*Originally preached for the 4:00 Jazz service at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on March 13, 2016*
The bad guy turned good guy. The villain redeemed and transformed into a hero. It’s a pretty common story—in literature, culture, throughout history, and even in the bible.
I might be biased, but there is, perhaps, no more well-known or powerful redemption story in modern pop culture than the story of Darth Vader in Star Wars. Darth Vader—the unquestionable villain of the original trilogy—began as a young Jedi warrior with the potential to be an exceptionally powerful force for good. Instead, he is corrupted by his lust for power and commits himself to the Dark Side. Over the course of the trilogy, Darth Vader kills countless people—even destroying an entire planet—and thwarts the efforts of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and their allies at every turn.
In a devastating climactic moment, Luke, our hero, faces the masked villain Vader and discovers that he is not some soulless, storyless force of evil—but, in fact, Luke’s own long lost father, a Jedi gone terribly astray. As Luke comes to grips with this knowledge, he refuses to believe that his father is beyond hope—beyond redemption. When the evil emperor threatens to kill Luke—it this stubborn hope and love that compels Vader to destroy the emperor and save his son (and everyone else) even though it costs him his own life. With his dying breath, he faces his son and finds hope and peace in the knowledge that there was good left in after all.
Long after Darth Vader seems entirely given up to evil, Luke believes in him—loves him even—and that love compels Vader to believe in himself and find redemption.
We love a good redemption story. And Jesus does too.
If you’re familiar at all with the story of Zacchaeus, chances are you remember him as the short guy that climbs a tree to see Jesus. You might remember that he is a tax collector and that, in those days, tax collectors weren’t well liked. Still, in isolation from the rest of Luke and from Zacchaeus’ personal history, he reads in this story like a slightly annoying outcast whom Jesus goes out of his way to make time for. This makes him not unlike the many other marginalized character whom Jesus reaches out to throughout his ministry—prostitutes and lepers and all. But this read of Zacchaeus misses the point of this story entirely.
See, Zacchaeus wasn’t marginalized. He wasn’t oppressed. He was an oppressor. Tax collectors like him weren’t hated by others in Jesus’ day without reason. Tax collectors were wealthy and usually corrupt. They both upheld and were upheld by an oppressive system of power that abused and marginalized others, keeping them locked in cycles of poverty and servitude. Zacchaeus isn’t beaten down by the system—he is the system. And by his own admission in this very text, we know that he has used his power to defraud others and perpetuate the broken system for his own benefit.
Meanwhile, throughout Luke’s gospel up to this point, Jesus has made a point of reaching out to precisely the people made most vulnerable by the type of corruption that Zacchaeus participates in. Over and over again, Jesus tells his disciples of God’s particular care for the poor, the sick, and the suffering—of God’s promise to bind up the brokenhearted and set the captives free. He actively demonstrates this prerogative with the company he keeps. In fact, in the story immediately preceding this one, Jesus heals a man who is blind and spends his days begging for help on the side of the road. And not long before that Jesus says explicitly that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.
But here is Zacchaeus. A man who has built his life around money and power and the exploitation of others. And here is Jesus, coming to town and being received by a mesmerized and eager crowd—a crowd clearly made up of those whom Zacchaeus has mistreated, the suffering and poor that Jesus has shown so much care for in his ministry. But not this time. This time, Jesus stops for Zacchaeus. He changes his plans and rearranges his schedule for this corrupt tax collector—who though forced to climb a tree to see Jesus coming—has nevertheless spent most of his life looking down on others. This man—this rich man—is who Jesus chooses to hang out with and give special attention to.
Zacchaeus is one of the bad guys. But Jesus comes for him? Stops for him? Cares for him? Dies for him? Really?
Honestly, that idea makes me pretty darn uncomfortable. Because I don’t have to look very hard to see people like Zacchaeus in our world today. It’s not hard for me to throw people into that category. They’re everywhere. And some of them are a lot scarier than a short guy in a tree—scarier, even, than Darth Vader.
They’re on our television screens and in our news reports. They’re in seats of service and halls of power. They are demanding that people of color are less. That immigrants and refugees are not welcome. That Muslims are violent and evil. They are shooting our children and bombing our public places. They are thriving on a system of fear and oppression. We may not entirely agree on who all of these people are, but we can agree that they exist and that, these days, they seem to be getting a lot of attention.
And this story makes me wonder—actually it convinces me—that Jesus cares about these people too. Loves these people too. And frankly, I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. Actually, it makes me mad.
I like the Jesus who frees the captives, and cares for the suffering, and sides with the marginalized. I like subversive, protesting, radically loving Jesus who flips tables and calls out corrupt powers. I have committed my life to following that Jesus. I challenge myself to follow that example and be a force for good in this world. Perhaps you do too. And maybe this understanding of Zacchaeus’ story makes you uncomfortable—even angry—too.
Sometimes, I don’t want to believe that Jesus also cares for these people. I certainly don’t want to believe that I am supposed to care for these too people. That feels like too much to ask.
Perhaps we could look at the critical state of the world today and tell ourselves that it would be different now. Surely, in such dire polemic circumstances, Jesus wouldn’t waste time showing hospitality to the ones who—as far as we are concerned—are the bad guys. Wouldn’t he be too busy working for justice?
Except this moment with Zacchaeus happens just before his entry into Jerusalem. Just days before the events of Holy Week unfold. Weeks before he will be murdered by corrupt t powers. For Christ, this was a crucial time. Whatever we might not understand about this story, it is clear enough that this moment with Zacchaeus is of critical importance to Jesus.
So what is Jesus thinking? What is he thinking stopping on the side of the road and inviting himself over to dinner at the house of a man who embodies corrupt power? What are we supposed to learn from this?
He tells us, doesn’t he? Right there at the end. The Son of Man comes to seek and to save the lost.
The power of this story is in what happens after it. Jesus might have kept on down the road, but he stops for Zacchaeus instead – and Zacchaeus allows himself to be utterly transformed by the experience. God knows why a wealthy, powerful man would give it all up for Christ, but, indeed, God does know. And Zacchaeus relinquishes his hold on all of his corruption, his power, his wealth. He shows the beginnings of ceasing to be an enemy of justice and becoming a seeker of it. Zacchaeus’ story is a redemption story.
Zacchaeus isn’t like the other people Jesus meets—except in this one way: Jesus has faith in him, and that faith compels Zacchaeus to find faith of his own and that changes him utterly. It changes everything.
It matters that Christ comes—yes and especially for the suffering and the marginalized—but just not just for these, and not just for those who are good and upright and seeking justice either. It matters that Christ comes also for those we don’t like, those we fear, those who seem like enemies of justice. It matters because ours is a God of transformation.
Yes, Jesus’ ministry was about transforming broken human systems of power and exploitation. Yes, Jesus’ ministry was about transforming the lives of those who are marginalized and oppressed. But his ministry was also about transforming spirits. And that is the kind of transformation we all need. All of us. The bad guys, the problem people like Zacchaeus. And you and me.
No matter who Christ encounters or what embodiment of brokenness they offer him—he always sees a child of God, created in love for good, and for whom there is still hope. He offers profound transformation to whoever will take hold of it. Jesus knows and proclaims that this conviction—this hope—is this crucial force for redeeming this world.
What does this mean for us? How are we called to live into this example shown by Christ? Certainly, it does not mean that we stop crying out for justice or serving those who are suffering or oppressed. It doesn’t mean we refrain from critiquing corrupt systems or prejudices or the people that embody and perpetuate them. But it does mean that when the brokenness of this world and other people threatens to overwhelm us—we remember that we believe in and are motivated by a bigger hope.
The kind of hope, and redemption, and love that we understand and can imagine within the confines of our own world will never be enough to transform it into something beyond our imagining. We need Christ. We need a love so big that it offers hope to everyone—so encompassing that it makes us uncomfortable and even mad.
We can trust in that love when the world seems terrifying. And we can choose to be defined not by our fear or distrust or dislike—but by the hope of the one who always believes in us—always makes space and time for us. Always offers transformation to whoever opens themselves to it.
Recently, I was having coffee with a new friend. This friend is also a young pastor and is working to build a progressive college ministry. His student participants are mostly those who have been subjugated by systems of power and even marginalized by the church itself. He works to embody a love that is bigger and more transformative than that.
Over coffee, my friend shared with me that a politician was coming to speak on their campus soon. The students in his ministry were concerned because this politician seemed to embody beliefs and rhetoric that directly endangered them and other people they cared about. They wanted to protest—peacefully. My friend, their pastor, agreed that peaceful protesting might be an appropriate Christian response in this instance—but he firmly told them that their protest would offer a counter message of love and inclusion rather than simply meeting hate with hate.
And so they did. When this politician arrived, they stood with countless others holding signs and shouting in protest. But what they shouted—what their signs said was, “We stand with love,” and “Build hope, not walls,” and “Welcome the stranger.”
It is like they looked at a world torn apart by fear and hate and prejudice and corruption—and chose instead to be defined by the transformational hope of Christ. In the face of one who embodied to them brokenness and corruption—they chose to offer: love.
They said: we haven’t given up on goodness yet.
Just yesterday someone asked me how I reconcile my faith with the terrible things in this world—and even in my own life. I said, “the question of why there is evil in this world is a good one, but I am more interested in the question of why there isn’t only evil in this world. Why there is still good, always, resiliently, even if at times it seems like only a flicker.
I think it’s because people choose to believe in the hope of profound, impossible transformation. And I believe that we can only believe in such things because Christ believed first.
It’s hard sometimes—really hard—to look at the terrible things going on this world and believe that the people behind them are beloved just like everyone else. But the promise of that uncomfortable truth is that we too are beloved—and that there is no brokenness within us or around us beyond the reach of that love. There is no brokenness or corruption to which God will abandon us. Jesus Christ doesn’t live and die and live again for casual transformation or partial transformation or easy transformation—Christ comes for total transformation. The promise of Christ is that all things—all things—will be made new.
The promise of Christ is that nothing—no badness or brokenness—not even death itself, has the final word for any of us or for this world. Only God has the final word, and that word is LOVE.
This is good news. Because we love a good redemption story. And this one is for us. For all of us. Believe it or not. Like it or not. For all of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.