Lessons From the Top of the Tree, or: Why God's Grace Is So Offensive
A couple of weeks ago in my youngest daughter's Sunday school, we talked about the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. He was the short man who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus. But that's not all. He was the head tax collector and as we know, tax collectors were not generally liked people in the Bible since they got rich by cheating people out of their hard-earned money. The Bible is very clear that tax collectors very much ostracized in the community and were thought to be “the worst,” at least on the same level with other terrible sinners, like prostitutes. Certainly not the kind of people anyone would associate with. Yet, Zacchaeus hears about this Jesus person and something inside him is drawn to the figure of Jesus as he is walking through the town. I imagine Zacchaeus wants to see for himself what this Jesus is all about. I cannot help but think that on some level he was drawn to Jesus because of his love and acceptance of those like Zacchaeus. And much to everyone's surprise, but most of all, Zacchaeus' surprise, Jesus calls on him up in the tree and says “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” The other people are indignant and complain about Jesus even paying attention to this man. But as Zacchaeus hears them complain, he tells Jesus that he is already a changed man, he gives to the poor and compensates four-fold if he cheats someone. And Jesus' response? “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” So that's good news, right? God's grace is available for all sinners, all of us who have cheated, fell short of our potential, hurt others, failed to show up, etc. I have always imagined myself as Zacchaeus. The fact that God's grace was available for me, as it was available for the short sinner who climbed a tree, was always good news in my book. Until last week. I was struggling with a situation where someone hurt me and I was left raw and upset. I took comfort in knowing that the person acted wrong and for sure God could see how badly they misunderstood and treated me. But then I heard the story of Zacchaeus and I realized that this person is loved and cherished by God too. Great. Sorry, that doesn't seem fair to me. After all, people like Zacchaeus cause a lot of damage and the only justice would be to see them suffer their consequences. But that is not what I heard on that day at Sunday school. What I heard was that God comes and dwells with those who have hurt us and offers unending grace. He chooses to come in to our houses and our hearts. Of course, that sounds good, if you feel like Zacchaeus. But I didn't like the fact that God would give grace to someone like Zacchaeus who hurts others. Just like the people surrounding Jesus, I was asking “Why would God offer grace to this person???” I wasn't happy with Jesus' response of grace until I read in some words by Nadia Bolz-Weber that God's grace is actually offensive. And I thought YES! Finally someone named it for me! I was offended by God's grace. Wouldn't it be much easier and cleaner if God overlooked those who were not inline? You see, if I know that God offers grace to the person who hurt me, He invites me to do the same. So I had to re-think my strategy here. I begrudgingly found grace in my heart for this person, because, you know, God said so. But one I was able to do that, I felt better, more accepting, more free to have compassion and let go of my grudge. I was able to accept my Zacchaeus for who they were and where they were, forgive, respond in grace. Forgiveness and grace are hard to practice. We cannot be foolish about using them to stay in a bad situation, but many times it is not about the other person, it is about us being able to let go of our hurts and offer grace to ourselves and those who hurt us. If we keep a grudge against someone, it is ultimately our burden to bear, not theirs. We make ourselves suffer by holding onto the hurt. God calls us to offer grace to all, even those who have caused us harm and suffering. It is only when we are able to do that, that true healing can happen. This is what happens in restorative justice circles, in our families and communities when we realize that grace is stronger than our need for justice and we are hearts are changed from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh again. And by giving grace, we receive it in return.