Wee Little Repentance
Worse for the wear, repentance is a Christian teaching that has become thin and threadbare with misuse. Once viewed as a substantial Christian teaching, repentance is now viewed as little more than a passing emotional reaction. Some regard repentance as being complete, in other words, immediately after emotions of guilt or remorse have passed. This thinned-out view of repentance is challenged by Luke 19:1-10.
A "Wee Little Man"; A Silly Little Man?
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
Made famous by this children's song, the story of Zacchaeus is more about genuine repentance than about diminutive size and tree-climbing skills. "He was a chief tax collector, and he was rich" (Lk. 19:2). This verse reveals a lot between its lines. Tax collectors were hated in Bible times because they were typically crooked, and had gained their wealth by mistreating taxpayers.
Unlike today's expensive and expansive tax codes, Roman tax collectors earned their jobs with the highest bid. When a tax collector position came open, those who vied for the position submitted bids, and the highest bidder was selected because he would gather the most money for the Roman government. That high bid also became a contract price that the winning bidder had to meet.
Unhindered by codes and laws, Roman tax collectors could charge any amount they could collect by force, and the Roman army provided the force. Once they met their contract amount, all of the extorted overage was theirs. So even more than today's IRS agents, or even "Revenuers" in the hills of Tennessee, Bible-times tax collectors were hated (see Lk. 19:7). It was common knowledge that they were cheats.
This historical background of enrichment by hook or crook illuminates Luke 19:1-10. After climbing a tree to see Jesus, and being called down from the tree, Zacchaeus was reduced to repentance in the presence of Jesus.
What did he do (as opposed to how did he feel)?
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house " (Lk. 19:8-10).
"Silly Man!" say the advocates of hyper-grace. Sweeping through contemporary Christian thought, hyper-grace is the religious teaching that grace trumps all other Christian teachings. Even repentance is trumped by hyper-grace, since hyper-grace teaches that repentance is nothing more than a brief heart-felt flutter before grace sweeps, and continues to sweep, every sin away. According to hyper-grace spokesmen, "We have no need of repentance, or of confession; there is no need for identifying sin or rectifying sin."
Jesus did not think of Zacchaeus' reaction as silly. Jesus did not correct Zacchaeus. Jesus did not prevent Zacchaeus from doing the following.
Not Silly At All
Instead of being silly, Zacchaeus should be seen as a perfect model for active, regenerative repentance. What did he do (as opposed to how did he feel)?
- Zacchaeus was floored by consciousness of sins, but his response did not stop there.
- Zacchaeus recognized that a proper response to Jesus necessarily included a life changed by moral and religious responsibility - "the half of my goods I give to the poor."
- Zacchaeus recognized that repentance included making straight what evil ways had made crooked - "if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold."
Hardly passing emotions, #2 and #3 required much of Zacchaeus. No one doubts that emotions of guilt and remorse form the foundation of repentance. No one should doubt that we must build changed lives and responsible restitution on that foundation for our building of repentance to be whole.