You don’t have to be a “dog person” to feel the outrage over Michael Vick. Vick, having been imprisoned for his inhumane treatment of dogs, signed a contract with the Eagles just two days following his release from prison. Supposedly, he’ll be making $1.6 million this year alone.
Or what about this one? Abdel Ali al-Megrahi was the only man convicted in a terrorist bombing that killed 270 people in 1988. But this week, he was granted what is termed a “compassionate release” from a prison and Scotland and allowed to return to his home country of Libya. The reason? Prostate cancer.
Where is the “compassionate release” for the victims? How can justice coincide with “compassionate release?”
It’s not my place to comment on whether either situation was or is “appropriate.” But I would suggest a parallel between the outrage the public feels towards these two men, and the outrage felt over the “compassionate release” of another man, from another time.
I’m talking about Zacchaeus.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ZACCHAEUS
Zacchaeus was a wee little man (a wee little man was he). Luke records his story in the nineteenth chapter of his gospel:
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.'”
A wealthy tax collector? This wasn’t the “taxman” of the Beatles song. This guy was shady. He made a fortune out of others’ misfortune. In the ancient world, tax collectors were basically government-sanctioned thugs who would take more money than the law required, padding their pockets with the excess.
Zacchaeus was one of these thugs, but this pint-sized extortionist had apparently found something incomprehensibly greater in the person and character of Jesus.
But what of the others? What of the victims? Jesus was surrounded by the victims of this tax collector’s schemes. One can only imagine what they felt as they saw Jesus sitting down in a house furnished by the money stolen from their own pockets.
“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.’”
Zacchaeus invoked the ancient law of restitution, whereby the offending party gave money to his victims in an effort to atone for his iniquity.
Justice. Repentance. Forgiveness. Outrage.
That’s the beauty of the gospel: that Jesus cares for both victim and victimizer. Zacchaeus was given his own “compassionate release” from a dehumanizing lifestyle of victimizing others for his own gain.
Granted, I doubt Vick will ever seeks such restitution. But the reality is that God’s kingdom is based on scandalous, outrageous grace. Grace that allows even the worst of us to experience the “compassionate release” through the cross of Jesus Christ.
And that really is outrageous.