Sunday, November 3, 2013

From acceptance to repentance

Text: Luke 19:1-10 (Jesus dines with Zacchaeus)

How does God's love for us change how we behave? I raise this question in response to today's Gospel reading about Zacchaeus.

Like the sinner who prayed for mercy in last week's Gospel reading, Zacchaeus is a rich tax collector. He is hated by his neighbours because he collaborates with Rome and defrauds them.

Jesus reaches out to Zacchaeus without asking him to change. Nevertheless, Zacchaeus does change his ways after receiving Jesus into his house. He says that he will sell half of his possessions and repay anyone he has cheated.

The crowd grumbles when Jesus reaches out to Zacchaeus. But other than that, the story is sunny and upbeat. A hated sinner searches for Jesus. Jesus accepts him. The sinner changes. And Jesus declares the episode to be an example of salvation.

The story of Zacchaeus reminds me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Like Zacchaeus, the prodigal was lost and then found. However, the parable is much darker than today's story. The Prodigal Son wastes his inheritance in a faraway country, he repents, and he returns to the gracious love of his father. But before he repents, he hits bottom as a penniless and hungry labourer who works with pigs, which are taboo to Jews. The prodigal returns home in shame.

Such pain is absent in Zacchaeus' story. While I like the sunny nature of the story, I would find it more realistic if it also portrayed pain such as that shown by the tax collector praying for mercy in last week's reading or the shame of the Prodigal Son.

Accepting the love of God often involves pain. In many cases, individuals or communities have to hit rock bottom before we can acknowledge our helplessness in the face of our problems and call upon God's love to help us find the hard road to repentance and changed behaviour.

On Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, our Bible Study groups had trouble coming up with a figure in Saskatchewan who might provide a good analogy to Zacchaeus -- a rich and powerful person who was also despised.

But then came news reports on Thursday of the latest scandal involving Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford, who seems to provide us with a contemporary analogy. If Jesus came to Toronto this week and invited himself to Ford's house for supper, I imagine that some might grumble as the crowds do in today's reading.

Unfortunately, unlike Zacchaeus, Rob Ford does not seem to be looking for help. He refuses to resign even though a video is now in the hands of the police that shows him in front of a crack house with a gang of criminals where he makes racist and anti-gay remarks and smokes from a crack pipe.

Ford is addicted to alcohol, food, and illegal drugs. He lashes out at critics with verbal and physical abuse. He is closely involved with a friend who is now charged with trying to violently extort the crack video on Ford's behalf. And yet he refuses to resign. If Ford hasn't hit rock bottom yet, I have trouble imagining how things could get worse.

The good news is that God accepts us just as we are, and God's acceptance opens us to self-acceptance. Unfortunately, the latter involves accepting both the things we like AND dislike about ourselves. For any of us, this might mean acknowledging that we are mortal, that there are things we have done we now regret, and things we wished that we had done but did not do.

I empathize with Ford's reluctance to face up to reality given how painful it would be for him. So despite virtually everyone demanding that he resign, Ford continues on and says he has done nothing wrong.

For Rob Ford's sake and for the sake of the city he governs, we can only pray that he does repent despite the pain of the shame he would then feel.

There is more good news. The grief and pain that come from self-acceptance are also accompanied by joy. There is joy in knowing that God loves us just as we are, warts and all. There is joy in being freed from the energy we waste in denial. There is joy in being in touch with reality, even if we don't like all aspects of it. God's grace seems to be found in the very nature of reality, which is the best news one could ever hear.

Accepting God's love for us and the resulting acceptance of self is liberation. I can understand our reluctance to feel the pain involved. But the new life that follows is more than worth it.

Another step often follows repentance. Following the grief and joy of being accepted by God, we are freed to act in ways that better fit with our values of faith, hope and love. Zacchaeus provides an example when he pledges to give away half of his belonging and to make amends to the people he has cheated.

For any of us, new life might involve having more hope and peace in the face of illness or loss, giving up addictions, or showing greater empathy and respect for the people in our lives.

At Bible study last week, we read a sermon on Zacchaeus that included the following saying on the power of acceptance: "Jesus loves you just the way you are -- but way too much to leave you that way!"

I like the saying. It captures the paradox of accepting things just as they are, and also being freed by God's grace to become the person we were meant to be.

In a moment, we will celebrate the sacrament of communion. Usually we begin by saying that Jesus invites us to his table. To fit better with the Zacchaeus story, perhaps today we could imagine that Jesus invites himself to our table.

At the communion table, we are confident that Jesus will accept us just as we are, warts and all. In the pain of the story retold at communion, we might experience the joy and pain we feel when we accept ourselves in all our difficult reality. And as we leave the table, we might feel changed, if only a little.

Jesus welcomes everyone to the table just as we are. But he loves us too much to leave us this way.

Thanks be to God.


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