In a previous post I wrote about the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ – summed up in two words from John’s Gospel: grace and truth. I concluded by saying:
The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t stand at a distance and condemn; he comes close and restores – if we let him.
Grace and truth tell us not just about the character of God, but also about the nature of discipleship.
In the Western church we have latched on to grace with enthusiasm but have not always taken truth with equal seriousness. We like to say that “God accepts us as we are” but often fail to go on to what follows, which is that he has no intention of leaving us the way he found us. He seeks change – transformation, in fact, into the likeness of Christ himself. Love seeks the good of the beloved, and God knows what is good for us much better than we do.
Luke’s Gospel tells the story of a rich man named Zacchaeus who was the chief tax-collector of Jericho. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as he passed through the town, but – being short – he could only do that by climbing up a tree to see over the heads of the crowd. No doubt he expected to be invisible. He would not have been popular: an extortionist and a collaborator with the hated Romans. Not a good combination.
Jesus doesn’t allow Zacchaeus to remain invisible. He looks up at him in his tree, calls him by name (we’re not told how Jesus knows his name) and invites himself to stay at Zacchaeus’ house – now. Jesus singles out the least popular member of the community for special attention and publicly signals his worth by accepting his hospitality. This is a shocking way to behave – shocking for Zacchaeus and scandalous for the community:
All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’Luke 19.7
This is grace: radical, nearly always surprising and sometimes deeply shocking.
We’re not told what Jesus said to Zacchaeus in private, but the result is a revolution – a revolution in the tax-collector’s life and (as one commentator points out) something of an economic revolution for the town:
‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’Luke 19.8
Somehow in his conversation with Jesus, Zacchaeus has encountered truth, the truth of what he has done wrong in his life, the truth of what needs to be done to put things right, the truth of what repentance means. Earlier in this Gospel, John the Baptist was asked the meaning of repentance. He replied:
‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’Luke 3.11
… In other words, give half of what you own to the poor, which is exactly what Zacchaeus says he will do. But he goes further and promises to make restitution for his past wrongs. Zacchaeus’ repentance goes deep.
In this Gospel story we see that grace prepares the way for truth and truth builds on the foundation of grace.
The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer castigated what he called “cheap grace“:
I wonder if he might also have added that cheap grace is grace without truth.