Come back in time with me to first-century Jericho. Jesus has just entered the town, and there’s this short guy named Zach trying to see him through the crowd. Zach is a tax collector—and not just any tax collector. He’s the chief, and he’s rich. And he got that wealth via corruption.
Now imagine you’re one of the people this mob boss ripped off. It happened twenty years ago. And let’s assume that it went like this: you once owned property inherited from your parents. And they got it from their parents. Every good childhood memory you have rests on that precious property.
But one day Zach sent a couple of his guys in suits to inform you—on behalf of the "government"—that the taxes on such prime real estate were going up 500 percent. Of course, you couldn’t pay it, though you sold just about everything you owned to try raise the funds. So Zach and his guys took possession of your property as payment for back taxes owed.
For the past twenty years, you and your family have had no field from which to reap a harvest. You’ve had no vineyard from which to grow grapes. And you’ve had no cistern from which to draw water. You have suffered for the choices Zach made and forgot about. Every time you and your family have thought about your hardship, which is daily, you’ve had to work through choosing to forgive Zach and his cronies. Every time you have walked past that little piece of once-paradise, which is often, you have had to wrestle away bitterness.
Then one day some of your friends tell you a rabbi named Yeshua, who may be the Promised One, is coming to town. You rush to see him, elbowing your way through the crowds. And when you get to the Main Street, you think you see Zack’s back side. Sure enough, he’s up in one of the trees, trying to get a good view. He’s short, but you’re tall. So you can see it all.
Yeshua is walking down Main when he spots Zach.
“Finally!” you think. “Justice is going to happen.” And you hear it:
Yeshua talks to Zach. “Hurry and come down, because today I’m lodging at your house.”
And you think, “Your house? That house is not Zach’s!”
You watch as Zach shimmies down the tree to receive him gladly.
You and everybody around you—all of whom have been similarly ripped off—grumble among yourselves. It bothers all of you that the guy lucky enough to host Jesus (and being host is a big deal) is none other than the local mob boss (see Luke 19).
And for the next five years, you have to tolerate Zach talking about how what he did in the past does not matter, because God has forgiven him. And you think this God of his must not be so great.
Okay, that’s a totally unsatisfying ending, right? It's not what the text says. And we know it's wrong. Because being right with God (vertically) means making reparations with other humans (horizontally), correct?
Then, how about this ending?
Zach: “Lord, I’ll give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”
So let’s imagine you go to Zach after the Master has left town. You could not be more thrilled that Zach has new life. And you tell him you cannot wait to get back your old house—the house of your ancestors—not to mention the quadrupled size of the real estate!
And Zach looks stunned. “You actually expect me to give up my house?”
Now it’s your turn to be stunned. “But you took possession of it twenty years ago…”
Zach scoffs. “Twenty years! Buddy, you need to lose that ‘victim identity’ you have going. If that even happened, it was a long time ago. I’m a different person now. Besides, if I had really taken your house and land, why would you wait this long to bring it up? Why would you want to ruin my life?”
His callousness only adds to your pain. And you wonder if his God is real. His friends who claim to know God say you must be lying or at fault if you waited this long to say anything. And you wonder if their God is real, too. Their religious friends say anyone who waits a long time to reveal an injustice must be lying or have ulterior motives. And you promise yourself never to go to their house of worship because theirs is not the kind of God who is worthy of your worship.
* * *
A few months back when the US was embroiled in controversy over a powerful position on the Supreme Court, a lot of Christians argued their case politically in a way that contradicted scripture. Regardless of whether the charges were true or false, here is what is always true:
· Time alone does not fix an injustice.
· Being forgiven by God does not restore justice; it is merely the beginning of repentance.
· There is no statute of limitations either on confessing or on righting an injustice.
· There are many reasons people treated unjustly wait to come forward, mostly because of legitimate fear and concern that doing so will only add to their wound.
Let us aspire to: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with our God.