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Zaccheus and Me

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I have a habit of sorting Biblical redemption stories into two categories. The first kind of story is about someone who is down-and-out, someone who needs rescue because life has dealt them a lousy hand. These are stories like the Good Samaritan or Blind Bartemeaus or the Gerasene demoniac. I think it’s beautiful that God reaches across barriers to rescue the poor, powerless, sick and fatherless. These stories are about basic human dignity, and most people I know — be they Christians are not — can get behind that. 

But then there are stories about people who need rescue because of their own bad choices. People like Zaccheus, the woman caught in adultery, and the thief on the cross. These aren’t stories about dignity; they are stories about getting away with something. About people who got something for nothing. People who gamed the system. These stories are not as popular. It’s troubling to think of the adulteress returning to her bed without any accountability, about Barabbas the murder going free on the day Jesus the innocent was executed, about the thief entering paradise after a life of crime and disgrace.

It’s easy to gain a following for mercy; it’s hard for people to get behind grace. 

The thing is, I need the latter. My circumstances have been pretty comfortable. I have never been oppressed. I have never felt compelled to hide my identity, my sexuality, or my race. I live a comfortable life in American suburbia, so while I certainly approve of ministry to the marginalized, I don’t see myself in those stories. All of my life’s greatest regrets came about because of my own sin and selfishness. I identify more readily with the prodigal than the leper.

And that’s why I love to hear messages like the one Pastor Andy preached yesterday about a swindling no-good con man who Jesus called by name. Zaccheus was not just a street tough trying to get by. He was a racketeering kingpin getting fat and rich off the unscrupulous bilking of his own people. He was a turncoat and a cheat. His fellow Jews would have thought of him exactly as Dallas Stacy’s monologue described him: a little rat. Zaccheus deserved Jesus’ wrath and condemnation. He deserved to be made an example for others. Instead, he got a dinner party and a new friend. 

This is one of the things that sets Christianity apart from other belief systems. Jesus seems intent on grouping the perps with the victims, because both need redemption. Jesus' list of the "least of these” includes inmates right alongside the hungry. In the economy of heaven there is a difference between those who suffer righteously and those who suffer because of their own folly. But the difference is in kind, not in value. God sets about to rescue both kinds of people. 

Zaccheus and I are grateful.

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