Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday before Advent 2022
Forgiveness isn't fair.
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Sunday, 30th October 2022 at 11.15 AM
Zacchaeus, in the gospel reading we just heard, was a traitor to his people—not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector—someone who had prospered and become filthy rich by working for the occupying, Roman authorities, extracting taxes on their behalf. A truly loathsome man. No wonder there was grumbling when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Such a man, surely, deserved nothing but contempt. Leave him up the Sycamore tree and hope he injures himself on the way down.
Complaint is a regular feature in the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke; complaint specifically about Jesus spending his time with ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ And we mustn’t imagine that this was just prudishness on the part of those complaining—some of these people really would have been shockingly bad, loathsome indeed—like insider-traders, or tax-evaders—folk who played the system for their own advantage, caring nothing for those who might lose-out. These people belong behind bars, not offering hospitality to the Son of God.
Chief among the complainers in Luke’s gospel, we might remember, is the elder son, in the Parable about his prodigal brother, where the young man who effectively wished his Father dead, who squandered half of what his Father had spent a life-time working-for, this man is favoured with a ring, a cloak and enough roast beef for all his friends. No wonder the elder son complains: his brother is completely reprehensible, appalling, could barely be less-deserving if he tried, and he had tried pretty hard. The diligent older son is completely justified in his indignation. This lavish treatment makes no sense—it isn’t fair; the Prodigal doesn’t deserve it.
And at this point the preacher might peer, moist-eyed over his spectacles (were he wearing them), and implore—but, dear children, isn’t this just the point? None of us, even the most virtuous, can ever deserve forgiveness—even if we crawled over glass; if we climbed, on our knees, up a holy mountain—we couldn’t merit God’s forgiveness. We can’t make good our sin; we can’t change it from what it essentially is. We might try to redress the balance—as the prophet compels us ‘Cease to do evil. Learn to do good’, but sin remains what it is, like a series of blots on our life’s landscape; a repeated bum-note in the symphony of our existence. None of us is, or can make ourselves, deserving of the forgiveness that brushes out the blemishes; that restores the harmony—yet this is what God does, and we would be lost without it.
The gospel pushes us towards something quite shocking—almost offensive. God’s forgiveness, God’s justice is not the kind of careful, calculated, fair business that we might strive for. For us, justice needs to have elements of retribution (punishment) as well as restoration (making good, making up for the evil committed). But in the gospel we see little of either. Zacchaeus is not expected to even acknowledge his sin, let alone be punished for it, and the prodigal son, famously, isn’t given a chance to recite his act of contrition before the Father starts throwing robes over his shoulder, and firing-up the barbeque. God’s justice is not constrained by our processes; neither calculating how much good is required of us to balance out the bad, nor calibrating a suitable punishment to fit the crime—if he were, then surely none of us would be left standing?
There is a rather Anglo-Catholic joke about Jesus standing before the crowd about to stone the woman caught in adultery, and proclaiming ‘let the one who is without sin cast the first stone’. At which a single rock comes winging its way through the crowd, striking the unfortunate woman—to which Jesus exclaims, ‘Oh, Mother!’ I am very devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but I’m not convinced she was sinless (perhaps the Canon Theologian will take me to one side later).
The God of the gospel, it appears, is not into retributive justice, nor restorative justice, in the way we understand them—the God of the gospel is into forgiveness—forgiveness is the shape and method of his justice, and it comes to us as utter gift, before we ask it, before we could even know we need it. God gives forgiveness in the same vein as he gives life, existence, being: it is all one and the same gift; creating and redeeming.
And that is both wonderful and shocking, even offensive.
Elder sons, dutiful church-goers, decent people the world over can’t help but wonder whether this is quite right—whether reprehensible, self-interested traitors like Zacchaeus should really get the red-carpet treatment; at the very least not until they have shown some remorse or started to make some reparation. The idea that war-criminals are not only not beyond the possibility of forgiveness, but that they might already be forgiven by God is pretty unpalatable.
Doesn’t this rather undermine all our careful, laborious, expensive processes of justice; our efforts to make life as fair as we possibly can; to strive, in the words of the Prayer Book for ‘the punishment of wickedness and vice and the maintenance of true religion and virtue.’
Perhaps there is a distinction to be drawn (very carefully) between the kind of earthly justice, the noble pursuit of fairness, for which we strive, and the Divine justice of which it is a shadow and on which it depends. Perhaps Jesus is prompting us, not to abandon our efforts to be good and upright, but to see beyond them to the eternal justice on which we all ultimately rely and which alone can give us hope.
Many of us will have felt what the psalmist powerfully describes—sung for us earlier by the choir: the heavy burden of unconfessed sin and the sense of release that comes through its acknowledgement and the assurance of forgiveness. In the psalmist’s words:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long…Then I acknowledged my sin to you…and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
This is how it works for us—that experience of forgiveness following confession. This is how justice works for us—the offender restored after due penalty and demonstrable effort to make amends. The gospel doesn’t undermine any of this, but it does put it into context. It reminds us that our earthly, carefully-calculated processes of reconciliation are, in many ways, a very pale reflection of divine justice. The gospel offers us, in Jesus, a glimpse of something we may not yet be ready to fully take on board; that all our attempts at reconciliation and justice are made against a backdrop of prevenient, unconstrained grace and forgiveness—the gift offered before we even know we need it; a gift always unmerited, always more than we can desire. Indeed, there is no other backdrop against which we could ever have the courage to confess our sins in the first place; or ever think justice was worth pursuing at all.
Zacchaeus discovered this grace not after due punishment; nor after making restoration—his pledge to do so came after Jesus called him. Zacchaeus discovered this grace in a summons to be hospitable:
‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’
In this house, at this altar we are summoned to hospitality—we offer bread and wine, and it is returned to us as the body and blood of the Lord. Here hospitality is given and received. We receive the bread and the cup that speak of unconstrained mercy and forgiveness; a price paid beyond calculation, more than sufficient for all sin throughout time. A gift that could never be earned; a gift that surely no sin can ultimately resist.
This should always amaze us, even sometimes offend us. Forgiveness isn’t fair, it is more generous than that; more generous than any justice we can imagine, let alone practice; it is the gift and hospitality of God, and the holiness to which we, and even the most reprehensible, are simply summoned.