants a piece of you and maybe there’s not enough to go around?
You and I live in a transactional society where everything is quid pro quo: there’s no such thing as a free lunch, you get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get. This, obviously, is how we do business: a product or service is offered at a fair price that both parties agree on, the exchange takes place, and both parties go their separate ways. Ostensibly, this is also how we do government: public officials are elected to their positions for a term of service wherein they are authorized to exercise a certain amount of political power over the populace in exchange for their promise to protect the well-being of those they serve.
So, in sectors public and private, our society runs on the idea of transactions. Life, it seems, is one big game of Let’s Make a Deal. There are some people who find that thought appealing. Ayn Rand, for example, is a Russian philosopher whose work is often read and quoted admiringly by members of the so-called Tea Party movement. She believed that people are selfish by nature and self-interest is the only correct way to make decisions in life. Charity, compassion, goodness, love, and God are all ridiculous ideas, according to Ayn Rand. For her, self-interest is the only good and life is one big business transaction.
Personally, I would have a hard time living my life that way. Business transactions are necessary, useful, and good for those times in which they are appropriate, but they become toxic when the principle of self-interested exchange is applied to the whole of life. There are times in life when we are called upon to make sacrifices for which we will reap no material reward. Likewise, we would not be who we are, what we are, and where we are today if it hadn’t been for others who sacrificed for us and gave freely without any thought of seeing a return on their investment.
At the end of the day, when my energy is spent from all my wheeling and dealing, I need to know that I can lean on something deeper and more meaningful than a contract drawn-up in the name of mutual self-interest; I need to lean on some everlasting arms; I need to know that the amazing grace that has brought me safe thus far, through many dangers, toils, and snares, will also lead me home; I need to feel that the house of my soul is built, not on the shifting sands of self-interest, but on the solid rock of Love that is without condition, proviso, or exception.
In our gospel reading this morning, Zacchaeus found that kind of Love, or more accurately: Love found him. Zacchaeus, we know, was a tax collector. We talked about them last week. Tax collectors were some of the most hated people in ancient Israel. First of all, they were traitors: Jews working for the occupying Roman government. Second of all, they were liars: they overcharged people on their taxes and kept the extra for themselves. So, it would have been quite a shocking moment to Rabbi Jesus’ devoutly Jewish audience when he singled out the local tax collector in his search for a place to stay.
This gesture from Jesus was a bold, symbolic statement. Sharing someone’s home in that culture meant that both parties welcomed and accepted each other as family, without question. Zacchaeus had done nothing in the way of belief or behavior to deserve such public affirmation from Jesus. Those respectable folks in the crowd probably wondered whether Jesus realized the kind of message he was sending. How were sinners like Zacchaeus ever supposed to learn their lesson if they didn’t experience the full sting of rejection from God-fearing society?
That’s the way their minds worked: they had a transactional relationship with their religion. They gave obedience to the laws of the Torah in exchange for inclusion in the life of society. They were shocked and offended at the thought that Jesus, as a rabbi and potentially the Messiah, might offer such a radical gesture of acceptance without first requiring that Zacchaeus repent of his old, scandalous ways.
But Jesus doesn’t ask that of Zacchaeus. He commits an act of civil disobedience and direct action against the morals and values of his culture: Jesus offers acceptance first. He asks nothing of Zacchaeus. There is no transaction happening here, no business deal.
This flies in the face of most traditional religious wisdom (Jewish and Christian), which says that repentance comes first, then forgiveness. Most folks think that God needs people to do, say, or think certain things before they can reap the rewards of heaven, eternal life, or acceptance in the church community. However, Jesus seems to take the opposite approach in this passage. He doesn’t ask Zacchaeus about how many times he’s been to synagogue in the last year, he doesn’t ask about which commandments he had broken or whether he was sorry, Jesus doesn’t even ask whether Zaccheaus believed in him as the Son of God and Messiah. Jesus simply accepts him as he is.
The amazing thing is that this makes all the difference. In the light of such unconditional love, which he had probably never experienced before in his entire life, Zacchaeus becomes a changed man. Something about that kind of grace made him want to pay it forward and pass it on. Jesus accomplished in one gesture of grace what so many others couldn’t do through years of judgment.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we ran our churches this way?
When I talk to people who don’t come to church about why they’re not interested in Christianity, they often (but not always) express some kind of faith in God and respect for Jesus, but most of them say that they are turned off by hypocritical Christians who are judgmental toward those who don’t believe or behave like them. In our culture so full of business transactions at every level, people are longing to experience a God and a church who will love them unconditionally and accept them as they are.
This, more than anything else, is the greatest gift we have to offer the world as Christians. We can follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Jesus, who wasn’t afraid to rise above the culture wars of his day and even go beyond the letter of the Bible in the name of love. Christ’s is a love that will not wait for you to get your act together and will not let you go once it gets hold of you. In contrast to conventional, transactional religious wisdom, the deep, deep love of Jesus offers grace and acceptance first, only then does it call forth transformation from within.
When that change comes, it will not look like simple observance of a set of commandments. Like Zacchaeus, your life will begin to overflow with the kind of radical grace and generosity that was once shown to you and you will make your way out into the world, proclaiming the good news to everyone you encounter: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Be blessed and be a blessing.