Tag Archives: Repentance

When There’s a Knock at the Door: Zacchaeus in Community

Knock knock. If it’s a joke, you know what to say: “Who’s there?”

But knock knock means something different to different people. Throughout my childhood, when I heard a knock knock on the back door, I could guess the knocker within three guesses. If the knock knock was rapped on the front door, all bets were off. I had no idea who it was, so before rushing to the door, I’d peek through the blinds to see who might be knocking, to find out the answer to the question: “Who’s there?”

While there’s only one response to the knock knock of a joke, people react in different ways to a knock at the actual door. If the resident is able to peek between the blinds or through the peep hole, they might not answer the door. Or if nosy passersby see the knocker and know the resident, they might start speculating, “Now, now. Why are they knocking on that door?” What’s true about welcome, hesitation, or speculation when there’s a knock knock on literal doors is also true when there’s a knock on the door of someone’s spiritual home. Some might peek at who is knocking and never open the door; curious onlookers might see who’s knocking and wonder, “What are they doing knocking on that door?”

The second question has been passed on for centuries. People divvy up others according to group: who is in or out, the “haves” and “have nots,” those who are reputable or bring disrepute, us vs. them. When a crowd saw Jesus going to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), they voiced surprise in reaction to this moment of knocking. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)

But it is not a holy moment of wondering; it is a hateful moment of muttering. It was the same kind of reaction recorded earlier in Luke’s Gospel when the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered their displeasure at Jesus going to eat with sinners and tax collectors. (Luke 15:2) But while familiar Bible readers might expect the Pharisees and teachers of the law to grumble their disapproval, it might be surprising to notice that this time, it’s the crowd grumbling. In Luke 19, Jesus is entering Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to set his mother’s song to reality: to bring down rulers, to fill the hungry, to send the rich away empty. So why are the crowds muttering their own disapproving reaction? Because the sinner who Jesus has gone to visit this time is Zacchaeus—a tax collector who is wealthy.

It’s dangerous to be wealthy in Luke’s Gospel. Beyond Mary’s song, Jesus has blessed the poor but warned of woe for the rich (6:24); Jesus has told a parable about one who intended to build bigger barns but instead lost his life as a rich fool (12:13-21); Jesus has described justice in the afterlife as the rich man in torment being separated from Lazarus by an uncrossable chasm (16:19-31); and describing Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy young man, Luke tells us the man rejected Jesus’ invitation because he had great wealth, prompting Jesus’ lament, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (18:23-25)

So then, when we encounter this tax collector who is wealthy, no wonder the people are muttering. There must have been some expectation of Jericho justice: Zacchaeus has been squeezing life from them, fraudulently making their poverty that much worse. Why is Jesus going to be with him? He’s one Jesus is supposed to be busy bringing down!

Which, beautifully, is exactly what Jesus does.

Zacchaeus had gone looking for Jesus but has been crowded out by the cheated and, as a result, climbed this tree for a view. Here Luke’s brilliant story-telling brings together Zacchaeus’ resourcefulness in business and resourcefulness in the moment. Zacchaeus is a chief tax-collector, one who is collecting the tolls, the cost of doing business, through a profitable and effective enterprise of subordinate toll collectors. The tree he has climbed, a sycamore-fig tree, recalls the tree from which the fruit was eaten, of the leaves that were sewn, and among which the first Man and Woman hid. Just as they had eaten fruit in an effort to make themselves greater, so has Zacchaeus been climbing the tree throughout his life. By climbing the literal tree, he is showing what he’s been doing all along: climbing over others for his own sake.

And now, notice the switch! Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus, but it is Jesus who looks up and calls him down. While Zacchaeus thought he was seeking Jesus, it was Jesus seeking Zacchaeus. As St. Augustine would comment, “The Lord, who had already welcomed Zacchaeus in his heart, was now ready to be welcomed by him in his house.”

The muttering of the crowd, directed against Jesus, shows that Jesus takes Zacchaeus’ shame when he gives Zacchaeus public honor: Zacchaeus responds to the crowd’s muttering with a promise to restore judiciously, taking the same penalty and way of restitution for stealing another’s sheep (Ex. 22:1), vowing to give generously. (Luke 19:8) What a switch! As my friend Dr. Dan Freemyer has commented, “The tax collector has become the gift distributor!” (Dan claims to have read this in a commentary, but we can’t find the original author.) Mary’s song praised God for calling down the rulers, filling up the poor, and sending away the rich. And indeed that’s what Jesus has done: he has called Zacchaeus down from his tree, he has filled the poor through Zacchaeus’ remorseful generosity, and he has sent Zacchaeus away, emptied of his guilt and stigma, and restored to his name, which means innocent. The early Desert Father Ephraim the Syrian captured the full exchange like this: “The first fig tree of Adam will be forgotten, because of the last fig tree of the chief tax collector, and the name of the guilty Adam will be forgotten because of the innocent Zacchaeus.” Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree on his journey to carrying his cross.

There are different responses are possible to the knock knock sounding on our doors and in our hearts. Just like a knock might prompt an effort to see—to pull back the curtain, to peer through the peep hole, or to crane your neck to ask why they were knocking at that door – this is a story about seeing, as well.

Zacchaeus had wanted to see Jesus, but he could not see over the crowd. The crowd muttered when they saw Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus implored the Lord’s attention as he responded to Jesus’ grace with gratitude and justice. Jesus affirmed his mission to seek for the lost. But the whole passage started with an urge for the reader to see, as well. Luke introduces us to Zacchaeus by telling us to “Behold!” (See Luke 19:2; although not always translated, it is found in the King James and New King James Version and noted in other versions, as well).

Just as we are urged to behold Zacchaeus, so we stand ready to behold the activity of God when he brings us in contact with others. Certainly, when God directs us to stop and look up, to knock on the lives of others, some of them will peer through the blinds, look through the peep holes, and quietly slip away. But others will look, open the door, and respond with gratitude that God has entered their lives. “You were exactly who I hoped would come!” And certainly, when God guides us to step into the lives of those who willingly open the door, there will be nosy grumblers who mutter and question our actions; but others will stop and behold, recognizing that God is about to do something amazing in this house because God has already welcomed its inhabitant into his heart.

Can you imagine the responses that Zacchaeus and his troupe experienced when they went collecting, knocking on the doors of Jericho’s inhabitants? But how different would it have been after his transformation!

May it be so for you and me, too. May we choose a response of gratitude and generosity because Jesus endured scandal to come into our homes, too. And may gratitude, justice, and generosity make it so that when we knock on the lives of the tree climbers in our own lives, they too gladly choose to come down, opening their lives not only to us but to Jesus.

Featured image courtesy Conscious Design via Unsplash.

Andy Stoddard ~ The Value of Godly Grief

Have you ever felt really badly about something you’ve done wrong?  Have you ever in some way harmed another person or harmed your walk with God?  Have you ever done something that you just know you should not have done, and then you realize it.  And wow.  You feel terrible.  You just feel awful.  You want to make it right.  You want to hit reset.  You want to make it like it never happened.  You want to restore. 

That feeling is called conviction.  Paul calls this grief or godly grief.  It’s a terrible feeling.  But it’s also a great feeling, because that pain brings us to repentance, which brings us to forgiveness.

Listen to how Paul describes it in II Corinthians 7: 9-10:

“Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.”

The pain you may feel with conviction? That pain is not a good thing.  But it leads to a good thing.  It leads to forgiveness.  It is truly a bittersweet feeling.  It hurts – but it leads to greater grace.

That’s Paul’s greater point here.  We aren’t just supposed to feel bad about our sins or beat ourselves up or feel like we are awful people.  But we are supposed to repent.  Turn from our sins.  Find grace, mercy, and peace. 

So that feeling of conviction is a good thing.  It calls us back to God.  It calls us to repent.  It calls us to turn.  It calls us to forgiveness.  It is actually a means of grace.  It is God’s grace, calling us back to himself.

Today, or any day, when you feel convicted of sin, don’t stay there.  Don’t beat yourself up.  That’s the grief that leads to death. 

But turn to God.  Turn away from sin.  Turn away from things that are destructive, and find grace, mercy, and forgiveness in God.  This feeling is God actually calling you back to himself.

Today, when you feel that, run back into the arms of the one who loves you most. 

Maxie Dunnam ~ Public Confession and Repentance

March 22 was a day of huge importance for my city of Memphis. Like many significant events, I’m afraid it went unnoticed by most. Two churches, Second and Independent Presbyterian, held a public service of confession and repentance.

Few of us would not recognize our need for individual repentance. None of us are without the mark of Adam; what we would do, we do not, and what we would not do, we do. We need repentance and forgiveness.

But this was public, corporate repentance.

Fifty years earlier to the day two young men – Joe Purdy and Jim Bullock – had visited Second Presbyterian together as part of a church visit campaign, called kneel-ins. Before the young men could reach the entrance, a church representative asked Joe, “Are you African?” When he said, “No, I’m American,” he and his white friend were refused entrance. They returned the following Sunday (and the six Sundays after that) with a growing number of friends of both races who stood outside the church in silent protest of the church’s refusal to welcome them. Though few knew it at the time, the men responsible for repelling the visitors were enforcing an explicit policy of segregation adopted by the church’s session in 1957.

In The Last Segregated Hour, Stephen Haynes, a Religious Studies professor at Rhodes College, does a great job of telling the story, including how it is remembered and the ongoing implications.

Independent Presbyterian Church was founded because Second Presbyterian reversed its position denying the Kneel-in Protesters’ presence in the church, and allowed them entrance. Numerous people opposed that decision, left, and founded a separate church (Independent Presbyterian), which had in its constitution the commitment to preserve racial segregation in the church.

Fifty years later, the pastors and leaders of both congregations felt a need to make a corporate response.

Thank God for pastors and lay leaders who recognized that history is important, and when unrecognized and unconfessed, sin poisons the body. We don’t keep secrets, our secrets keep us.

Jim Bullock, one of the students turned away from Second Presbyterian Church fifty years ago, and one of the speakers at the 50th anniversary commemoration service, has written about the event on March 22 for the Presbyterian News Service:

March 22, 2014 is a day I shall not soon forget. When I woke up my stomach was already churning. The rainy weather seemed to bode ill. I made my customary stop at Starbuck’s where I had my customary grande chai latte. But I could not get my stomach to settle down. Hope and fear were churning away in my gut and the words of a colleague – “you know, this thing could go really badly” – echoed in my ears. I arrived half-an-hour early at the location where the day’s events were to take place (typically, I’m at least five minutes late everywhere I go). I walked inside the church and looked around until I found the room where I was to meet several other men for a time of prayer. The prayer time had been my idea, and I was glad I had suggested it. Inside the room were representatives of three local churches – Idlewild, Second and Independent – which have little in common beyond the name “Presbyterian.” In fact, the churches represent different denominations that define themselves largely in opposition to one another. But there we were, praying for reconciliation – among us, and among the people who would come to Second Presbyterian Church that morning to commemorate the traumatic events that had split the church fifty years earlier.

As the prayer time went on, I found myself crying tears of joy. A day we had hoped for, imagined, and dreamed of was finally here. The Spirit seemed to be honoring our vision of a service of truth-telling and reconciliation at the site of one of the South’s most notorious acts of racial exclusion.

Interestingly, the public confession of particular, individual sins has ballooned in the past three or four decades in the plethora of “confessional” self-help groups that have emerged (for alcoholics, over-eaters, drug abusers, sex addicts). Yet, our ability to acknowledge the existence of large-scale, all-permeating corporate sin has dramatically decreased. We have our time of corporate confession in our worship services, but that has become so perfunctory that its purpose and power is blurred. Maybe corporate confession is dulled in meaning because in our preaching and teaching we have dramatized glaring private sins readily recognized and named, while the “hidden” sins of attitude and omission get no attention.

Scripture is full of God’s call for corporate confession and repentance…the recognition of the sins of the nation, the sins of “the whole people of God.” So what happened in that service on March 22 was not only good and redemptive for the soul of those two congregations, it was good for the whole church…perhaps a model for all.

I may be making too much of it, but I think it is also significant that this public service of confession and repentance for racism took place two weeks before our remodeled and expanded Civil Rights Museum is to be reopened in Memphis (April 4). We are dull indeed if we can visit the museum without feeling we are a “people of unclean lips and we live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5) We need to repent, not only privately, but corporately.