Sermon: Forgiveness and Repentance

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
30th of October, 2022

Luke 19:1-10

Warning: This Reflection refers to suicide and to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Recently I have been thinking about forgiveness and repentance. As I have said before, forgiving those who have sinned against us is a requirement for Christians. It is in the prayer that Jesus taught us and that we say together every time we gather. (Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4) It is at the core of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:14-15) and the Sermon on the Plain. (Luke 6:37) We are to forgive other members of the church who sin against us not simply seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-2) or seven times a day if that is necessary. (Luke 17:4) We are to do all this in imitation of the God who forgives us.

We forgive because God forgives. We forgive as God forgives. We forgive by echoing God’s forgiveness. In Christ, God has forgiven the sin of all human beings, and from Christ, we receive the power and the willingness to forgive those who have sinned against us, as we ourselves have been forgiven.

It is often profoundly difficult to forgive those who sin against us. As some of you know, my grandfather died by suicide when I was eleven, almost forty years ago. As someone who lives with depression myself, I can absolutely understand how he might have reached a place where taking his own life seemed like the only thing to do. And yet, all these decades later, I still have trouble forgiving him for the pain he caused our family. But, since I regularly pray that God will forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me, I know that I also need to keep praying that God will give me the strength, the love, and the grace I need to fully forgive him. When I say that forgiving those who sin against us is a requirement when we seek to follow Jesus, I am not pretending that it is in any way easy. We may not even be able to do it this side of our death.

What happens when we are not the sinned against, but the sinning? Every week we begin our service with a Prayer of Confession and a Declaration of Forgiveness, which remind us that we are imperfect people who do things that hurt ourselves, other people, and the world around us and that God has already forgiven us our sins before we even confess them. We metaphorically wash ourselves clean of everything that separates us from God at the start of our worship, and we are then ready to listen to the Word of God with clean hearts and hands.

Making our confession to God is the beginning of repentance, but it cannot end there. I have recently been re-reading parts of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for an essay I am writing. The volumes on religious institution makes it clear that one of the reasons church leaders failed to protect children was that they saw the abuse of children as a sin to be forgiven, not a crime to be reported, when obviously it is both. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, first published in Nazi Germany in 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was scathing about what he called ‘cheap grace’. Cheap grace, he said, is:

the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.[1]

Church leaders forgiving paedophile priests and pastors without reporting them to the police were offering them ‘cheap grace’.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Some eighty years before the Royal Commission was established, Bonhoeffer warned churches of one of its outcomes. He wrote:

the preaching of forgiveness must always go hand-in-hand with the preaching of repentance, the preaching of the gospel with the preaching of the law. Nor can the forgiveness of sin be unconditional – sometimes sin must be retained … If the Church refuses to face the stern reality of sin, it will gain no credence when it talks of forgiveness.[2]

The church of Bonhoeffer’s time could not forgive Nazis who remained Nazis; just as the church of our recent past could not forgive child abusers who continued their abuse. To do so, to forgive when no repentance was offered, was to make a mockery of Jesus’ commands.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke we are confronted with practices that are not nearly as grave as being a Nazi or abusing children, but that are still definitely sinful. Last week Alistair compared the tax collectors of Jesus’ time to the ‘native police’ here in Australia. They were Jews living under Roman occupation who sided with the Romans rather than with their compatriots; they had purchased the right to collect taxes and they would make their profit from the extra they charged on top of Rome’s demands. In today’s reading we have not just a tax-collector, but the chief tax-collector, and since we are told that he is rich we can assume that he has been misusing his compatriots for his own gain. Given that we are reading the Gospel according to Luke, the gospel of the poor, the gospel in which Jesus said, ‘woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,’ (Luke 6:24) Zacchaeus must surely be in trouble.

To readers of the Gospel according to Luke Zacchaeus’ situation seems especially precarious because, between last week’s story about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and today’s reading about Zacchaeus, a ruler has approached Jesus, asked what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, and been told by Jesus to ‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ The ruler’s sadness at this has led to Jesus telling him, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,’ and to the people around them asking, ‘Then who can be saved?’ (Luke 18:18-27) Is Zacchaeus the chief tax collector a camel?

Cartoon of a short, bearded, puzzled-looking man in a striped robe surrounded by taller bearded men in striped robes and burnouses.

From ‘The Magpie’s Tale’ by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen

Zacchaeus is certainly not a camel in stature. He is so short that he cannot see Jesus through the crowd. Maybe, if he had not been a tax-collector, the crowd would have parted for him and allowed him into the front row with others equally vertically challenged. But the crowd does not part for him, and Zacchaeus must climb a tree. This is a bizarre thing for a wealthy businessman to do, but Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus is apparently so strong that he is willing to humiliate himself. He is immediately rewarded for this humiliation because Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus responds joyfully, hurrying down, happy to welcome Jesus.

The crowds around them, those who would not let Zacchaeus through in the first place, are understandably not so happy. In first-century Palestine table fellowship symbolised spiritual unity. By eating with Zacchaeus, Jesus could be showing that he approved of Zacchaeus’ way of life. As Alistair reminded us last week, that way of life was objectively wrong. But, as always, rather than Jesus catching vice from Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus seems to catch virtue from Jesus. Just as he had immediately accepted that Jesus was going to visit him, so Zacchaeus now immediately declares, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ It seems that Zacchaeus, having encountered Jesus, will now do not only what the law requires, but even more. The Pharisee in last week’s parable was proud that he gave a tenth of all his income. Zacchaeus is going to give away half. Not only that, but he is going to offer any he has defrauded four times what he has taken. This is no ‘cheap grace.’ It is doubtful that those who had begun to grumble would have been willing to do as much (although I might be maligning them). Zacchaeus’ repentance is real. As John Calvin put it, Zacchaeus has been ‘changed from a wolf not only into a sheep, but even into a shepherd’. Jesus can then conclude this story by affirming that Zacchaeus, ‘too is a son of Abraham’.

When the people who had seen the rich ruler go away sadly, and had heard Jesus talk about camels and needles, asked, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus had replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ Now we see what God makes possible: a wealthy chief tax-collector giving up half of all he has. He might continue to be wealthier than those around him, of course; the UK’s new Prime Minister and his wife are apparently worth 730 million pounds, and if they gave up half their wealth tomorrow they would still have 365 million pounds. But for Zacchaeus giving up half his wealth would still be a shock, and if he is no longer going to defraud anyone he will be unable to add much to it. And yet he is willing to do so immediately, just as he was immediately able to welcome Jesus joyfully. These are the miracles that happen when the Son of Man comes to seek out and save the lost.

When we heard the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, I said that neither the sheep nor the coin had done anything wrong, and so the point of those parables could not have been the action of the sheep or the coin, the repentance of the sinner. Their focus was instead on the seeking shepherd and sweeping woman, the foolishness of the love of God that never ceases from searching out the lost. I still hold to that, that at the heart of Christianity is the overwhelming, astounding, unearned, and undeserved love of the God who forgives us our sins. You know that, because I preach on it all the time. But just as I have been pondering the dangers of forgiveness without repentance, I think that today’s story warns us against welcoming Jesus into our lives without allowing him to change our lifestyle. Bonhoeffer compared the ‘cheap grace’ preached by the churches of his time to the ‘costly grace’ that led to a minority of pastors actively resisting the Nazis:

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his son … Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life.[3]

We are lucky that in twenty-first century Australia, unlike in 1930s Germany, answering Jesus’ call is unlikely to lead to our death. But we cannot expect to remain the same when we joyfully climb down that sycamore tree. As we examine our lives, we may find ourselves relinquishing half of what we have, and doing four times as much right as we have previously done wrong. And we may find ourselves able to do that because, as Jesus said and the story of Zacchaeus shows, nothing is impossible with God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 2001), p. 4.

[2] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 219.

[3] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 5.

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