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Transforming: The Church as Agent of Change in the Story of Zacchaeus


The Call and Invitation of Jesus

The irony continues when Jesus stops under this “sycamore” tree and calls him to come down. If as some scholars suggest the tree was a variety of “fig” tree (mulberry),3 the irony soars. The great “shake down” artist who could extort excessive taxes by falsely accusing people of tax delinquency is now “shook down” down out of the fig tree!4 But Jesus does not berate him or add to his obvious humiliating posture. Instead he honors him by calling him by name and declaring his intent to be a guest at his house.


The Transforming Fellowship

The marks of true repentance: a recognition of sin, a willingness to make restitution, and a commitment to embark on a path of righteousness.

What Luke leaves out in this story screams for completion. Except for the peoples’ complaint that Jesus was going as a guest to the home of a sinner,5 Luke says nothing about what happened next. Instead we find Zacchaeus stopping6 and saying to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded7 anyone of anything, I will give them back four times as much.” Embedded in these words are all the marks of true repentance: a recognition of sin, a willingness to make restitution, and a commitment to embark on a path of righteousness. Somehow, perhaps while fellowshipping with Jesus in his home, the taker was transformed into a giver. The greedy cheat who defrauded people was given a benevolent and just heart. Zacchaeus even adopts the spirit of the Law when he commits to making restitution for past sins (See Exod. 22:1-4). Nothing can account for this dramatic change, except the grace of God that produces repentance.


Concluding Thoughts and Application

The transforming effect that the Church brings to society is only possible through individuals who have had a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ. At conversion sinners experience an inner transformation that reorients their entire lives. In a very real sense, all things become new (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Regeneration (“being born again”) and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit initiate the process of transformation into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:28f; 2 Cor. 3:18; Titus 3:5). However, all too often Christians think about this work of transformation exclusively in a personal spiritual sense. Seldom do we “think outside the soul,” to borrow a cliché.

The taker was transformed into a giver.

I contend that God has always intended that our personal spiritual transformation have a societal impact (Matt. 5:15-16), because people are not saved in a vacuum but as those who are in the world but no longer of the world. They become subjects and citizens of a new Kingdom (see Col. 1:13; Phil 3:20). The Kingdom of God is a spiritual reality, the effects of which are intended by God to grow pervasively in the world (Matt. 13:31-33; Luke 13:20-21). Let me ask a simple question. After reading our story does anyone think of Zacchaeus went back to tax-collecting “as usual?” One can only imagine the radical nature of the instructions he gave to his subordinate tax-gatherers. Did he admonish them after the words of John the Baptist not to collect more taxes than they were ordered (Luke 3:13)? What impact did his own personal example have on those who had present dealings with him and would in the future? Luke remains enticingly silent and invites our imaginative speculation.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2008

About the Author: James D. Hernando, Ph.D. (Drew University), is Professor of New Testament at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. He is author of Dictionary of Hermeneutics (Gospel Publishing House, 2005), the commentary on 2 Corinthians in the Full Life Bible Commentary to the New Testament (Zondervan, 1999), as well as numerous articles and papers.

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