Good morning. Whenever I stand here I feel compelled to start by saying that I’m not worthy to be here. I mean it. But the love and grace of God looks past our imperfections, and here we stand before each other and before God, to worship God as one.
Today I want to share with you the story of another unworthy person. That person is Zacchaeus. Those of you who attended Sunday School as kids will probably remember this as the story of a short man who climbed a tree in order to look at Jesus as he was walking past. I’ve now become quite fond of this story because it reminds me that God looks out for short people too, and I’m almost short.
Before we read the passage I want to go a bit into the background. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. Now tax collectors were despised by society at that time because they collected taxes for the Roman government, which many of the Jews hated. Furthermore, most of them were also abused their position to collect bribes for themselves. Zacchaeus was the chief, which would make him the worst of all the tax collectors. If tax collectors were sinners, Zacchaeus as chief would be the worst of time.
Luke 19 is about what happens after Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to catch a glimpse of this “Jesus” that he had heard so much about.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
[ Opening Prayer ]
1. I don’t remember
There are many things in Luke 19 that jump out at me, but I want to start first with verse 7. Jesus had just said that He wanted to visit Zacchaeus at home. When the people heard this, they started to criticise Him and said “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner”.
Before I explain the implications of this, let me tell you another story : Many years ago, there was an old woman and her daughter who were members of a large church in another country. They were very faithful believers, and the old woman started receiving visions in which Jesus would talk to her in her sleep. News of this got around. Eventually the senior pastor heard about it and he decided to investigate if the old woman was really receiving visions, or just senile. So he paid them the family a visit.
“The next time you see Jesus, I want you to ask Him to tell you the sins that I had just confessed”.
The old woman and her daughter were shocked. The pastor was supposed to be a good man, and now they were going to hear about his sins. “Are you sure pastor, you want me to ask Jesus to tell me about your sins?”
“Yes, I am very sure”, said the pastor. “Give me a call when you hear from Jesus”.
The pastor waited anxiously. Monday passed – nothing. Tuesday passed – nothing as well. Finally, at 4 am on Wednesday morning, the senior pastor got a call from the daughter. “Jesus just appeared to my mother, and she can’t go back to sleep”.
“Did your mother ask Jesus the question?” the senior pastor asked.
“Yes she did”, the daughter replied from the other end.
“OK. Make her a cup of coffee and make sure she doesn’t go back to sleep. I am coming over right now.”
The senior pastor immediately got into his car and drove 50 km to their home, and was there in half an hour.
Nervously, he went up to the bedside of the old woman, leaned forward, and asked, “What did Jesus say ?”
The old woman took his hands, looked into his eyes, and in a very serious tone said, “Pastor, these are His exact words : I DON’T REMEMBER”.
I DON’T REMEMBER. Jesus did not say exactly those words to the crowd that criticised Him for going to the house of a “sinner”, but that was what Jesus was effectively saying through his actions. Jesus didn’t disagree with the crowd – Zacchaeus was a sinner. The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus argued that Zacchaeus was actually not a bad person.
But the crowd was not just saying that Zacchaeus was a sinner. In their eyes, he was no ordinary sinner. By singling Zacchaeus out a “sinner”, the crowd was suggesting that Zacchaeus was such a bad person – that his past and his sins were so terrible – that he could not be forgiven. And this is perfectly human. As humans we tend to classify our wrongful acts as “major” – murder and rape – and “minor” – like cheating on parking coupons or littering. For practical reasons, we also punish the “major” offences like murder and rape very severely, while we are happy to close an eye to minor offences or to let them go with a small fine. It’s practical because society will come to a standstill if we were to jail people for every offence. The problem is that we’ve taken our practical approach to how society is organised, and applied it to how we see and treat people spiritually. So we tend to think of a major wrongdoing as unpardonable as well, and that was how the crowd viewed the Zacchaeus the chief tax collector.
But Jesus didn’t dwell on Zacchaeus’ past. Jesus didn’t put Zacchaeus down for his past. Jesus didn’t change His mind about having dinner with Zacchaeus despite pressure from the crowd. Through His actions, Jesus was in effect telling the crowd that : I can and will have dinner with the worst of “sinners”, because I can forgive all sins, and where I have forgiven, I DON’T REMEMBER.
Some of us here might be struggling with a past that you think cannot be pardoned. The good news is that when Jesus has forgiven us, He doesn’t hold the past against us anymore. He says “I DON’T REMEMBER”. We can be confident that after confessing our sins to Christ, we can put our past behind us and move on.
And what is true for us, is also true for people around us. Maybe you know of someone who has done something so wrong or so shameful, and who is struggling to get over his past despite having confessed it to God. Or maybe you know someone who has done something so wrong or shameful that you cannot imagine that God can forgive him. Luke 19 reminds us that this is not true. There is no sin so great that it cannot be forgiven. Jesus can forgive all sins, and what He has forgiven, He does not hold against us anymore. To these people who struggle with their past, we must hold out the promise that Jesus says “I DON’T REMEMBER”.
2. I don’t forget
The second encouragement I want to draw from Luke 19, is that God does not forget us. I DON’T FORGET.
When Jesus was at the home of Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus announced that he would give half of his wealth to the poor, and compensate everyone that he had cheated four times the original amount. This showed that Zacchaeus had repented. In response to this, Jesus said in verse 9 that Zacchaeus had been saved, because he “too is a son of Abraham”.
I find what Jesus said very curious. Jesus could have simply said “today salvation has come into this house” and stopped there. Why did He go on to mention that Zacchaeus “too is a son of Abraham”?
Let me go a bit into the significance of the words, “son of Abraham”.
Firstly, Jesus was referring to the fact that Zacchaeus was a genetic descendent of Abraham. Abraham was in turn the forefather of the Israelites, and the Israelites the group of people to which God had revealed the Ten Commandments and all the blessings and promises in the Old Testament. God had also promised that Abraham’s descendants would be specially blessed because of Abraham’s faithfulness to Him.
Secondly, Jesus was referring to the fact that Zacchaeus had turned away from his past in faith, demonstrating the same faith that his forefather Abraham had in God.
This reference to Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham” is a reminder that God never forgot His promise to Abraham – the promise to love and bless Abraham’s descendants. Zacchaeus may have led a very sinful life, but because Zacchaeus was a “son of Abraham”, God continued to look out for him. This is like how, if you are a citizen of Singapore, the Government of Singapore will try its best to assist you when you are in trouble in a foreign country, even if it is because of something that you did wrong. So suppose you are the driver involved an accident in a foreign country, and you are accused of having caused it, the Singapore embassy will step in if you have been treated unfairly in the investigation. This is because your status as a Singapore citizen does not change despite what you might do wrong. In the same way, God did not forget Zacchaeus’s status as a “son of Abraham” despite what he did.
In addition, by referring to Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham”, Jesus was also pointing out that Zacchaeus and the other sons and daughters of Abraham in the crowd, were equally entitled to God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Jesus was not going to discriminate between sinners, between people who commit major and minor sins. The fact that Zacchaeus may have sinned more than others, did not put him beyond the reach of God’s love and promises to Abraham.
What does this mean for us? The good news is that the promises that God gave to Abraham are no longer confined to his genetic descendants. In Galatians 3, we read that -
6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
In Galatians 3 : 8 - 9, Paul wrote that everyone who comes to God in faith will be made righteous and blessed, in the same way that Abraham was blessed as a man of faith. Therefore, while none of us here are the genetic descendants of Abraham, we can become spiritual descendants through faith.
Furthermore, just as God never forgot Zacchaeus, and just as how God never forgot Abraham’s genetic descendants, God will not forget Abraham’s spiritual descendants. God will not forget us.
I DON’T FORGET my love for you. That is why Jesus said in Luke 19 : 9 that He had come to “seek and save the lost” – people who are lost because they do not have faith in God yet, but who had the potential to become spiritual descendants of Abraham after hearing the message.
2 Peter 3 : 9 says that God “is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”.
In other words, God does not forget anyone who is lost, no matter how sinful or terrible his past might be. One of the constant themes in the Bible is that God never gives up pursuing the lost in love, like the good shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep behind to look for one lost sheep. And if God has not forgotten – if God has not given up – we don’t give up either.
As between God and us as individuals, we are encouraged by the promise that God does not forget us even when we make mistakes, or when other people think that we are a lost cause.
As between us and others outside the church, we must “seek and save the lost” as Jesus did. We do not leave anyone behind and label him as a lost cause, because God has not forgotten him, and left him behind.
3. I don’t leave you unchanged
Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus turned his life around. That is the power of a genuine encounter with Jesus – no one can walk away without being moved.
God does not simply forgive sins. God does not simply not give up. God changes lives. I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. This is the final I DON’T that I want to draw from today’s passage. It is a personal challenge to, first of all, discover for yourself who Jesus really is so that your life will never be the same. It is, secondly, a challenge to represent Jesus as who He really is so that the lives of those around you will never be the same. In other words, I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED.
Having said that, I’d admit that there appears to be a gulf between the promise and reality. The reality is that many people leave church every Sunday feeling uninspired, while others quickly slip back into bad habits once the work week begins. I remember when I was younger, some of my friends would “church hop” or change churches frequently because they could never find a church that was inspiring enough for them : they would complain that the message was irrelevant, or the worship was boring, or that they couldn’t connect with the people in the church.
Then, when we look outside the church, there is the reality of people who stay away from church despite their numerous interactions with Christians. If God is really that great, why aren’t these people more interested in going to church to find out more? Some people even swear to never step into a church because of bad experiences with Christians!
Uninspired Christians, and non-Christians who can’t be inspired to go to church. If God changes lives, what might be the reason for this? I think it is because we – regardless of whether we are regularly attending church – have not had a genuine encounter with Jesus.
If today someone asked you to show him who Jesus is, would you show him one these pictures? Will you, like me, Google for images of Jesus and show them to your friend?
I think most of us will pull out the Bible or a Christian book and explain to that friend what it says about Jesus, and maybe share a personal story about how Jesus has touched or changed your life. So going back to the question, we are probably not going to show that friend images of Jesus. This is because we know that none of these pictures of what artists imagine Jesus looks like, will give a complete or even accurate picture of Jesus. (Though having said that, the image on the right is my favourite, because in my very disturbed mind, I imagine Jesus to be a chill dude with a quirky sense of humour telling Christians not to take themselves too seriously).
None of us today would seriously take one of those pictures, whether for ourselves or to show to others, and say that “this is Jesus”. We don’t hang up one of these pictures on our wall, like the one on the left, look at it daily and pray “handsome Jesus with the blue eyes and rebonded hair, how you inspire me to become a better Christian”. That sounds silly, but in our daily life, some of us are satisfied with relying solely on someone else’s projection of faith to sustain our own. Instead of developing a personal relationship with God by reading the Bible regularly and listening to what God might have to say to us, we are happy to just attend Sunday service and hope that this will be enough. That’s like looking at the picture of Handsome Jesus with the blue eyes and rebounded hair and hoping for a life-changing encounter. That will not happen.
This was the point that Jesus made in Matthew 16.
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus first asked His disciples what other people said about Him. The answers – Elijah, John the Baptist, a major prophet – were all wrong. Then, He made it personal and asked the disciples who they personally thought He was. That was when Peter answered correctly the “Messiah”. What Jesus was saying here is that the disciples’ faith had to be personal, based on their relationship with Him, and not a borrowed image of what other people said about Him.
What about people outside the church? Sometimes I think people outside the church have not had a genuine encounter with Jesus because Christians are satisfied with projecting a distorted image of God, instead of carefully reflecting on whether our actions match our words. I’m not saying that we can be completely perfect in word and in deed like Jesus was because that is not humanly possible, but sometimes I get the sense that Christians don’t even try.
One possible case in point : Anton Casey, the British expat who became notorious in the past week after he put up Facebook posts calling Singaporeans who take public transport “poor” and “smelly”. His comments provoked a flood of criticism on social media. Details on his family were dug up and published online. Some really nasty comments were also made against his family though they had nothing to do with his words. Cornered, he apologised, and yesterday’s papers reported that he had been fired from his job and had moved to another country. I have no doubt that Anton Casey reaped what he had sowed. If you say something to insult everyone, can’t expect everyone to simply brush that aside instead of giving to you as good as they got.
Interestingly, on Friday, the chairman of the Singapore Kindness Movement published a letter asking Singaporeans to consider whether our response showed a total lack of empathy. Singaporeans rubbished that letter and said it was nonsense, with some Christians openly declaring that they could have no empathy for someone like Anton Casey.
In contrast to the prevailing mood, a Christian friend put that letter up on Facebook and quoted Jesus’ teaching that we should “love your enemies”. An amazing reminder of what it means to love as a Christian. I expected a large number of “likes” given his extensive list of Christian friends. We’re Christians, how can we not “like” a post when someone quotes from the Bible. But he only got 28 “likes”, one of which was mine.
It would be wrong of me to use this Anton Casey incident and what I casually observe online to generalise anything about Christians. But I can say this – if we are serious about bringing people into a life-changing encounter with God, then our actions must match our words.
I think Christians are generally quite good at talking about our beliefs. For those of us who grew up in church especially, most of us have been taught various ways to tell others about our faith. In the Internet age, sharing our faith is even easier because any Christian with anything to say about God can post in on a blog, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or an online forum. Online resources are also everywhere – anyone who wants to find out about faith can just look it up using Google. But if you think about it, people outside the church don’t really need more information about God. That information is everywhere and anyone who is interested can Google for it. What people outside of church need, are Christians to go out to them to create the opportunities for them to encounter Jesus, and this can only happen if our actions in real life demonstrate the love and grace of God more effectively that the words we publish on the Internet or on social media.
Going back to Luke 19, both the religious teachers – the Pharisees – and Jesus preached about the same God which we read about in the Bible today, but only Jesus changed lives. Can you imagine where Zacchaeus would have ended up, if whatever he knew about God, was what he heard from and saw in the Pharisees? He would probably have remained where he was or even repulsed at the thought of going to church. The Pharisees couldn’t even bring themselves to talk to him, because he was a “sinner”. Jesus on the other hand, went to Zacchaeus’ home despite heavy public criticism. By this, Jesus demonstrated that God never forgot and that God never stopped loving Zacchaeus despite his sins, and that God could forget and wipe clean his shameful past. By the time Jesus stepped out of the house, Zacchaeus was a changed man.
I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. That’s the final encouragement we get from Luke 19 – that a genuine encounter with Jesus will not leave anyone the same. Whether you’re regularly attending church or not, the challenge is to be like Zacchaeus – to take a step towards genuine faith by looking for the real Jesus, instead of depending on just projections of faith that may be distorted or incomplete. And the challenge for us as Christians is to represent Jesus without distortion in both what we say and what we do, thereby creating the space for those outside the church to have a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
Before I close I just want to take a few minutes to walk through today’s list of I DON’Ts, each of which have an application to firstly our inward lives, and secondly to how we live outwardly towards others.
The first is I DON’T REMEMBER your sins and your past. Individually we can be encouraged by the promise that God forgives all sins and once He has forgiven us, we can move on without looking back in shame. Outwardly it means that there is no one so sinful, that God cannot forgive him – and we must hold out that hope to everyone who does not know God yet.
The second is I DON’T FORGET my love for you. We draw encouragement from the promise to God there is no lost cause – He came to seek and save the lost in love. He loves us despite our sins, and he loves others despite their sins. And just as Jesus did not forget and came to seek and save the lost, we too must follow His example to seek and save the lost.
The last is I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. God changes lives. We must continuously seek a life-changing personal relationship with God, instead of rely only on the faith of others. As between us and people outside the church, we must faithfully represent Jesus in word as well as in what we do, and create the space for them enter into a life-changing encounter Jesus.
Let us pray.