By Michael Milton
Monday, September 01, 2003
In the book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning tells the story of a man who had sinned greatly. His church excommunicated him, and he was forbidden to ever come into the church again. He repented. He wanted healing, so he went to the Lord, as the story goes, and said, “Lord, they won’t let me in because I am a sinner.” To which the Lord replied, “What are you complaining about, they won’t let me in either.”
The point of the modern parable was a good one: Poor sinners never fare well in churches that refuse to admit that we are all sinners and in desperate need of a salvation that is out of this world.
The Jewish Rabbinical religion of the first century offered little to ragamuffins. A religion that requires tithes to support a leadership who spend time counting how many angels could fit on the head of a pin is not an attractive message to people laden with guilt, searching for meaning and purpose in life, and trying to come to terms with the holiness of God in light of their own humanity.
Then again, religion based on what we can do to get right with God, what regulations and rules we must keep to earn God’s favor, never do. Such religion is still popular. You can gather a pretty big church if you just go around telling them they must do this and do that.
I heard of an evangelist that was speaking at a church in Minneapolis where several hundred people had gathered to hear the message. The evangelist preached that night on the Gospel of God’s free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. As the service ended, he heard the pastor of that church turn to his associate and say: “Humph, that airhead didn’t say one thing about what we have to do to earn our salvation!” 1
Yes, Rabbinical religion is alive and well in the 21st century . . . and sadly in many of our churches. Now that kind of religion may be good for Pharisees and self-righteous types, but it is no good for people in need. When we think about missions today, we should be thinking about reaching out with the Gospel to those in need.
The Gospel of Dr. Luke the physician smashes the idols of legalism and self-righteous religion into a million pieces. One of the ways Luke does it is by exposing us to needy characters. These needy people show us the heart of Jesus. As He welcomes them and ministers to them, we come to see the Gospel of grace incarnationally — doctrine with skin. One theologian wrote of Luke’s Gospel:
Luke, then, is preeminently the gospel of Christ’s humanity and His surpassing love and tenderness as the Son of Man.
Most of us know that things are better caught than taught. Jesus knew this was so. The Holy Spirit shows us this is so. For as the Lord unveils the story of one such needy person, Zacchaeus, and the response of Jesus to him, we come to see just what it is that Christianity is all about and what it is clearly not.
I imagined this week what it would be like to talk to Zacchaeus if I were to meet him in heaven. What story would he tell me? We get an idea of the Gospel according to Zacchaeus in
“He Saw Me”
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” That is how we all learned it in Sunday School. And that is what
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, a despised man. Was he a crook? Probably, from the Jew’s response to Jesus going over to his house, but it doesn’t exactly say. All we know is that he wasn’t liked. No, no, that is not right. Zacchaeus was hated. He was seen as a vile sinner to be treated with distrust.
But in the heart of the real Zacchaeus, the man behind the mask of disrespect, something was happening. Now this is not explicit in the text, but is the implicit force behind the story. Something was happening in his life. He had apparently heard about Jesus and when Jesus came to Jericho, the place where the first Joshua brought the walls down, Zacchaeus no doubt wanted the walls in his life to come down. He surely wanted what all men in his condition want, a way out, a way to be redeemed, forgiven of the sins which must have haunted him. He wanted to be accepted.
John Calvin, in his commentaries on this passage, draws our attention to the ministry of the preparation of the Holy Spirit. God was at work in this man’s life. There were religious leaders all around in their finest showy garments out in the market place, but God wasn’t at work in their lives. He was at work in the one least suspected of being a child of God.
I think this is good for Christians to remember and good for missionaries to remember. God is building His Church His own way. When we show up with the Gospel, God has already been there. He has prepared the hearts of those who will come. He shows them their sins. God shows them their need.
I wonder if there is someone here today like Zacchaeus. Oh, you may not be short, but you may be short on joy. You may be short on meaning and purpose to life. You may be short on hope. But, the Lord in some way is drawing you to Himself.
Zacchaeus’s Gospel is a Gospel that tells us that Jesus comes to those who are in need. The fact that Jesus went to Jericho reminds me of other places in Scripture where Jesus just “happens” to go by. In
My dear friend, the same Lord still comes our way. Through His Word and His Spirit He comes to wee little men and women, who have found that money and prestige, and all the world has to offer is never enough. He comes to you today. How will you respond? There are no Sycamore trees around here, but that’s all right. He still sees you. And He knows. He is the One who has been moving on your heart. He is the One drawing you to Himself. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or who you are. He sees the real you, and He sees what He will make out of your life.
Now, old Zacchaeus would tell you that the Gospel is that “Jesus Saw Me” but He would have to also testify to this:
“He Welcomed Me”
The Lord Jesus informed this sinful man that he was coming to dinner. But Jesus wasn’t barging in, He was welcoming Zacchaeus into a relationship. Indeed, a divine hospitality gets at the heart of this man’s story. Zacchaeus’ story of sin and isolation crossed paths with Jesus’ story of righteousness and fellowship. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to His great High Priestly work of dying for our sins. It was during that time Jesus’ story crossed Zacchaeus’ story. But Jesus is never too busy saving the world to stop and save people like Zacchaeus, or you.
Sometimes we in ministry get so absorbed with doing the work of the church that we forget the real work of the church is dealing with people one-on-one, right where they are in their quiet but desperate lives. We step over the familiar wounded lives of people all around us in order to save nameless masses. This is not the way of the Lord. The way of the Lord was then and now to stop along the way and welcome those whom others have rejected.
In this passage, Jesus commits a great social faux pas: he goes to dine with a publican. In
One wise Christian wrote about this aspect of Jesus: “In modern times it is scarcely possible to appreciate the scandal Jesus caused by His table fellowship with sinners . . . In first century Palestinian Judaism the class system was enforced rigorously. It was legally forbidden to mingle with sinners who were out-side the law . . . ” 2
But our Lord welcomed Himself into the home of this man. He who didn’t abhor the virgin’s womb, who was born in a feed trough, who would die a criminal’s death on an old rugged cross, who would be buried in a borrowed tomb, comes into the lowliest places and into the most detestable lives. He comes to dine, to fellowship, to commune. He came to me and to you, and He comes today by His Word and Spirit to all here who will have Him. I ask you, is this not the way we in the Church should conduct our churches, our missions?
We are at this time planting a daughter church. I bring on young men, provide an apprenticeship program for them and send them out to plant a church. I was meeting with my apprentice who is planting this church, and he told me that one of the people attending this start-up core group said she had a friend to invite to church. Kevin said, “That’s great.”
The lady went on, “I’m afraid my friend is an atheist.” Kevin repeated, “That’s great!” She said, “You’re not getting it. She is into the occult! She is not a nice woman.” Kevin said again, “That’s great.” The woman was amazed and told Kevin in so many words, “I’ve been searching for this kind of church all of my life!” A place where ragamuffins can have a seat at the table.
In Zacchaeus’ Gospel, Jesus welcomes sinners. Thank God. But, please note what the welcome of Jesus did to this man’s heart. It says in
Unrestrained joy is the response to God’s grace. When we preach grace, when we really unleash the Gospel of salvation by the grace of God in Christ, not of works, hurting people, people trapped in their own pain and guilt will begin to drop down out of the trees like old Zacchaeus.
I can remember as if it were yesterday when I heard the words, “by grace are ye saved through faith.” To think that God would welcome me into His kingdom with all of my guilt, all of my pain, and all of my past! O what a glorious Gospel! This is what we are to do on our missions: to go out and bring them in to the feast! To invite the sinners to come and feast on the magnificent feast of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Don’t worry about your garments of works. Forget your old rags of religion. Come as you are. He is rich enough to clothe you with all you will need to be seated before the King.
So, this is the second point in Zacchaeus’ Gospel, “He welcomed me.” But, the final point would in be these words:
“He Changed Me”
We have all heard that medical research has determined that infants who are held, who are touched, develop better emotionally and even physically than those left alone. That is, I think, a truism for all of our experience. The touch of Jesus changed Zacchaeus. He developed. He became human.
This is what one writer thought happened to people like Zacchaeus in the New Testament: “By accepting them as friends and equals Jesus had taken away their shame, humiliation, and guilt. By showing them that they mattered to him as people, he gave them a sense of dignity and released them from their old captivity. The physical contact which he must have had with them at the table . . . must have made them feel clean and acceptable.” 3
Throughout His brief but powerful public ministry, our Lord’s love and compassion for the lost moved Him to touch others. Indeed, He healed by touching, by coming alongside, by lifting up. One of the most powerful forms of ministry that chaplains practice is called “the ministry of presence.” The ministry of presence is being there in the places where people live and move and have their being. It’s a ministry that seeks to imitate the ministry of Jesus. And when our presence is hidden in Christ and His love and grace, it changes the lives of those who are seeking.
Zacchaeus was a changed man. It says in
Dr. Richard Selzer, MD wrote a book called Mortal Lessons,4 about what he has learned from dealing with people in the worst of situations. He wrote about one incident that I couldn’t get out of my mind. He said that he had to remove a tumor from a young woman’s face. In the process, Dr. Selzer was forced to remove a tiny twig of the facial nerve, to save the woman’s life. But, the procedure left her mouth twisted in a palsy. She asked the surgeon, “Will my mouth always be like this?” “Yes” Dr. Selzer replied. “The nerve was cut.”
She nodded and was silent. But her husband, whose eyes never left his wife, smiled at that moment. “I like it,” he said, “It’s kind of cute.” Dr. Selzer said that he watched with wonder as the husband bent down to kiss his wife. He twisted his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss would still work.
I can’t get that story out of my mind, because when I think of that young wife, I see this little man, Zacchaeus, his soul twisted, tormented by the pain of sin. And when I see the young husband twisting his lips to kiss his wife’s paralyzed mouth, I see our Savior, the Christ bending down, condescending to meet Zacchaeus where he lived. Is this not the Gospel story?
On a dung hill outside of Jerusalem in first century Palestine, Jesus Christ, who knew no sin, became sin that we who are sinners might become the righteousness of God through Him? He who was unblemished became mangled to meet us in our mangled condition. He exposed Himself to ridicule and was blasphemed so that we who were rightfully accursed, naked in sin and shame, could be clothed in Him and called “sons and daughters of the Most High.” He was forsaken by His Father that we, the forsaken, might be redeemed. Jesus, the Son of God, bent down to kiss humanity, and as He did, He twisted Himself to meet sinners in our twisted condition.
This is what Martyn-Lloyd Jones called, “the romance of the Gospel” — that anyone in any situation coming out of any kind of past can be transformed and changed into a new creature in Christ. The truth is that those who curse God today may be preaching Him tomorrow. The truth is that there may be some here this morning that will leave new creatures in Christ, like Zacchaeus, changed by the compassion of a loving Savior.
Do you need His touch today? We all do! And He never withholds his love, his touch to those who cry out for Him. He always sees, welcomes, and He always changes us.
The story ends with Jesus giving an announcement: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham . . . ” Then, the Lord, pointing to the conversion of Zacchaeus as a living example, tells those gathered around that this is why the Son of Man came to earth: “to see and to save that which was lost.” So, Luke records it. So the Holy Spirit imbeds it into Divine Revelation. The Gospel of Zacchaeus is the Gospel: “He sees us, He welcomes us, and He changes us.”
Isn’t this, then, how we must present Him to others? Isn’t this the God of love who came down from heaven and put skin on and gave Himself for sinners? Should we not magnify this Savior? For when He is lifted up, He will draw searching Zacchaeus’ to Himself.
I know this firsthand. Yes, this Savior found me. I already knew about His love and grace, though I had never welcomed Him. I had never climbed up to see Him myself. I was taught as a child of His love by my father’s sister, my aunt who raised me. We lived way back in the woods in a poverty stricken area. I had no mother, and my father was dying when I was five years old.
Before his discharge, my father was a naval officer. He was the first educated person in our family, but he was also an alcoholic and a womanizer. That lifestyle had taken its toll, and he was dying. There was a little church called the Tabernacle just down the road. That little church took notice of my father’s pathetic condition. They saw him. Others saw my father as a washed up drunk, but my aunt never stopped praying for him.
The Christians from that little Tabernacle saw my father through the compassionate eyes of Jesus. They not only saw him, they reached out to my father and welcomed him into their little service. At first he would not go, but eventually he did. I remember walking down that old gravel road, as if it were yesterday, my aunt, my dying father, and I.
That chapel was not a cathedral! It was a rough-hewn pine lean-to. The poor folk who built it took pride in it, but it wasn’t much. Every Wednesday night, and especially that night, for us it became the revival of the greatest cathedral in Europe. That night the Savior supped with my dad.
As old Brother Devall, a plumber by day and lay preacher by night began to preach, I watched my father bury his head in his hands. I will never, ever, forget what happened next, for I was seated right next to him. My father dropped on his knees into the sawdust floor of that Tabernacle and he wept like the broken man that he was.
Old Brother Devall came down from that little pulpit, laid his hands on my dad, and began to pray for him. Soon, every person in that chapel came over and prayed as well. Prayer surrounded me as I watched my father come into the Kingdom of God. He became a changed man. Within months, I would stand over his grave and grieve his loss, but I knew something wonderful had happened to my daddy.
Years later, when I was lost and far from God, I would remember that event. For the Jesus who saw my dad, who welcomed him, who changed him, would do the same for me.
My beloved, I want to lift up this Jesus to you. Some of you are seated in these pews today, but in reality you are in a Sycamore tree, looking, searching, hoping to catch a glimpse of mercy. He is here. Our Savior who came for us, who died in our place, and who rose again that we might have life, is here today. Why don’t you come on down? Why don’t you, in your heart of hearts, right now, accept His divine invitation? He sees you, He welcomes you, and He will transform you.
This is the ministry of the Church. This is your work as Christians. To go to the places where Zacchaeus’ hide, to look at them with the eyes of Christ, to welcome them, and to go where others refuse to go. For you see, Zachaeus’ Gospel is my Gospel and yours. It is the Gospel we need to be proclaiming in our world, in our nation, in our homes.
Is Zacchaeus’ Gospel your Gospel? The Gospel of Grace is the only Gospel. That is good news for Zachaeus, and for you and me.
Father, we are all ragamuffins. We are all twisted in parts of our souls. But, we thank You that You see us, You welcome us, and You will change us. Some of us have experienced that years ago. But today we have lost the luster of grace. Restore it to us today, Lord. Some of us are burdened in our sins, our past, and our shame. We are still twisted. I thank You, Lord Jesus, that today, You are still bending down in Your amazing grace to give us the kiss of forgiveness.
Help this church to announce the Gospel of Grace to this community and as they join with other churches, to publish this Good News to a world of Zacchaeus’ looking and searching for mercy. In Your Name. Amen.
Michael Milton is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN.
1 Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah, 2000), 17.
2 Ibid. 58-59.
3 Ibid, 60.
4 Richard Selzer, M.D., Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1978), 45-46.