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JESUS IS ______.FIND A NEW WAY TO BE HUMAN
By JUDAH SMITH
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Judah Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSuperbad or Sortabad
"If God can help so-and-so, he can help anyone!"
I've heard myself say it a few times. "So-and-so" is always a reference to skilled sinners, famous for their proficiency in wrongdoing. They are awesome at sin, they sin a lot, and they enjoy their sin.
"Did you hear? That actress got another divorce. That's five failed marriages and this marriage only lasted three months. Man, if God could get her straightened out, he could help anybody!"
"That leader calls himself a Christian, but can you believe what he was involved in? He should be ashamed of himself. If God can help him, he can help anybody!"
Let's be honest. Mostly good people like to look down on mostly bad people. We enjoy the feelings of condescending pity or self-righteous outrage. We gleefully hold up notorious evildoers as marvels of depravity, examples of just how bad people can get. Then we finish off our lattes, load our 2.2 children into our almost-paid-off SUVs, and head off to contribute to society.
Notice how I just included myself in the "mostly good" category. I didn't think about it. I just did it.
That's what bothers me the most.
The Badness Scale
The problem with the "if God can save ..." statement is that it implies a rating system for sins. It's an unspoken, often culture-driven, and arbitrary badness scale (or goodness scale, depending on whether we are rating others or ourselves).
On our scale, we label small sins, medium-small sins, medium sins, medium-large sins, large sins, extra-large sins, and supersized sins. If we see someone with small to medium sins, we think, He's a pretty good person. He's fairly sound and engaged morally. He's obviously close to Jesus. It won't be hard for God to get a hold of him.
Then we see someone with medium to large sins, and we get more nervous. We really have to pray for her. Her life is going downhill fast. God is going to have to get her attention the hard way. She really needs to work on fixing herself so she can get closer to God.
When we come across a supersize sinner, someone who commits the big sins, we just shake our heads in hyperpious pity.
Nowhere in the Bible, however, do we find God distinguishing between levels of sin. God doesn't share our rating system. To him, all sin is equally evil, and all sinners are equally lovable. Obviously sins have different consequences: some will get you incarcerated or your face punched in, while others won't even be noticed. But God just calls sin, sin.
Zacchaeus the Gangster
Jesus didn't have a rating system for sin, either. He was willing to accept anyone, to love anyone. Nowhere is this more evident than in the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector.
I should mention up front that when I read Bible stories, all the main characters have accents. That's just how my mind works. Concentration has never been my strong suit, and I suspect the accents are a desperate ploy sponsored by my brain to keep me focused.
Zacchaeus, in my mind, was a bit of a gangster. If you can't read his dialogue with a bit of swagger, you and I are not going to connect very well for the next few pages. You may need to listen to a few hip-hop albums and try again.
In case you aren't familiar with the story, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Actually, he was a chief tax collector. He was also really short. That's important.
Here's the story, straight from the Bible:
Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way.
When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. "Zacchaeus!" he said. "Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today."
Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. "He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner," they grumbled.
Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, "I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!"
Jesus responded, "Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost." (Luke 19:1–10)
Interesting backstory: Israelites of Jesus's day looked at tax collectors as thieves and pimps. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman government, which ruled Israel at the time. Their job was to collect taxes from their own people and hand the money over to the hated foreign power. Their own income came from whatever they could get out of people after they met Rome's quota. So Zacchaeus and his fellow tax-collecting traitors would make up tax amounts on the fly. Zacchaeus was a professional cheat, an embezzler. He took money from little old ladies. He was a thief.
I think Zacchaeus was up on pop culture, by the way. I think he liked making appearances; he liked being in on the action. When they rolled out the red carpet and the cameras showed up, Zacchaeus was going to be there, a lady on each arm, looking over his sunglasses at the crew from TMZ. "Hey y'all." When he gave press conferences, he talked about himself in the third person.
Zacchaeus was a short guy, but don't be deceived by his stature. He had a lot of money. At some point, years before, he had been recruited by the Romans. He was probably a bit of a prodigy. He would have started out as an assistant to a tax collector. After proving his worth, he would have been promoted to tax collector. Ultimately, when we find him in this story, he has become the chief tax collector. He probably oversees an entire tax district and a gang of mini tax collectors who give him a cut of their take.
This makes Zacchaeus a major reject. He is infamous, legendary, notorious. How long has he been doing this? Five years? Longer than that—he's a chief tax collector. Ten years? Twenty?
I don't think he minds being hated. In fact, I think he's loving life. He's up in his big house overlooking the city, lounging in his infinity pool, with servants fanning him and dropping grapes in his mouth.
Everybody fears him now. Sure, they hate him—but at least they respect him. Back in elementary school, nobody picked the short guy. But now, they're afraid of the little man. Zacchaeus is the big guy on the block.
Rumor was, Jesus might be the promised Messiah. Zacchaeus had grown up in the Jewish culture, and he would have been familiar with the prophecies. No doubt he had heard that one day there would come a Messiah. Now Jesus is coming through town, and Zacchaeus says, "I'm gonna check this guy out. He's getting a lot of followers; a lot of guys are talking about him. I'm curious."
I doubt Zacchaeus was thinking, Man, I sure hope Jesus saves me. Saves him from what? His big house? All the ladies who love him?
No, he just wanted to check out the popular guy. Zacchaeus was all about status. You don't become a tax collector and then a chief tax collector and not like money and status. He was famous in a negative sense, but famous nonetheless.
Jesus starts strolling through. People are lining the streets, trying to catch a glimpse of him, and Zacchaeus realizes he can't see over the crowd. This is jacked up, he says to himself. I'm not gonna be able to see this dude.
Zacchaeus is an innovative guy who is used to getting his way. So he hitches up his blinged-out robe and runs ahead, gold chains clanking, and climbs a sycamore tree.
Sure enough, he can see the dust cloud and all the people clumped around Jesus. You'd think he was Justin Bieber or something. He's rolling down the street, and suddenly—Zacchaeus can't believe his luck—he stops right next to the little man's tree.
This is dope, he's thinking. I can check this guy out from up here; maybe listen in on what he's got to say.
Then, to Zacchaeus's surprise, Jesus looks up at him. He calls him by name. "Zacchaeus."
"Whaaaa? How do you know me? I don't know you. Who told you about me?"
They say the sweetest sound to a human being's ears is the sound of his or her own name. God calls this rejected, hardened, selfish man by his name: "Zacchaeus, hurry down! I'm heading over to your house—right now."
"You are? Uh, okay. Yeah."
Zacchaeus is relishing the moment. All the upstanding religious Jews want a minute with Jesus, a nod, a handshake. Yet now, the chief tax collector—the biggest bad guy around—gets a personal invitation. I think he's looking at everyone saying, "Whassup now, y'all?" He sends word to all his cronies and tax collector minions to come over and meet this Jesus. This is his moment in the limelight.
"I'm Changing Everything"
But that afternoon, something unexpected and unexplainable began to happen in Zacchaeus's heart. How long did he have an audience with the living God? Two hours? Four hours? We don't know. What did they talk about? We can only guess.
We can assume that they ate a meal together and Jesus probably listened a lot. Zacchaeus must have thought, Nobody listens to me, except for a few guys who work for me. But this guy cares. He listens. He gets it.
I can imagine Zacchaeus looking into the most compassionate eyes he's ever seen and thinking, Does Jesus know who I am? Does he know who is around my dinner table? Does he know what we do for a living? Does he know what paid for his fish? Does he know how I paid for this house? He must ... but he doesn't reject me.
After a few hours with Jesus, Zacchaeus can't contain himself any longer. Abruptly, he stands up, seemingly overwhelmed with who this Jesus is. In front of family, peers, and employees, he blurts out, "I'm changing everything!"
"I'm changing everything, Jesus. I'm gonna start giving my money away. In fact, anyone I've ever cheated, I'm gonna give them back four times what I stole."
The callous, money-hungry mob boss is about to go broke, and he doesn't even care. A moment with Jesus changed everything.
I wonder what Jesus said in one short afternoon that changed a lifelong taker into a lavish giver. But that's not the point of this passage. I think the Bible skips over what they talked about because we'd try to turn it into a recipe or a program. It wasn't what Zacchaeus talked about—it was the person he talked about it with. It was about being with Jesus.
What changed Zacchaeus? Biblical principle? Personal devotion? Religious duty and deeds? No—just a few moments with God in the flesh. We don't even have a record of anyone telling Zacchaeus he needed to repent or give the money back. But something came over this man when he encountered Jesus.
The truth is, I am Zacchaeus. I may not be short in stature, but I'm short spiritually, in my own ability and my own capacity. Even if I want to get to Jesus, even if I want to see Jesus, I can't see past myself. I can't see past my sin, past my distractions, past my ego.
How do we try to reach Jesus? We run faster and we climb proverbial trees of religious actions. We think, I'll get to Jesus. I'll impress Jesus with who I am.
I believe most people have a sense of inadequacy and failure deep within themselves. No matter how hard they try or what they accomplish, they know they are in a dark place. They are short in a spiritual sense. They have sinned and come short of God's glorious standard. So they think, I'll run faster, I'll run ahead, I'll find a tree and climb it, and I'll get God's attention.
As if your running and your climbing is what gets God's attention!
That's not what saved Zacchaeus. It was God's mercy. It was God's grace. It was God's initiative.
We think God stops and takes notice of us because he sees us up in our cute sycamore trees. We think it is because we are so good. "See, I got God to notice. You see me? It's because I pray so loud, because I pray so much, because I attend church."
But that's not why Jesus stopped that day. He stopped of his own choosing. He stopped because he's gracious and he's good. He stopped because he knew Zacchaeus by name, just as he knows me and knows you.
Jesus told Zacchaeus to hurry, and he tells us the same thing. "Hurry down from religion. Hurry down from traditions. Quit trying to pick yourself up. Only my grace can save you. Come down, and come now. Don't spend another moment or another day trusting yourself. I need to be with you today."
While Zacchaeus spoke, Jesus must have been smiling to himself. But now he makes an announcement of his own. "Today, salvation has come to this house. Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, a true Jew."
Zacchaeus is stunned. He is the quintessential traitor, the bad guy, the antithesis of a good Jew. For as long as he can remember, he's been on the outside looking in. Now he's on the inside? Now he's a good guy?
I wish I could have seen the look on his friends' faces. If there's hope for Zacchaeus, there must be hope for me too!
Then Jesus summed up his life mission: "I'm here to find and help lost people. That's why I've come."
The Pharisees thought the Messiah was only coming for the chosen few, for the sanctified few, for the religious few. But Jesus said over and over that he came for the broken, the bad, the addicted, the bound, the deceived, the lost, the hurting.
Sometimes we are a lot like Zacchaeus. We've been at this sin thing for a long time. We have problems, weaknesses, and propensities toward doing wrong. We've gotten a little scarred and numb to the whole thing—maybe even outright cynical. We are helpless, hopeless. Even Jesus couldn't set me free, we think. After all, we've tried as hard as we can and nothing has changed. He wouldn't see anything worth saving in us anyway.
Maybe it's a secret sin: an affair eight years ago that not even your spouse knows about. Maybe it's something that controls your life, like alcoholism or some other addiction. People have told you you'll never change, and you're starting to believe them.
Jesus is not your accuser. He's not your prosecutor. He's not your judge. He's your friend and your rescuer. Like Zacchaeus, just spend time with Jesus. Don't hide from him in shame or reject him in self-righteousness. Don't allow the opinions of other people to shape your concept of him. Get to know him for yourself, and let the goodness of God change you from the inside out.
Chapter TwoDark Side
Zacchaeus wasn't the only tax collector to have his world rocked by Jesus. There was also Matthew. Matthew was one of Jesus's disciples, and the book he wrote describes many key events in the three-plus years of Jesus's ministry.
Matthew's first encounter with Jesus reveals that when it comes to sinners, God has two categories. Just two. Matthew 9:9–13 says,
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector's booth. "Follow me and be my disciple," Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.
Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?"
When Jesus heard this, he said, "Healthy people don't need a doctor—sick people do." Then he added, "Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: 'I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.' For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."
Two Kinds of Sinners
Like Zacchaeus, Matthew was a tax collector. Everywhere he went, he was hated, feared, and rejected. Until he met Jesus. Matthew never forgot the inexplicable willingness of this man to look past his occupation and to see him as a person.
In Jesus's conversation with Matthew, he lumps all of humanity into two groups: people who think they are righteous and people who know they are sinners.
That's it. No sliding scale, no grading on the curve, no relative goodness or subjective labels. We either pretend we don't need him or we acknowledge we do.
The common denominator is that we all need help. The catch is that we don't all admit it. Rather than realizing everyone is in this together, that we are all in need of help, we often prop up our self-esteem by looking at people who do supposedly worse things than us.
We need to abandon our scale and adopt God's because our misguided labels keep us from the right kind of interaction with people. We assume we know where they are on the rating scale, and we assume we know whether they are ready or not to hear about Jesus and give their lives to God.
In reality, for many people, the greatest hindrance to receiving the grace of God is not their scandalous sins—it's their empty good deeds.
It's obvious some people have problems. But for the man who lives in his two-story home on a quiet cul-de-sac, keeps his lawn manicured and his cars washed, stays faithful to his wife, works hard at his job, pays his bills, and never cheats on his taxes—for that model citizen, it's not so obvious. He might compare his goodness to others' badness and think, I'm a morally sound person. I'm doing pretty well. I don't need help.
Our superficial labeling system also guarantees that we will never find freedom ourselves. It takes courage and humility to recognize we are as messed up as the drug addict next door, and many of us never get that honest with ourselves. If we can't be honest with ourselves, we'll never be honest with God. We'll continue to whitewash our dark sides and flaunt our good deeds, and nothing will ever change.
"Hi. I Hate You."
Jesus befriended sinners like Zacchaeus and Matthew; and the Pharisees especially couldn't handle that. Pharisees were the spiritual teachers of the day. They were experts in Jewish religious law—a set of hundreds of man-made rules that attempted to apply the Ten Commandments to everyday life. They had regulations for everything from washing hands to tying loads onto camels.
When we find Pharisees in the Bible, they are usually doing one thing: pointing out sinners. Condemning people was part of their daily routine. They had made careers out of ridiculing broken souls. It was the ultimate job security.
Excerpted from JESUS IS ______. by JUDAH SMITH Copyright © 2013 by Judah Smith. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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