We continue our Fall preaching series on DISCIPLESHIP, the seventh part entitled: DISCIPLES forgive.
Disciples forgive people who harm them and seek forgiveness when they harm others. Learning to forgive begins with first recognizing that I am a sinner and that sometimes my actions hurt other people. I must start with seeking forgiveness. Then, when I am forgiven, I know love and I can learn to practice forgiving others. Forgiving others for their sins against me requires great love and a lot of practice. I’m not sure about you, but for me, this is the greatest ask of being a disciple … forgiving!
Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from accountability.
Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.
The Old Testament reading today from the Book of Wisdom may help us further in that it gives us a description of God. The passage tells us what kind of a God God is, and perhaps more so even what kind of people we should be. The picture of God found in this text is amazing:
He is merciful to all and overlooks people’s sins.
He spares all things, he who loves the living.
He corrects little by little those who trespass
I wonder sometimes how many people reading or hearing these lines could say, in all truth: This is exactly how I perceive God … It seems to me that so many keep away from God… fear him… do not trust what these texts say of God and have an entirely different picture of God … why?
Today’s Gospel is the familiar story from Luke. It’s about Zacchaeus, whose name means righteous, which is pure irony in this story. Luke describes him as the sort of sleaze ball person that we love to hate. He says that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. That is, he was a Jew who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. So, he really was a traitor to the political cause.
Luke also says that Zacchaeus was wealthy. And surprise, surprise, how did a Roman tax collector get wealthy? By extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, by exploiting the working poor, and by taking care of his cronies. There's an unspoken assumption of corruption here. Zacchaeus is a man who deserves our disdain.
Zacchaeus was not only corrupt and rich, he was physically short. When Jesus passed through Jericho, he was eager to get a look, so he did something utterly undignified for a man of his station. He ran ahead of the crowd, climbed up into a tree, then waited for Jesus to pass by. Imagine a powerful lobbyist in Washington doing something similar during a presidential parade.
When Jesus reached that spot, he looked up, saw Zacchaeus, and told him to come down. He then invited himself to stay with Zacchaeus: I must stay at your house today. And so, Zacchaeus climbed down and welcomed Jesus gladly.
The response of the crowd was predictable. Luke says that they began to mutter. 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.' And so, Zacchaeus defends himself before the hostile crowd. He says that he'll give half of his possessions to the poor, and that he'll repay fourfold all the people that he's cheated. That would surely be a long list of angry tax payers. Read in this way, Zacchaeus is a sinner who repents and is converted on the spot. He promises future reparations.
But there's another way to read this story in which Zacchaeus isn't a sinner who converts, but rather, a saint who surprises. He doesn't make promises about the future, rather, he defends himself and shocks the crowd by appealing to his past.
In this reading, Zacchaeus is a hidden saint about whom people have made all sorts of false assumptions about his corruption. And so, he defends himself: Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution. The crowd had demonized Zacchaeus. Jesus praises him as "a son of Abraham."
In this instance and others, Jesus calls out good people who are bad and commends bad people who are good. So maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn't like with all sorts of false assumptions. Maybe it’s really about being slow to judge, especially when we don’t have all the facts. Maybe it’s about checking in on our own predetermined judgments and being open to the truth as to who people really are …
The despicable Zacchaeus is the generous one. Here, Jesus is once again turning our world upside down, confronting us with our assumptions about who is good and who is evil and demonstrating for us the tricks we play in our minds before we treat one another — one way or another. Like the crowd murmuring about Zacchaeus, it is easy to be blinded by our prejudice or microaggressions of 'those people' and find ourselves accusing the very person or people we should be emulating.
There is no doubt that we have all been guilty of it … and all of us are called to ask forgiveness for not seeing people as God sees them, for not treating people as God would have us treat them, for not emulating the God who overlooks people’s sins and is kind and merciful. Perhaps this week, in addition to our challenge to ask for and give forgiveness, we are reminded to be saints who surprise rather than merely sinners who repent.
Disciples know Jesus.
Disciples know the Bible.
Disciples know the Christian faith.
Disciples make faith a way of life.
Disciples worship God.
Disciples are witnesses.
Disciples love and serve their neighbor.
Disciples forgive …
Let’s be better disciples!