The Long Road Of Repentance

Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.

That’s the little ditty that you’ve heard if you have a background in church, particularly VBS or Sunday School. I grew up singing that song or at least hearing it often. This weekend, I was led to give it a lot more thought than I typically do.

You see, growing up, my knowledge of Zacchaeus was that he was a man who abruptly changed his life in response to the welcoming and receptive love of Jesus. If anything he was the epitome of rapid repentance, of going from being a tax collector who stole to a man who wanted to restore funds to all the people who he stole from. You can read all about his story in Luke 19.

But if I’m being honest, I don’t see that type of repentance happening very often in the ministries I’m a part of. I don’t see 180 degree turns from vice to virtue. Now, obviously, when it comes to salvation itself, we know that that truly is an instantaneous change from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light.

I’m thinking more along the lines of habits being changed from sinful to sanctified. Gossips and slanderers becoming kind and encouraging. Cheaters and liars becoming men and women of integrity. The sexually immoral changing their ways.

I don’t see those in a moment changes.

I don’t see those changes in me. Oh how I wish I could be sanctified in certain areas of my life with the snap of my fingers. It would certainly be a lot easier that way.

But life with Christ is generally not like that.

It’s a journey.

A process.

So let me propose (my words, but the ideas of Marlena Graves in her book The Way Up Is Down) another angle to the Zacchaeus story. This angle is just an interpretation. It is by no means the right one. Just something to consider.

What if the process of repentance with Zacchaeus was a lot longer than we think?

You see, in the Gospel of Luke’s account of the teachings of John the Baptist, we see him address tax collectors in this way:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than you are authorized to do." - Luke 3:12-13

These were Kingdom ethics. And the reality is, where John the Baptist was preaching was likely only six miles from Jericho. Zacchaeus may have been in the crowd that listened to John the Baptist preach. If he wasn’t there personally, his tax collector buddies may have shared that teaching.

Take no more than you are supposed to.

Maybe that was something he mulled over when he went to bed at night. What kind of teaching is that?

John also spoke of one to come, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, one who would come as the Christ.

As time passed, the city of Jericho was abuzz with knowledge of Jesus, son of Joseph.

Zacchaeus may have remembered what he saw with his own eyes or heard with his own ears. He may have come with that in mind, trying to push through the crowd to see this one that was to come.

Upon his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus proclaimed that he would pay back fourfold what he had taken.

Repentance.

Life change.

A new way of living in the world.

Maybe it wasn’t instantaneous (although God has the power to bring that about). Maybe it was a long journey of submissive listening and learning, leading to Jesus.

I see that to be the case more often in my life.

I didn’t wake up one day and say “I don’t want an impatient and frustrated disposition” and then boom it came about. God has in the past year refined me, pained me, challenged me, convicted me. And I can now look back to where I was a year ago and see the change. Do I still get impatient and frustrated? You betcha. But I’ve seen change in my life. Painful, slow, hard change.

Brother or sister in Christ, if you’re praying for change in your life or in the life of someone you love, it’s a journey. You may not be seeing it. But it’s happening. Slowly. Oh so slowly.

You don’t know how many seeds will be planted via conversations, Scriptures, moments, and experiences before the life-altering encounter with Jesus takes place. I am prone to think that Zacchaeus had been worked on for a long time. Your loved one, or yourself for that matter, have been worked on for a long time too.

Repentance is slow.

But when we can look back and see the journey we’ve taken, it’s oh so beautiful.

In His Name,

Nate Roach