READ Luke 19:1-10
Here is today’s sermon in a nutshell: heart change will lead to behaviour change but behaviour change (without the heart change) will lead only to frustration. In other words, internal change will lead to a change in our external behaviour but attempts to simply reform our behaviour are doomed.
Zacchaeus’ behaviour changed radically in a very short time. How did that happen?
The change was dramatic. I am sure you are well aware of the nature of tax-collectors in Jesus’ day.
You only have to look at the way the crowd treated him. They wouldn’t let him stand in front so as to see Jesus, even though a short man would not have obscured their view. They were not going to show him any kindness and maybe he didn’t dare ask, knowing how much they hated him. Look at their comments when Jesus went to Zacchaeus’s house, muttering, “Why has Jesus gone to be the guest of a sinner?”
They would not have. Sharing a meal together implied acceptance. Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector; he was a chief tax collector. Tax-collectors were greedy people who put their own wealth ahead of their loyalty to their country and their fellow Jews. They were traitors who worked for the occupying Romans, collecting money from the Jews, for the Romans. And they were corrupt. As long as they handed over the required amount to the Romans, they could collect what they liked for themselves. They used their position to fleece their own country-people. Is it any wonder they were hated?
But, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. He sat at the top of the pyramid collecting a commission from all of the tax collectors who worked for him.
At the start of the story, Zacchaeus was a mean, greedy, selfish little man. At the end of the story, he had publicly admitted that he had done wrong and wanted to make restitution. He offered far more than the law required of those who had been wronged. Apparently, the language indicates some playfulness, exuberance, excitement about giving away his money. A lifetime of being mean, selfish and greedy, sour and miserable, and all of a sudden he was excited, joyful, and generous. He wanted to help the poor. He realised that he had hurt people and he offered to pay them back four times what he had stolen from them. He had been trapped in a sinful, self-centred lifestyle and now he was free. It is an absolutely stunning 180o turn-around.
We talked last week about the transformation in the lives of the Thessalonians. They turned from their idols to serve the living and true God, looking forward to Jesus’ return. Zacchaeus is another example of exactly the same sort of transformation. He turned from his idol (money, or self) and immediately sought to serve God by caring for the poor.
Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house. This man too is now a child of Abraham.” Abraham is the great Old Testament example of faith. He is referred to as the father of the people of faith. Zacchaeus was now in that company. He had received salvation. He was forgiven and free.
How did that happen? How on earth does a person change this quickly? What did Jesus say to him?
Well, we don’t know. Isn’t that a pity? What do you think Jesus said to him?
We do know that this is a gospel event. All of the language is gospel language: salvation, Jesus summing up His whole mission in terms of seeking and saving what was lost, Zacchaeus’s repentance and the evidence of new life. Whatever Jesus said, it was the gospel and it produced gospel results.
Now I have a question: Was Zacchaeus’s heart changed or was just his behaviour changed?
Putting that another way, do you think Jesus told him to pull his socks up? Did Jesus tell him to get his act together and change his behaviour. “Zacchaeus, you are in big trouble. Look at your life. God hates what you are doing. You are breaking His laws. You know that you are far from God. If you don’t get your act together, there is nothing ahead for you except God’s judgement. You need to give away half of your wealth. You have been thoroughly dishonest. Go to all of those people you have defrauded and pay them back four times as much as you have stolen. Show God that you are sorry. Show Him that you have reformed your ways.”
Often the impression people have of Christianity is that it is about reforming our behaviour. They think the Bible is a rule book of how to live. They think Christianity is all about telling the truth, being kind, not judging people (although they think we do that), turning the other cheek, being moral. They hear us say shops shouldn’t open on Sunday, prostitution is wrong, homosexuality is wrong, abortion is wrong and smacking children is right.
And actually, a lot of what we tell ourselves within the church is also just about changing our behaviour: pray more, read your Bible more, join a small group, give to the poor, don’t have sex before marriage, don’t do drugs, attend church regularly, give away more of your money… and so on.
Just changing our behaviour (or trying to change other people’s behaviour) leads to frustration
- We can’t do it! And we so fail at the very things we try to do. Then we feel worthless.
- Behaviour change doesn’t bring the results we crave. We think we are going to be happier or more fulfilled or our relationship with God is going to be more satisfying but, actually, we are just on a treadmill of trying to sort our life out.
- Sometimes, feeling that we have to continually perform just makes us resentful, not joyful.
J.D. Greear, in his book, Gospel, says,
“The preaching of the law [i.e. just telling people what they should do] produces only Pharisees. They might be Pharisees who fast twice a week, tithe their spices and cumin, and refuse to walk more than a certain [number] of steps on the Sabbath. Or, they might be Pharisees who give away lots of money, adopt children, and go on mission trips. Either way, they are only Pharisees. Their focus in on external change, while their hearts are filled with poison. They are immaculately obedient tombs.
“Give the Pharisees their due credit: they were quite zealous in their obedience. Many gave away lots of money. Some travelled the world in search of converts (see Matt 23:15). They were always at prayer meetings and no doubt the first ones to sign up for volunteer teams. But they were also bitter, resentful, dissatisfied and self-focused. And they hated Jesus Christ.”
You see, changing our behaviour does not change our hearts. We can do the right things outwardly but harbour some pretty ugly things inside. Behaviour change is not real change.
Although we don’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus, I think we can guarantee that He didn’t just tell him how he needed to change. Because that is not the gospel and it is not effective.
Everything about this story says that it was about the gospel. We see grace being offered by Jesus. While everyone else rejected Zacchaeus, Jesus took an interest and went to his home. In that culture, sharing a meal was very significant. Eating together implied acceptance and intimate fellowship. That is why people objected that Jesus should even do this.
We see it in Jesus’ stated intention: The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.
We see it in the joyful, generous response of Zacchaeus. He wasn’t just begrudgingly changing his behaviour. His heart had been changed and a changed heart leads to changed behaviour. Changed people want to change their behaviour.
All of the things I mentioned before – praying, reading the Bible, being kind and truthful, avoiding prostitutes – are good things. The difference is between just telling people to do them and people being changed and wanting to do them.
To quote J.D. Greear again
Like Zacchaeus, we will not be transformed by the command of Jesus; we will be transformed by an experience with Jesus… We are not changed by being told what we need to do for God, but by hearing the news of what God has done for us.
The gospel deals with sin. Jesus would not have avoided the fact that Zacchaeus was a sinner. He was a sinner. But the gospel offers forgiveness and a new start to sinners. It was that news that changed Zacchaeus from the inside out.
Romans 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
There is power in the gospel: power to change the heart and to change the behaviour. There is no transforming power in lists of rules.
If you feel that you have simply been told to do more of this and do more of that – and you have found it wearisome and ineffectual and frustrating – take heart. There is a different message: the gospel: Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again. The story that transforms is the story of the cross and the empty tomb. The cross where we see the love of God expressed in the most powerful, poignant, sacrificial way. The cross where Jesus suffered and died, an innocent man – the best man the world has ever seen – suffered and died because He loved us. The cross where the sinless Son of God took the sins of the world on Himself and paid the ultimate price – took the penalty you and I deserve – so that we might be forgiven and set free. So that we might be restored to God and know the joy of being His children.
And the empty tomb that turned a story of defeat into victory. Death was defeated and those who have faith in Jesus have confidence about eternal life in the presence of God.
It is the gospel story that has the power to change hearts. It is the story of Jesus. It is the story of love and forgiveness. Merely adjusting our behaviour is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The gospel changes the inside that then changes the outside.
If you want to see others changed, do not just give them a list of things to do. Tell then the story of the Saviour who died for their sins and rose again. That is where the power is.
Do you feel that you have simply been told to change your behaviour? Do you try to live a Christian life because that is what you believe you are meant to do? Or, has your heart been changed by an experience of Jesus, so that you are excited about living differently to honour the God who loves you?