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March 24 lesson: Called to Repent

March 18, 2019
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Called to Repent

Spring Quarter: Discipleship and Mission
Unit 1: Call to Discipleship


Sunday school lesson for the week of March 24, 2019
By Dr. Hal Brady


Lesson Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Key Verses: Luke 19:10


Lesson Aims
  1. Recall details of the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus.
  2. Illustrate the transforming effect of God’s grace through the example of Zacchaeus.
What is the measure of your life? A number of people help you in this determination. An accountant can assist you in your wealth. A physician can assess your health. Your employer can state your value to the organization. Your résumé can detail your accomplishments. Family or friends can tell you how much you mean to them. But which of these, if any, is the best measure?

As you think about this, you may also ask how the choice of measuring instruments has possibly changed for you during your lifetime. What was once a major measuring instrument in your younger days may not be so today, as you assess your life differently.    

Now, this change in assessment is central to what the Bible labels “repentance.” Repentant people revalue their lives, and with renovated values, set out with changed behavior. And this is the subject of today’s lesson.

Our text is part of Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Jesus had warned his disciples that he would be put to death but raised to life again (Luke 18:31-34). Having arrived in Jericho, the setting of today’s lesson, Jesus was only about 15 miles from Jerusalem and its momentous events. 

Like the blind man whom Jesus healed while entering Jericho, the Zacchaeus episode, which is unique to Luke, portrays response to salvation. Here is a man who is sought and saved by the Son of Man (Luke 19:10).

Zacchaeus is a “chief tax collector,” which means he stands at the top of the collection pyramid.  Taking a cut of commissions from those who collected taxes for him, he is therefore a wealthy man, though many consider his wealth ill-gotten. 

Tax collectors were despised for two main reasons. One was the unfair and burdensome taxes they charged to enrich themselves. After paying Rome its due, these tax collectors were free to charge as much as they could get. The other reason they were despised was the fact that such Jews were collaborators with the occupying force of pagan, oppressive Romans.

This cultural background is important to our understanding of the upcoming crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. 

Determined Glimpse
Luke 19:1-4

As Jesus moves through Jericho, Zacchaeus longs to see this well-known teacher so he can evaluate him. However, Zacchaeus’ short statute prohibits him from looking over the crowd, and his outcast status makes it unlikely that anyone will make space for him. But Zacchaeus is resourceful, so he dashes ahead and climbs a sycamore-fig tree. This is one of the fig trees that flourishes in Jericho, with its hot climate and abundant spring water.

We need to note here that in biblical times, powerful men do not run. They have other people who do that for them. But Zacchaeus accepts the humiliation of running ahead of the crowd that is following Jesus. Another bit of Zacchaeus’ humiliation is climbing that tree. In Jesus’ time, powerful men did not climb trees. So, for the moment, Zacchaeus has humbled himself in hopes of seeing Jesus (Luke 18:14). 

A life of humility begins in the mind. It starts with how we perceive ourselves. As someone observed, “Humility is not thinking less about ourselves; it’s thinking about ourselves less.” At the moment, that is happening with Zacchaeus.

Surprise Announcement
Luke 19:5, 6


Jesus breaks the ice by noticing Zacchaeus in the tree. He stops and tells him to come down out of the tree, because he “must” stay at Zacchaeus’ home today.

To address Zacchaeus by name is an astounding personal note. Minor characters in the gospel story are seldom addressed by name. In any case, it is astonishing that Jesus recognizes and calls by name a man he has never met. Simply put, this is one of the many examples in the gospel story in which Jesus exhibits supernatural knowledge, knowledge that can be rightly expected of God alone (see Luke 5:22; 6:8; 7:36-50; 19:29-34).

Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Come down at once. I must stay at your home today.” One who has sought simply to get a glimpse of the teacher now gets to meet him face to face. Zacchaeus’ development of intimacy with Jesus underscores how one who approaches God on the Lord’s terms gets much more than he or she may have expected. 

Zacchaeus had climbed the tree to see Jesus, but now, having humbled himself, he will need no such undignified posture. Jesus will come to be a guest at Zacchaeus’ home.

Though Jesus will be Zacchaeus’ guest, it is Jesus who initiates the invitation. It is as if he were the host. The added note of time (today) stresses the urgency of the invitation. In addition, the word “must” signifies something that has to take place to fulfill God’s purpose. Despite Zacchaeus’ being despised by his contemporaries as a traitor, Jesus’ visit to the man’s home is a divine necessity.

Almost needless to say, Zacchaeus readily submits to Jesus’ greater authority and comes down. He does not come down fearfully or grudgingly, but joyfully. Hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus, he has been chosen to be Jesus’ host. And Zacchaeus seems to recognize the invitation as one of divine grace, representing some kind of new opportunity.

Varied Attitudes
Luke 19:7-10

Now, the reaction to Jesus’ choice for a host signifies that his choice does not meet popular approval. The crowds that accompany Jesus include many who recognize Zacchaeus as a notorious tax collector, and therefore evil. Disloyal to God and his people, tax collectors were seen as traitors who had linked their wealth with the ill-gotten fortune of their pagan oppressors.

Consequently, the crowds, including religious leaders, determine that Jesus has chosen to be “the guest of a sinner,” and they began “to mutter.” Importantly, however, their complaint or muttering is both right and wrong.  Zacchaeus is indeed a sinner, as his own remarks will attest, but he is not beyond the redemptive touch of God or his call.

Though this crowd has written off Zacchaeus, Jesus never writes off those who are open to God. It’s called grace! Jesus’ very visit with Zacchaeus reveals his acceptance of the tax collector.

Grace! What a beautiful word! It signifies God’s active and unmerited favor in our behalf. Grace is utter generosity that acts on another’s behalf regardless of whether they are worthy or not. 

My favorite definition of grace is the following, “Grace is doing for someone what they do not deserve, have not earned, could not ask for and cannot repay.”

Repeating, Jesus’ very visit with Zacchaeus reveals his acceptance of the tax collector. And Jesus doesn’t worry about the crowd’s criticism of his being with a sinner, because Jesus’ overwhelming concern is that the lost may come to know the grace of God.

Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor.  And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

Luke draws our attention to the importance of the pronouncement by indicating Zacchaeus stands up to speak and begins with the word “look.” This expression draws attention to what is to follow.  Further, Zacchaeus addresses Jesus as “Lord.” Possibly this indicates high respect (as in “sir”), if not Jesus’ divine, supreme authority.

But it is here we see that Zacchaeus expresses his appreciation of Jesus’ acceptance of him by stating his intent to be a different person. Whether Zacchaeus speaks these words immediately on the spot, walking to his home with Jesus, or when the two are inside his home, doesn’t really matter. Time and place are not nearly as important as the content of Zacchaeus’ words.

Because of his new relationship with God, he pledges to do two things. First, he will give half of his possessions to the poor. This is an exorbitant gift! And, this act of generosity reflects the generosity that God is now showing him through Jesus.

The second result of Zacchaeus’ changed life in Jesus is that those he has wronged will receive restitution at four times the amount taken. This will be to any and all, not just to some, who he has wronged. The Mosaic Law called for restitution between two and five times when theft or fraud is committed (Exodus 22:1-14). Note that Zacchaeus does not debate the proper number. Rather, he openly promises a higher level of restitution. He is aware of his sin and desires to right the wrongs he has done. Such giving as Zacchaeus determines is not required by God’s law, but does reflect a changed heart given over to God.

The question is whether Zacchaeus’ promise is unreasonable. Since he begins by promising half of his wealth to the poor, does he not run the risk of running out of his resources before completing all his promised restitution? However, it is this very extravagance that seems to be Luke’s point.  Zacchaeus is no longer the profit-minded opportunist. Rather, he is now the recipient of the extravagant grace of God, so he responds with a similar extravagance.

Repentance! Zacchaeus now displays the true meaning of repentance. Repentance is a change of mind, heart and life in response to God’s gracious gift. Repentance is authentic when an individual’s life increasingly reflects God’s goodness and grace. In that regard, Zacchaeus is now on his way. In Zacchaeus’ changed heart, love for God expresses itself in love for neighbors.

At this point, we see Jesus’ affirmation of Zacchaeus repentance. He endorses Zacchaeus’ response and states that “Today, salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

Writing in his book “Surprised by Hope,” N.T. Wright says that “the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does ‘through’ us, not merely what God does ‘in and for’ us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.”

To be saved by the Lord, of course, is to be graciously granted life with the Lord beyond death. But it is also to be restored to God’s blessed life in the present, to begin the experiences the authentic life for which humans were made, and that’s what N.T. Wright seems to be stressing.

However, the latter does not imply an easy or materially prosperous life. Salvation comes by the cross and calls the saved to take up their own crosses daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9:22-26). But salvation also transforms our perspective to realize that the life of humble service in the Lord’s name is the divinely blessed life for which God has made us.

Then Jesus says, “Because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” While the contemporaries of Zacchaeus consider him a traitor who forfeited his citizenship in Israel, God’s people, Jesus now pronounces the opposite: Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham.” God’s promise is to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3; 22:18). Having been considered by his neighbors to be part of the pagan nations, Zacchaeus is now reclaimed for God’s people according to God’s promise.

Luke concludes, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” As exciting as everything is in this story before us, even more exciting is what the tax collector’s return represents in Verse 10.  Jesus, as Son of Man, has come to seek and to save what was lost. He has taken the initiative to point to Zacchaeus as a man who can know God’s acceptance, and the tax collector has claimed the opportunity. And as Luke 15:1-10 makes clear, there is joy in heaven over his return.

Nothing or no one is ever really lost until someone looks for it or them. Persons without Christ are lost for a number of reasons but primarily because God is looking for them – actively seeking them.  Thanks be to God!
 
Action Plan
  1. Define repentance and when is it authentic?
  2. What is meant by the word “salvation?”
  3. What changes will you make to better prepare to pursue the calling to seek and save the lost?
 
Resources for this lesson:

“2018-2019 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary,” Uniform Series “International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 257-264
“The NIV Application Commentary, Luke” by Darrell L. Brown, pages 478-483
“The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Luke-John,” pages 320-327
“Surprised by Hope,” N.T. Wright, pages 194-201

Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).

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