It’s graduation season and as we celebrate the accomplishments of those hard-working students, we know they’re going to hear a ton of things from graduation speakers. Some good, some bad, and some ridiculously worthless tripe. It’s just the way it is- but just because that’s the way it is doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter! One of the huge truths about faith in Jesus, is that everything matters. There’s not an area of life that doesn’t matter when we understand faith in Jesus! His goal isn’t incremental behavior modification (changing you to become more like an ideal person) or even adherence to a strict holiness code (meaning your life is all about what you can- and can’t- do). Jesus’ goal is to literally turn your world upside down and transform you into a completely different person.
In one of the more familiar stories from the New Testament (at least if you were ever involved in a Sunday School or kids type program at a church!) is that of Zaccheus in Luke 19 (I mean, he’s got his own catchy kids song- “Zaccheus was a wee little man and a…” And sorry if it’s stuck in your head now too!). Zaccheus is a tax collector (a Jewish traitor who stole from his neighbors legally as a tax collector for the subjugating Roman empire) in Jericho when this famous (or is it infamous?) rabbi named Jesus shows up. There are huge crowds everywhere and Zaccheus is a wee little short man- but he wants to see this Jesus guy. If he weren’t the most hated man in Jericho, he might be able to ask someone to let him through to the front, but he is who he is and there’s no way anyone is going to accommodate him! So being the resourceful little man, Zaccheus climbs a nearby tree that should give him an overlook of the road. That means he’s disregarding any kind of self dignity, because back in the day they wore man dresses. Not a kilt mind you, but a full-scale, muumuu type of garment- that meant when he climbed the tree there were undoubtedly people laughing at him and mocking him further than even normal! But he gets to his vantage point and then has the shock of his life. Jesus, the respected rabbi, stops and invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ house. The self invite might be what catches out attention most, but to a 1st century Jew a rabbi talking to a tax collector was unheard of and a huge no no but for that same rabbi to go to dinner with that kind of notorious sinner was a faux pas of the highest order! No one in their right mind in decent society would ever willingly associate with that kind of person. But Jesus does- and Zacchues doesn’t even fall out of the tree in shock!- but runs to get the dinner party started with “great joy and excitement”. This all sounds so strange to us- but it gets worse! During the dinner party, this notorious thief/traitor does something even more outrageous than the prior scene. He tells Jesus that, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Timeout, y’all. This is unheard of. Zaccheus was so fond of his wealth he worked as a traitor and made his living taking in extra taxes off of his neighbors. But here he is saying that he’ll give back four times as much as he’s taken? Is he sick or has he had a mental breakdown devolving into madness? The simple answer is, neither. He’s had an encounter with the Son of God and it’s left a profound mark on him. We might not see the change in heart coming, but it shows up and is such a marked change that no one could ignore it. This doesn’t sound like the same man who climbed the tree to see a rabbi earlier in the day who was quite fond of his wealth, but like a completely different person. And the amazing thing is, Zaccheus was literally a completely different person.
You see, changing behaviors is great. Me starting to exercise, eat better, and demonstrate a more loving attitude are all behavioral modifications I should make for the betterment of me, but running a marathon tomorrow isn’t in my capability! It’d take time for me to get ready for that kind of run- Couch to 5k isn’t even going to touch it- it’s going to take radical, but incremental, changed to get to that point. However, when God is involved things change from our understanding. From a money-grubbing, thieving tax collector Zaccheus changes into a generous (to a fault) giver. There’s no explanation for that other than God! But notice from the story- Jesus didn’t prompt this in Zaccheus or ask for it. Unlike the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10- whom Jesus did tell to give up all his possessions- Zaccheus tumbles to this response on his own. Why would he get there? What prompts this change of heart and mind? To begin to understand that, we have to understand the gravity of what Jesus did in going to eat with Zaccheus. It shouldn’t have ever been possible, but Jesus went. Not only did Jesus go, but he went in spite of the grumbling of the huge crowd that followed Him! He ignored the angst of the many in favor of the lone man who desperately needed Him. In fact, the end of the story tells us that, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham.” Zaccheus’ short encounter with the God of the universe had changed him in myriad ways, from instilling a heart of generosity all the way to his salvation. So when you’re tempted to think that something little doesn’t matter- you can’t get to it, you couldn’t see even if you could get there, your dignity says you can’t do something foolish to make it possible, no one would even care if you could- remember Zaccheus and know that everything matters. Each little choice leads to something bigger than we can imagine. If we could see where the chain of little choices leads to in the future- would it influence our “little” choice now? Because I promise you, if Zaccheus knew that his “little” choice to climb the tree to see Jesus would matter this much in his life, he’d do it again in a heartbeat. How can I say that? Because I know that the little choices that have led me to this place are absolutely worth it, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.