It’s God who converts people – God the Holy Spirit. It’s not the witness, not the evangelist, not the media campaign. It’s not even the person who turns to Jesus and finds life in all its fullness. The Holy Spirit converts people.
That’s just good theology, for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
I remembered that – learned it as if for the first time – when I was doing radio talk-back on the theme of Religion v Spirituality. I couldn’t go into the studio that day because I was in an important meeting. So the morning tea break was timed to allow me to go into a little, spare office near the meeting room to take the phone call from the studio. Lots of listeners phoned in that day – arguing the toss, spruiking pet theories, having a go at saying sentences that included words like “God” and “faith” out loud. That was the point of course, but I was tired and actually needed that morning tea break to refresh myself for the rest of the meeting. The final caller spent a long time unloading a lifetime’s accumulation of resentment against “religion” – his experience of it as smug, bullying, overbearing, and oblivious to its own irrelevance. Then he turned to “spirituality”. It turned out the reason he’d phoned in was to tell the whole listening audience that Jesus had saved him from thirty years of enslavement to alcohol. Drinking alcohol had destroyed his health and all the relationships that mattered to him. He’d hit rock bottom. Finally he’d gone looking for an AA meeting. He started the 12 step program, which involved turning his life over into the care of “God as you understand Him”. He’d gone looking for rescue from enslavement to alcohol and was met by Jesus who was already looking for him – to be his saviour. Jesus changed his life. But apparently Jesus didn’t need to change the caller’s mind about religion, which had been worse than useless in helping him experience a relationship with Jesus that sustained him in a new life of health and peace.
The program over, I went back into my meeting. I’d missed morning tea, but that last call gave me renewed energy and focus in a way that a cuppa and a Scotch Finger never could. It’s God who converts people. It’s the Holy Spirit who turns a person’s life around. Since then I’ve made a point of asking people about their experience of God and I’ve heard dozens and dozens of stories like the one that caller wanted to tell all the other listeners.
It’s with stories like that in mind that I’ve turned again to the familiar story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. I find it a very visual story. There are things to see in your mind’s eye. There’s Jesus entering Jericho and passing through (verse 1). He’s like a man on a mission. No dilly dallying. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, still about 24 kilometres away. So after his encounter with Zacchaeus he told a quick parable and then “went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (verse 28). He really is on a mission – God’s mission. He’s already told his disciples on three occasions why he is heading for Jerusalem; so that “everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31). See how he strides along – reluctant disciples straggling behind with serious doubts about the wisdom of this particular journey, curious crowds gathering to catch sight of this enigmatic prophet who doesn’t seem to care how much trouble is waiting for him in Jerusalem.
And into this scene steps Zacchaeus, “a chief tax collector”, that is, someone who collaborates with the occupying forces of Rome in their oppression and exploitation of the people of God. A traitor. A “sinner”. Moreover Luke tells us he was “rich”, and Jesus has just explained that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). In all likelihood, it was because he was “rich” that Zacchaeus would be given the position of “a chief tax collector”. At the same time, being a chief tax collector would have been likely to make him even richer, even if he was scrupulously honest in his dealings. The people may despise him and condemn him as a sinner, but Zacchaeus has considerable social standing. He’s an important man.
So picture this: an important man lifting up the hem of his long, flowing robes and running (yes, running) to get ahead of the crowd that’s milling around Jesus and his disciples (verse 4). We haven’t seen anything as peculiar as this since chapter 15, where the father of the “prodigal son” cast dignity to the wind “and ran” to meet his shamed returning boy “and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). But that’s the least of it. Having put some space between himself and the crowd, Zacchaeus climbs a tree! He’s making a fool of himself. He’s forgotten who he is.
We’ve got Jesus striding on to Jerusalem against all common sense and we’ve got Zacchaeus making himself ridiculous, running ahead of the crowd and climbing a tree – Jesus to fulfil the scriptures, Zacchaeus to see the one who is fulfilling the scriptures. Suddenly they meet. Jesus looks up, sees a man in a tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (verse 5).
Just put aside the question of how Jesus recognises the man as Zacchaeus for now. Jesus has already been identified as an acquaintance of “all the tax collectors” (Luke 15:1). The thing that matters is that he knows who the man in the tree is. The more interesting question is what happened to Jesus’ being on a mission from God? Where’s his urgency to press on to Jerusalem? Now he simply “must” stop and pay a social call on someone who is at best an acquaintance or perhaps even a complete stranger. But it’s the “must” that is a clue here. In the Greek text it’s a very strong word (dei) which means “it is necessary, I have to”. It’s the same word, in fact, that Luke uses when Jesus foretells his death and resurrection the first time: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…” (Luke 9:22). It’s significant that Jesus must stay at Zacchaeus’ house “today” too. Another strong word. It’s the word Luke uses when Jesus begins his mission, teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). It’s the same word that Luke will use the next time Jesus speaks: “Today salvation has come to this house” (verse 9).
Why must Jesus stay at Zacchaeus’ house today? The grumbling onlookers tell us without meaning to: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (verse 7). That’s just what Jesus does: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). That’s what the early Christians knew by heart: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s the whole point when it comes to Jesus. Jesus must stay at Zacchaeus’ house today for the same reason that he is hurrying to Jerusalem, “to seek and save the lost” (verse 10). He’s not really interrupting his journey. He’s telling us again where he’s going and why, by calling Zacchaeus down from the tree and inviting himself into his home.
And the crowd doesn’t get it. They can’t see past their categories of who’s righteous and who’s a sinner to recognise the saviour at work among them. They can’t see a son of Abraham (verse 9) in a rich tax collector – not even in one who gives half of his possessions to the poor and is so determined not to cheat anyone that he refunds anything overcharged fourfold. (Verse 8 is actually in the present tense in Greek, not in the future tense as many English translations have it). They’re so blinded by their presuppositions about who can or can’t be one of God’s people that they can’t see what God is doing in people’s lives already. They can’t see the hilariously miraculous wonder of a camel being negotiated through the eye of a needle when Jesus looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
What have I been missing? It’s all I could think of after that talk-back caller told us that religion is a waste of space, but Jesus is his saviour. What is the Holy Spirit doing with people around me now? Which unlikely neighbour should I start praying for, and continue to pray for, as the Holy Spirit enables another lost or enslaved person to meet Jesus who “must stay at your house today”?