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Message for 11-3-13 JESUS WELCOMES A CROOK

“JESUS WELCOMES A CROOK”

Luke 19:1-10

 

            Chuck Colson tells about a guy named David Crocker who was living a model Christian life with a wife and family in Virginia.  He was active in his church.  He even led a Bible study in a local prison.  But David Crocker had an ugly skeleton in his closet: 19 years before, while high on drugs, Crocker had murdered a young woman.  He was never a suspect in the case, but his conscience would not leave him alone.  After consulting with a prison chaplain, Crocker knew what he had to do: turn himself in.  His children begged him not to go, but he told them, “I’d be a hypocrite if I raised you by the word of God and I didn’t do this.”  Crocker went and confessed to dumbfounded prosecutors in Kansas.  He got a minimum of 10 years behind bars before his earliest possibility of parole, but both he and his family know that just saying “I’m sorry” is no substitute for costly deeds of repentance.

            An even greater demonstration of repentance is the story of a Khmer Rouge leader in Cambodia who became a Christian in 1999.  Because he was responsible for the mass execution of 30,000 innocent people in his work for the Khmer Rouge, this new Christian turned himself in to the authorities.  He said, “I have done bad things, and now I must pay the price for what I have done.”  How many of us would turn ourselves in if we were guilty of 30,000 murders?

            The story of Zacchaeus is another powerful story of repentance.  Forget all the stuff about the short guy in the tree.  What I want you to remember today is the tremendous price Zacchaeus was willing to pay to show that his heart had changed toward God.  The story of Zacchaeus raises for us the issue, “Is there room in the family of God for a crook who has extorted money out of everyone in town?  And if so, on what terms do we welcome such a person into membership?  And on what terms do we extend to them the opportunities of leadership and service in God’s church?”

            Zacchaeus was the most successful guy in Jericho.  He was also the most hated guy in town.  Zacchaeus was the Romans’ top IRS agent in charge of collecting all the Roman customs tax on goods coming into the empire from the east.  The Romans charged 25% on all incoming commercial goods, and Jericho was almost impossible to avoid for caravans coming in from the east.  So a guy like Zacchaeus (who could claim a share of all that money) could make a fortune.  But the reason Zacchaeus was so hated was the way he ripped off the local commercial traffic.  Zacchaeus could charge whatever he wanted when calculating taxes on local goods, and since very few people knew the tax rates, Zacchaeus could pocket whatever he could overcharge.

            Zacchaeus is also a racketeer.  He’s in a position to make lots of money extorting bribes from taxpayers who are powerless to resist: “Give me all your money, and I’ll clear your account with the Romans.”  Such extortion is an everyday fact of life today in countries from Mexico to Haiti to Russia to Indonesia, where bribery takes the place of paying government workers a decent salary.  The customs official tells the missionary, “We can’t let you bring in that load of supplies unless you’re willing to pay extra.”  Zacchaeus did this all the time, like others in his business.

            Who knows why Zacchaeus was so desperate to see Jesus that day?  Whether it was guilt, emptiness, loneliness, or rejection, Zacchaeus must have been miserable.  Zacchaeus has probably also heard that Jesus is famous for forgiving tax collectors and other slimy characters.  But when you see how Jesus handled the Rich Young Ruler in the chapter just before, you’d think there’s no hope for Zacchaeus.

            The Rich Young Ruler was far from a crook.  He’s been keeping God’s law ever since his bar mitzvah.  What chance would a creep like Zacchaeus have with a prophet who’s got sharper opinions about wealth than anybody in town?  All we know is that Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus so badly that he climbs up in a sycamore fig tree.

            Jesus stuns the crowd by singling out Zacchaeus and yelling, “Zacchaeus!  Come on down!  Out of all the people in town, I want to have lunch with you!”  Imagine Jesus coming to town just to have lunch with pornographer Larry Flynt.  Such a move could send the wrong message to the public, especially if Larry claims that Jesus is endorsing what he does.  But Jesus must have known that Zacchaeus was ripe for a change.  He must have known that Zacchaeus was ready to trade in his old life for a new one.  Jesus picks out the one guy in town who is the most ready to hear.

            The proof comes in what Zacchaeus says to Jesus after lunch.  Zacchaeus is so overcome by the undeserved mercy of God that he cries, “Lord, I’m gonna give half of what I have to the poor!  And you know what I’m gonna do with the rest of that money?  I’m gonna go back and figure out who I’ve cheated, and I’m gonna pay them back 4 times what I cheated them!”  Hebrew law states that the penalty for overcharging is a full refund plus 20%, but the penalty for stealing is 400%.  Zacchaeus is willing to pay back 400%, as if he had committed robbery.

            Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, today salvation has come to this house.”  Notice that, unlike what Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to do, Zacchaeus does not give away all he has.  Yet Jesus declares that Zacchaeus has been reconciled with God.

            We may ask, Was Zacchaeus saved by the size of his bribe?  Do you think God can be bought off by the money of a person whose heart is still defiant toward God?  Absolutely not!  What Zacchaeus did was evidence that his heart had changed toward God.  Zacchaeus was willing to right every wrong he had done.  And he was willing to give away half of what he had earned fair-and-square as a response to God’s amazing mercy.  He gives it without being asked.  Here’s a heart that has truly been changed.

            The major lesson for us in today’s scripture is the way Jesus welcomes the worst crook in town into the family of God.  Jesus goes out of His way to show mercy to outcasts.  He opens doors to harlots and racketeers.  (John the Baptist was the only other guy who’d ever done that.)  But Jesus doesn’t open the doors to hookers and racketeers  as permission for them to bring their lifestyles into the church.

            Jesus doesn’t welcome Zacchaeus so he can keep ripping people off.  Jesus never offers salvation without repentance.  Likewise, Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “You gotta let me keep doing this.  I have to!  I’ve gotta make a living.”  Zacchaeus never would have dreamed of demanding Jesus to let him keep the kind of life he lived before.

            Jesus welcomes people who stumble and fall.  He welcomes people who try and fail.  But those who demand that God should let them have their own way are slamming the door in their own faces.  Jesus waits till He sees how much Zacchaeus’ heart has changed before He proclaims, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

            There’s plenty of room in God’s family even for people whose past would make Tony Soprano look like a Boy Scout.  All that matters is, Where’s your heart with God right now?  Your past matters only if you haven’t changed.  Your past matters only if it hasn’t stayed in the past.  Repentance is more than just “Did you stop sinning?”  It’s also a question of “Would you sin again in the same way if you had the chance?”  Repentance is our desire to forsake all of our sin – past, present, and future.

            How many of us would trust Zacchaeus with our church’s money?  What would it take to welcome a guy who’s ripped off everyone in town, who’s taken hundreds out of your pocket?  For our answer, go back to the former Khmer Rouge officer who says, “Here I am.  Throw the book at me.”  Go back to the words of Zacchaeus after supper: “Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I’ve cheated anyone, I’ll pay them back fourfold.” When it comes to repentance, actions are more powerful than words of sorrow.

            Repentance makes it possible for God to welcome even the lowest of crooks.  We are all sinners, without exception.  There’s no way to distinguish between “good” and “bad” sinners.  The only meaningful difference I see is between those who are truly sorry for sin and those who are not, those who want to hang onto their sin and those who want to get rid of it, those who defend or excuse sin and those who nail it to Jesus’ cross.

            I am a sinner.  I have a problem with anger.  I speak evil of others.  I am selfish to the core.  But I am determined to root those sins and others out of my life.  As for my weaknesses, I don’t want to stay the way I am!  I want to rise above my weaknesses.  Sin is like weeds.  We’ll never get our lawn weed-free.  The repentant sinner is the person who refuses to let those weeds grow, and would never dream of planting more.

            The church is to be a welcome center for recovering sinners – sinners who don’t want to be what we are, sinners who want to root sin out, sinners who want our sins not only washed off our record, but flushed out of our lives.

            Jesus shows us how to welcome people without welcoming their sin in His power lunch with Zacchaeus.  Jesus opens the door wide.  Repentance is the key.  Repentance is the evidence that we mean what we claim to believe.  People who are determined to stay the way they are, are only slamming the door in their own faces.

            Jesus ends this encounter with these words: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”  Zacchaeus was lost because he was in the wrong place.  What about you?  Have you invited Christ to come in and change your life?  There’s no other way that sinners like us have a chance with God than by believing that what Jesus did on the cross was enough to take away all of our sin.  The fact that God can save a crook like Zacchaeus (whom everyone hated) means that God can save us just the same.

                Let us pray.  Lord, we praise You that You are able to save sinners like us through the sacrifice of Christ.  Help us to respond with the same kind of joyful gratitude that Zacchaeus responded with in Your word.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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