Luke 19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. 3 Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and he was unable due to the crowd, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree in order to see Him, because He was about to pass through that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him,
“Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”
6 And he hurried and came down, and received Him, rejoicing. 7 When the people saw this, they all began to complain, saying,
“He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!”
8 But Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord,
“Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I am giving to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I am giving back four times as much.”
9 And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Zaccheus’ story provides an excellent demonstration of how grace transforms the heart and life of a lost and alienated human being. The tax collector and the Shepherd engage in a mutual act of hospitality described in Revelation 3:20. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. When anyone who hears my voice opens the door, I will enter and have supper with them, and they with me.” So, it was for Zaccheus. God’s grace filled his deepest longing and out of Zaccheus’ newfound sense of belonging, he was “saved”—from alienation to communion. Christ in his home, Christ in his heart—the living connection that changes us.
In Zaccheus’ case, the natural overflow of his encounter with Jesus resulted in a tangible response. He became a willing participant in his freedom and salvation, prompted by the Spirit to make amends.
In 12-step recovery, making amends refers to personally addressing issues with people who have been harmed by our behavior or our treatment of them. Zaccheus had done great harm in his community. His complicity with Rome as a collections agent for the empire was a great betrayal of his own people. Indeed, he was their enemy in ways that Rome could not be.
The second kind of enemy comprises those persons who, by their activities, make it difficult for the group to live without shame and humiliation. It does not require much imagination to assume that to the sensitive son of Israel, the taxgatherers were in that class. It was they who became the grasping hand of Roman authority, filching from Israel the taxes which helped to keep alive the oppression of the gentile ruler. They were Israelites who understood the psychology of the people, and therefore were always able to function with the kind of spiritual ruthlessness that would have been impossible for those who did not know the people intimately. They were despised; they were outcasts, because from the inside they had unlocked the door to the enemy. The situation was all the more difficult to bear because the tax collectors tended to be prosperous in contrast with the rest of the people. To be required to love such a person was the final insult. How could such a demand be made? One did not even associate with such creatures. To be seen in their company meant a complete loss of status and respect in the community. The taxgatherer had no soul; he had long since lost it. When Jesus became a friend to the tax collectors and secured one as his intimate companion, it was a spiritual triumph of such staggering proportions that after nineteen hundred years it defies rational explanation. (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 83).
As alarming as Jesus’ overture of friendship would have been to his disciples, his opponents, and to Zaccheus’ victims, no one was as staggered at the taxman himself. As Paul would say, “The kindness of God leads to repentance”—defined not as self-loathing or as a mere change of mind, but a reorientation of a life. Conversion from self-centeredness to the real-life expression of other-centered love. And this is where Zaccheus’ amends (and ours) come in.
Zaccheus’ amends were substantial. Since he lays them out before Jesus, let’s call his intentions a proposal.
- First, he assesses his wealth in relation to the poverty he been complicit in creating. He decides to make amends to his community by giving half of his possessions to the poor.
This reminds me of a friend who made a habit of stealing from the church where she volunteered in order to pilfer money for her addiction. Years later, she needed to make amends to the church, not because they needed her money or would repay individual donors, but as a way to participate in her grace-transformation. She first apologized to someone in authority, then they worked out a plan for her to make restitution, whether by service or repayment.
- Second, with what remained of his wealth, Zaccheus identified specific people who he had extorted. He did not simply say, “Sorry, folks. I really messed up. But I’ve cleared it up with Jesus and I’m forgiven now. So, we’re all good now, right?” Rather, he actually calculated how much he had squeezed from them, repays them, and adds 400% interest. Why so much?
I can think of two reasons. First, Zaccheus sees that the harm he caused exceeds the cash he’d taken. The cost of his sin to those he’d robbed had compounded. What had they lost in potential income, time lost, additional hardships, and emotional impact? Real reparations take the toll to the whole person and their family into account. Rarely do we do that outside of civil lawsuits, but Zaccheus did so without being sued. Why?
This speaks to our second reason for his generosity. The law may demand proportional amends: eye-for-an-eye, dollar-for-a dollar. But grace motivates us to pay forward the generosity we’ve received. So Zaccheus calculous went beyond the harm he had caused to the “how much more” grace he had received. The 400% was measured by the superabundant mercies we experienced.
- An amends demonstrates that we own what we have done. No blaming. No sidestepping. Yes, there are reasons for our misdeeds, but when these are shared in an amends, they come across as excuses and justifications. Zaccheus names his sin: extortion. NOT “I was just doing my job” or “The Romans made me do it.” Instead, “I did this. I did it to you. That was wrong.” Amends are strictly about cleaning up my side of the street, even if those we wronged have also wronged us.
- An amends demonstrates that we recognize the harm we have caused. It should also include listening to those we’ve harmed to hear what they experienced. Zaccheus may have known that he extorted someone and impacted their financial stability. But he might need to hear how his actions also humiliated them, hardship to their family, and introduced fear and hatred into their hearts.
- Amends are NOT about extracting forgiveness from the other so we can feel better. Those we hurt may be years away from the healing they need to release us, if ever. Those we harm have experienced broken trust that may or may not ever be restored. Our amends need to be a unilateral expression of sorrow for the harm we caused, not contingent on any response, including forgiveness or reconciliation. We may hope for that, but must not use our amends with those expectations. Otherwise, we’re still guilty of manipulation.
This is why it’s good to submit our amends as a proposal to a mentor or sponsor before delivering them. When I make amends, I run it by my sponsor first to examine it carefully for ways I might justify, minimize, or manipulate.
Just this morning I heard a lawmaker who was expected to apologize for a public racist slur directed at a colleague. It was horrid. There was blame-shifting, self-justifying, both sides-ism, and the horrid phrase, “IF I offended anyone…” He needed a course in Amends 101 and a chat with Zaccheus.
- Finally, amends are lived, not only spoken. Sometimes “sorry” doesn’t help. And even a cheque just seems like payoff. Maybe you’ve fallen a thousand times and any amends will lack credibility. No matter. As Zaccheus continues to be faithful, perhaps his sincerity will prove itself. Luke must have thought so.
So beyond specific words and acts of restitution, repentance and amends are a new way to live every day. While we may make direct amends with words, those events happen inside a new life empowered by grace and a grateful response to God’s mercy. Zaccheus’ amends were a real demonstration of the inner change that was occurring—of the new man he was becoming.
Summary statement: Zaccheus’ story challenges us to undergo the impact of the gospel in our lives. Salvation is far more than a personal feel-good event. Jesus invites us to living communion that generates radical transformation. In this case, it includes courageously and joyfully making and living our amends.