October 30, 2016

24th Sunday after Pentecost/All Saints Sunday

Isaiah 1:10-20
Psalm 32

Luke 19:1-10


Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the most famous of all the groups that use twelve-step programs to cure addictions. A new participant usually introduces him/herself to the group by saying his/her name, and then identifies him/herself as an alcoholic. So, it begins with an introduction of oneself and an acknowledgement of one’s problem. If your name is Dwayne, as an example, you would say to the group, “Hello, I’m Dwayne, and I’m an alcoholic.”

But, that’s not the end. The next step is as crucial as the first one. The other people in the group must welcome Dwayne by saying, “Hello Dwayne.”

Here is the key to the effectiveness of the program: acceptance. Here, in the group, the addicted person is accepted as a fellow traveller towards healing. He is no longer judged as the lousy parent or the irresponsible partner or the manipulative friend or the foul-mouthed neighbour or even the abusive colleague. In the group, he is accepted, no matter what he has done in the past. The group treats him as a human being who needs help and hope for the best from him...

Indeed, a program like Alcoholic Anonymous is based on one fundamental belief that healing and recovery are more possible in a loving and accepting environment.

This is also a fundamental Christian belief: “God shows God’s love for us in this: Jesus died for us when we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).” The Gospel is about forgiveness that comes before repentance. God forgives us not after we have been behaving well, but even when we are still behaving badly. Of course, forgiveness without repentance is empty, but we, Christians, believe that the source of repentance is not punishment, but forgiveness, love, and acceptance.

The world, however, often teaches a different value. It’s almost Christmas again, whether you believe it or not, and soon we will hear again that popular song: Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It’s a happy song and I love the tune, but the lyrics represent a value that is the opposite of our Christian value:

“You better watch out, you better not cry,
you better not pout, I’m telling you why,
Santa Clause is coming to town ...

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
he knows when you’re awake,
he knows that you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake ...”

Yes, the whole myth about Santa is based on reward/punishment mindset: you’ll be rewarded if you are behaving well, but beware of you’re behaving badly. Now, this may work for children - and they do need to learn about the consequences of good and bad behaviours. We have a problem, however, when we still follow this kind of mindset blindly in our adult life, especially in our relationship with God.

Many people, consciously or unconsciously, may equate God with Santa. This should not be a surprise since many people think that God is an old person with long beard, just like Santa. And, as such, they may think that God and Santa behave in the same manner and that they’ll only earn God’s love and acceptance by behaving well.

Now, I’m not saying that this kind of belief does not appear in the Bible. Our passage today from the book of Isaiah warned the people of Israel that they would enjoy the goodness of the land only if they obeyed the Lord. But, if they dared to defy the Lord, they would die. So, it’s a reward/punishment belief and sounds rather harsh, but we need to read it in its proper context.

The passage was written to challenge the people of Israel who often took shortcuts in their relationship with God. They believed that repentance was only about giving the right kind of sacrifice in the temple as atonement for their sins. They believed that they would be in the right kind of relationship with God through religious ceremony without the need of doing the right things.

They were wrong.

Repentance is not about doing the right kind of ceremony, but about living the right kind of life. It is about doing the things that are righteous in the eyes of God. Righteous living is an element of repentance that cannot be ignored.

We find a good example of someone who truly repented in the person of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke. Zacchaeus did not only express his regret in words; he also expressed it in his life.

But, the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus has also one fundamental element that we can’t ignore. Jesus approached Zacchaeus fully knowing that the other people in the village hated him. Or, perhaps, it was more accurate to say that he approached Zacchaeus because he knew that Zacchaeus had been living a sinful life.

This was nothing short of remarkable. To stay in someone’s house was, and still is, a symbol of identity. We choose to stay in the place of someone whom we want to identify ourselves with. So, by staying with Zacchaeus, Jesus ran the risk of identifying himself with a hated man like Zacchaeus. Indeed, many people in his time thought that that was the case.

But, there was also another element: by staying in Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus lifted up Zacchaeus’ status from marginal to important. Indeed, this must have been Jesus’ idea all along. He later reminded the villagers that this man, whom they hated so much, was also a member of God’s family, just like them.

The author of Psalm 32 must have agreed with Jesus. Psalm 32 was a prayer of someone who was burdened by his sins. He tried to conceal them, but he couldn’t bear his guilt any longer. So, instead of denying his sins in the presence of God, like a criminal trying to deny his crimes in the presence of a judge, he confessed everything to God.

But, instead of receiving harsh punishment from God, he received forgiveness and mercy. He found peace. And, just like Zacchaeus, the acceptance and forgiveness that he experienced became the springboard that launched him to a life of obedience to God.

There have been talks about the prison system in Norway. The country’s reoffending rate in 2013 was 30%, the lowest rate in Europe and less than half of the UK’s. The secret is their prison system that is different from other conventional prison system in the rest of the world.

In Bastoy prison island, as an example, prisoners were offered education, training, and skill-building programs. Their cells had televisions, computers, showers, and sanitation. Instead of wings, prisoners lived in small communities. They lived like in a village where everybody had to work, but also had free times to go fishing or, in summer, swimming at the beach. One prisoner, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for drug smuggling, said that the prisoners were given trust and responsibility and were treated like grownups. “We know we are prisoners,” he said, “But, here, we feel like people.”[1]

The prison system in Norway is not perfect, but it is a better system than other prison systems in the rest of the world because it produces better result. And, it produces better result because it puts into practice the value of the Gospel that Jesus showed to someone like Zacchaeus.

Real transformation, which follows true repentance, more likely happens in an accepting and loving environment. Forgiveness, love, and acceptance are the keys that will lead us to transformed life within us and around us. They worked in the life of Zacchaeus; they worked in the life of the psalmist of Psalm 32; they worked in the lives of many prisoners in Norway. I believe they will also work in our life: in our family, in our church, in our workplace, in our community, and in our nation.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Erwin James, The Norwegian Prison where Inmates are Treated Like People, on https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/feb/25/norwegian-prison-inmates-treated-like-people (Monday 25 February 2013 19.00 AEDT)