Focus on Christ Meditations: 42. Accepting Love (1)
Lk 15:1,2 Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In the previous meditation I suggested that in coming to the Gospels it is easy to focus on Jesus as a teacher or as a miracle worker, for those things are so obvious, but there are other things about Jesus that are more important, even though they are not given prominence in the Gospels. The first such thing that we considered was the fact that Jesus came to reveal the Father in heaven, the glory of God, and the purpose of the Godhead.
The second thing, that we now move on to, is even more important as far as our personal lives are concerned and that is the nature or character of Jesus Christ. Now you might say that this has been implied in all that has gone on so far, and that is true, but I would like to make the implicit into explicit by looking again in the Gospels, and I want to try to do this by looking at Jesus’ way of treating people and then, in a later study, how we see it in Jesus’ teaching.
So I wonder what sort of examples come immediately to your mind when we ask the question, “To whom did Jesus show the love of God?” Now put so blandly as that the response might be, “Everybody!” but that is the same as “I love everyone in my street.” That doesn’t become real until we see specific examples. Perhaps we should ask the question first, how is love demonstrated? My shorthand response is, by accepting people as they were and seeking the best for them. (We’ll say some more in the next study)
I think it was about thirty years ago I adopted what almost became a mantra for me (and I had heard it nowhere else then, although I have since), that “God loves you exactly as you are at this moment, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than you are at the moment.” This means two things: first TOTAL acceptance of you the person (not necessarily your behaviour) at this moment and then, second, love desires yet a better you in the future with His help and enabling. So, when we come to specific examples of Jesus loving people, I would suggest that we need to look for his initial acceptance of that person and then signs that he wants something better for them. My choices are purely random and limited and so there are almost certainly others who you might want to add to this list.
In general terms we are told that he met with “tax collectors and sinners”, for example, “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples.” (Mt 9:10) He had just called Matthew the tax-collector to follow him and now he is eating with him and his friends! This upsets the puritanical Pharisees (see v.11). There is no indication that Jesus challenged him over his morals as a tax-collector, change was implied when Matthew went with Jesus. From then on it was relationship and acceptance. Now in this case and, I suggest, the case of every one of the men Jesus called to follow him, it is clear he takes them as they were. For them the next three years are going to be a time of learning and change. He takes them as they were, but will change them.
In addition to this incident, Luke adds, “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:1,2) These people were outcasts of society and the thing we all want – and especially if we are an outcast – is loving acceptance. We don’t want haranguing, we don’t want criticism (we know our faults already, we want to know how to overcome them and we know self-effort doesn’t work), we don’t want judging (we feel guilty enough already) and so we don’t want telling off in whatever form it comes. The thing I have found over the years in both my life and watching the lives of others, is that we change most when we are loved, not when we are nagged, not when we are exposed, and not when we are made to feel defensive. We need loving acceptance and Jesus brings it.
Perhaps nowhere is that seen more clearly than in the case of Zacchaeus (see Lk 19:1-10). This man was a chief tax collector and it is likely that he oversaw a large area. It is also probable that he was a crook who took bribes and took more taxes than he should have done, and he certainly wasn’t liked. He was probably rich and had a select group (a limited group!) of friends – also tax-collectors or others on the take. So he is a classic instance of someone we would like to point a finger at and shout, “Repent you godless, self-centred, corrupt sinner!”
But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead he invited himself to lunch or dinner or whatever meal was due. Now it is one thing to be invited but to invite yourself to someone else’s house is not only bold and ‘not done’ but it is certainly a sign of imposed friendliness that says, “Hey, I like you and I’d like us to share our lives together over a meal.” Except the account doesn’t give any indication that Jesus told Zacchaeus what he expected of him – and it wasn’t to carry on being a traitor to Judaism and it wasn’t to carry on being a crook who was lining his pocket at other people’s expense. No, there is no record that Jesus confronted him with any of these things. No, as I suggested above, I suspect Zacchaeus knew the truth about himself, knew what was wrong, knew what was right, and just needed loving acceptance to help him to feel secure enough to face all that!
Ah, you might say, but perhaps that happened but Luke wasn’t told about it. I doubt it. Look at the way Zacchaeus responded to Jesus and the way Jesus responded to him. There is a sense of light-hearted joyful freedom about what takes place. You don’t see that sort of response when there has been judgmental chiding and challenges to repent. No, that was the approach of the Pharisees and I would almost guarantee that the Pharisees and the tax collectors – especially powerful ones like Zacchaeus – walked on the opposite sides of the street of life, so to speak, and the tax collectors called them ‘religious hypocrites’ and in turn the Pharisees called them ‘sinners!” and that in a most derogatory way. No, challenging or telling off someone does not produce an immediate response of generosity – even if it is using the unlawful gains of the past! The change comes from being accepted!
The ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ were the primary group of obvious people to whom Jesus expressed his Father’s love by accepting them as they were, and that brought the fruit of change. There were others but as space runs out, we shall look at some of the others in the next study. But for personal thought, how about you and me? Would we have accepted Zacchaeus as Jesus did? Indeed, do we lovingly accept as they are, the ‘sinners’ (all those we view as less than us) around us in our lives? Jesus does.