I grew up with the thinking that all people respond to God for the first time the same way. I guess this came from the pattern theology that I grew up with that likes to reduce everything to simplified formulas that are binding on all. While that is neat and tidy, I don’t tend to believe that anymore. As I read the Bible, I see people responding to God for the first time in many different ways, often depending on who they are and what has happened and what the situation calls for. Sure, there are general trends but it isn’t as nicely tied up with a bow as I once thought.
I am drawn today to how Zacchaeus responds to Jesus in this, their first encounter of faith. He is “very rich” (19:2). Think back one chapter, to Friday, and the story of the rich young ruler. Different from that man, Zacchaeus is not told to sell everything he has and follow Jesus. Yet, the attitude of this tax collector and the rich young ruler are quite different. That latter went away without change while Zacchaeus is quick to make financial, concrete amends for his life of shaking down his neighbors.
We are never told why Zacchaeus is drawn to Jesus. Is he wanting to follow Jesus as a disciple of this new rabbi who has come to town? Is he just a bystander wanting to get a glimpse of this man in the news? Is he drawn to the healings and exorcisms that Jesus brings about? Is he in need of some healing we are not aware of? We simply do not know. He quickly responds ethically, so that might indicate he was responding with faith.
I am struck by how Jesus accepts this tax collector and is willing to dine with him at his house, no insignificant gesture in their time and place as table fellowship connoted unqualified acceptance, even before Zacchaeus has done anything more than climb a tree. Maybe Jesus is making the first gesture here.
Then Zacchaeus does what can only be described as repentance. He turns in a very practical way from his life of deceit:
“Look, Master,” he said, “I’m giving half my property to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I’m giving it back to them four times over.” (19:8)
Jesus response is unmistakable:
Today, salvation has come to this house. (19:9)
Zacchaeus has launched off in new, uncharted territory of faith. He will follow Jesus, not his own conniving. He will stand for righteousness and even fall over himself to make sure people around him know it. Jesus seeing this repentance and Zacchaeus receives a new label: “saved.”
Interest ~ Acceptance ~ Repentance ~ Salvation
That is a pretty good flow. No need to turn that into another pattern. Not every person will respond this way, but it is a good reminder to us that for many people that we wish to reach in this world — especially those marginalized in society — acceptance from the Body of Christ often has to precede the lifestyle change and submission we wish to see in their lives. Like many are saying these days, some have to belong before they decide to really believe.