Unilateral Love to the Unlovely
In 2008, the economic world saw the exposure of what is considered the largest ponzi scheme in U.S. history. Financial broker and advisor Bernie Madoff had served as the chairman of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities since 1960, which quickly became one of the top market maker businesses on Wall Street. Under his employment were his brother and niece and his two sons, among others. But after Bernie’s sons were made privy to his less than ethical and legal business practices, the FBI was swiftly called to intervene — and what they uncovered was one of the biggest lies this nation has ever seen.
What began in the early ‘90s, Madoff ended up swindling thousands of investors billions of dollars. The fraudulent activities saw Madoff accumulate nearly $65 billion (yes, billion) worth of investments in either illegitimate or fabricated gains, which garnered Madoff 150 years in prison, the maximum allowed sentence. And as if to prove the biblical idea that sin doesn’t just affect you but permeates to those around you (see Josh. 7), this affair left Madoff’s family in complete disarray. His brother Peter was likewise arrested and charged, and his son Mark committed suicide. He and his wife even attempted suicide together following the public scandal.
The story of Bernie Madoff is truly a tragedy. My more ignoble reactions want to shout that he got what deserved. And perhaps that’s true . . . but I wonder how Jesus would treat us if we were in the same predicament? Well, we’re given a glimpse of such a scenario in Luke 19. This, of course, is the venerable account of Jesus’s interaction with Zacchaeus. I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the story, but nevertheless I wish to recount for you this scene, as it’s one of the most pristine pictures of God’s grace and unilateral love in all of Scripture.
The Wee Little Man
To truly apprehend the account, though, you must be familiar with who Zacchaeus was. Zacchaeus served as the chief publican (read, tax collector or IRS agent) of the city of Jericho. Holding this position afforded one extreme wealth, power, and prestige — as well as extreme vitriol and contempt from the general populace. Tax collectors were employed by the oppressive Roman Government, thereby making any who held the position of publican automatically hated. Doubly so as the majority of publicans were taking well beyond what was required to fill their pockets, and Zacchaeus was no exception, running a smooth illegal practice taking far more than what was truly owed to clothe himself in the prosperity of the penurious. Triply so if you were a Jew, for then you’d be a traitor, working for Rome and swindling your own countrymen of their hard-earned wages. Therefore, when you picture Zacchaeus in your mind’s eye, picture Bernie Madoff — the scorn and derision and flat hatred he received is similar to how Zacchaeus would’ve been viewed, only he wasn’t arrested or charged for any of his criminal activity. Zacchaeus openly forsook, betrayed, and defrauded his Jewish brothers and sisters, and lived in luxury while he did it.
Luke’s account of this scene begins with Jesus entering Jericho and the inspired writer including two interesting facts about Zacchaeus: that he “was rich” (Luke 19:1–2) and that he was short, “small in stature.” (Luke 19:3) These details are important, as the Greek word for “rich” literally means “abounding in wealth,” thereby corroborating earlier accounts about Zacchaeus’s business practices being of questionable legality. Likewise, being known as “small in stature” certainly had an impact on Zacchaeus’s personality and mentality — the “Napoleon syndrome” might be more aptly called the “Zacchaeus syndrome.” Nonetheless, curiosity drove this publican to get a sight of this Jesus of Nazareth. But because of his short height, he wasn’t able to see the Galilean miracle worker. So Zacchaeus runs ahead of the mob and climbs a tree to get a better vantage point. (Luke 19:3–4)
But as Jesus passed by where Zacchaeus was, he sees him sitting in the sycamore, and speaks to him as though he knew him: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5) Surely, Zacchaeus was surprised to hear his name coming from Jesus’s mouth; and even more shocking, that he wanted to dine with him at his house. This sort of invitation was surely disdained by all, for Zacchaeus, with all his wealth, was regarded as a pariah by his fellow countrymen. And for the Messiah to associate with the likes of this corrupt, nefarious tax collector, he only brought scorn and disgust upon himself. The Pharisees especially found this gesture distasteful, as Scripture says “they all grumbled,” complaining, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7; 15:2)
A Reminder of Redemption
Such was the norm for Jesus’s ministry, who was regarded as evil and as vile as the publicans for befriending them and fellowshipping with them. (Luke 5:30; Matt. 9:11; 11:19; Mark 2:16; Acts 11:3; 1 Cor. 5:11; Gal. 2:12) Indeed, Christ disregarded all the traditional and fashionable standards for propriety and estate by consistently fraternizing with the outcasts and low-levels of society. By acting as the “Friend of Sinners,” Jesus turned what was meant for ridicule into a reminder of his redemption, for the end and objective of the gospel is to save sinners. “The Eternal Watcher,” says the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, “is looking over the vast ocean of life, not that he may spy out the vessels which sail along proudly in safety, but that he may see those who are almost wrecks!” (Sermons, 579)
All the same, while dining and conversing with Jesus, Zacchaeus was brought to repentance by the remarkable display of grace which was evidenced before him. He inevitably felt his guilt and conviction of sin by sitting with such a kind and generous Savior. The eyes of mercy melted the insatiable, avaricious heart of this publican, bringing him to confess his offenses and begin the process of restoration.
It’s here that we see that repentance and obedience flows naturally from a heart that’s been gripped by grace. Zacchaeus is so struck by Jesus’s unconditional acceptance and approval that he vows to repay all the overplus profits which he’d pilfered from his brethren, declaring, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8) In the face of love, Zacchaeus knew he was guilty, lost, and undone. And that’s precisely when God’s work takes full effect. The pardon and conversion of Zacchaeus is a poignant reminder of just exactly the sort of people Jesus came to save and, therefore, exactly where obedience fits into the plan of salvation.
Bad News & Good News
This scene is the perfect picture of the type of grace Christ came to extend, a grace which has no sense of deservedness or merit. It depicts the kingdom of God as bringing salvation to the outcasts, to the lost, to the desperate. (Luke 19:10; cf. Ezek. 34:11, 16; Luke 15:4; Matt. 9:13; 10:6; 15:24; 18:12) Thus, being lost is no ground for despair because Christ came to seek and save those who are lost. God wants you to realize that you are lost — and recognizing your lostness is the first step toward being found. “Grace works only in those who accept their lostness,” asserts Robert Capon. “Jesus came to call sinners, not the pseudo-righteous.” (53) Refusing to acknowledge your own desperation causes you to reject the full force of the gospel. The true nature of God’s grace can only be grasped when we come to grips with our depraved, hopeless state without Christ. If you don’t think you’re bad, the gospel won’t mean anything to you — “What of it,” you might sneer, “why do I need this good news? I’m already good enough, I’m better than Joe Schmoe over there.” And by distinguishing yourself as more righteous than others you’ve actually outed yourself as more sinful than most.
God doesn’t operate on the same ranking scale that we do — he doesn’t show partial favor some and not to others based on their pedigree. (Rom. 2:11; Acts 10:34) God’s not a bigot. He’s not persuadable. He’s unimpressed with your degrees and bank rolls and business acumen. Likewise, God’s not moved by robotic religious functions — he’s not influenced to show more grace on those who think they’re doing everything. God doles out abundant favor and absolute forgiveness to all those who recognize that they’re condemned already. (John 3:17–18) Oftentimes, I believe we approach our relationship with God as if we’re commissioned to balance the scales.
Yes, we might believe the we’re saved by grace, but unfortunately many believers get sidetracked into believing that the Christian life is all about paying God back for his redemptive transaction. Therefore, a hoard of Christ-followers are operating under the notion that their deeds and words and actions — their works — are balancing the scales once again, paying God off for his salvific work on the cross. But that’s a debt you can never repay. There’s no such thing as reciprocating God’s love, because that’s a human impossibility. What there is, though, is realizing and rejoicing in your indebtedness, for you are beholden by sovereign grace — a grace that inspires holiness and motivates godliness. It drives us to deeper levels of commitment and devotion. This grace encourages, emboldens, and empowers us to consistently battle sin and temptation. It’s the fuel that keeps us running, keeps us pursuing, keeps us persevering. “The saints will persevere in holiness,” says Spurgeon elsewhere, “because God perseveres in grace.” (Grace, 129)
Forever and always, the greatest impetus to holiness and righteousness is, not force, coercion, or regulation, but love. What this story shows is that love begets love. Demanding someone to love you probably won’t enkindle reciprocal love. Try that on your significant other and see how that works for you (actually, don’t). The truth is, that biblical obedience is only inspired by love — love that cares not for return favors but just gives. True works of love flow spontaneously from the heart that hears the Savior’s final, “I love you.” Unforced obedience is the natural result of unilateral love. That’s the type of love that’s seen here in Luke 19, and indeed, that’s the kind of love God shows throughout all of Scripture.
The gospel tells of the active love of God poured out on the world (John 3:16), a love that just gives, “grace upon grace.” (John 1:16) These glad tidings of unilateral love and unmerited favor don’t demand that we change or get clean — they just give. Grace, to be sure, meets us where we are and take us where we need to be.
“God’s grace is indeed something strong, mighty and active; it is not something that lies inert in our souls as those dream-preachers pretend, something that slumbers, or is borne about, just as a painted board bears its colours. Nay, not thus; it carries, it leads, it drives, it draws, it travels, it does everything in a man.” (Martin Luther, in Hermann, 325)
And that’s why we rejoice, because as messed up as we are, as sinful as we continue to be, as discouraged as we sometimes can get, the grace of God just keeps on giving, like an unceasing fountain. It gives and gives and gives and propels us to keep on living and breathing and serving, no matter how many times we stumble and fall flat on our faces. Remember the old adage, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” This, I believe, was derived from Scripture, as it is by grace that we’re made to stand after we fall. “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again.” (Prov. 24:16) “He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no evil shall touch you.” (Job 5:19) So, keep on, press on, knowing that grace is carrying, driving, and keeping you, all the way home.
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996).
Wilhelm Hermann, The Communion of the Christian With God: Described on the Basis of Luther’s Statements (London: Williams & Norgate, 1906).
Charles Spurgeon, All of Grace: The Infinite Love of God (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1981).
Charles Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised During the Year 1876, Vol. 22 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1877).