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Taking On Our Shame

by Greg Howell

Let me make a confession. Before the days of text messages, all of the girls in my class would pass notes to each other. These notes were usually folded elaborately, with hearts and fancy writing on the outside; but inside they contained secrets and mysteries that I was itching to discover.

These mysteries (who liked whom, who had kissed whom) were so enticing that I found the temptation completely irresistible. In fact, I didn’t really even bother trying to resist—I just took the notes whenever I had the chance. Many times they were sitting just inside the receiver’s desk, next to all the fruity-smelling erasers. In any way conceivable I would work to sneak and steal my way into possession of these notes, simply because I needed to know what they contained.

Mostly it was boring stuff. But every once in a while I’d come across something that blew my mind; and it was those juicy tidbits that kept me coming back. I’d go sneaking through the darkened room when everyone else was out at recess, thinking maybe, just maybe, I’d find something interesting!

I know, creepy.

But actually I got caught by the girls so many times that it turned into a game. They became miniature Houdinis, squirreling their notes away in hidden pockets and containers that baffled me. One day, as I was making my regular rounds in the classroom, I came across a big fat note. I quickly faked a sneeze and doubled over briefly, snatching the note with the ease of one who had practiced this a lot.

I know, clever me.

I rushed to the boys’ bathroom and thumbed through the pages of tiny, curly writing. Suddenly my heart stopped. It was about me! I was all over the place. This girl thought I was cute, it sounded as though there might even be a bit of jealousy between several girls who all had their eyes on me!

I couldn’t believe it. But there it all was, in purple and pink ink with curlicues dotting the i’s! Finally I reached the end of the note, breathless with the enormity of my unrealized romances. But the note suddenly changed tone and read, “And since we know you’re reading this, Greg, why don’t you just put this back where you found it and quit stealing all our notes! None of it’s true anyway, you loser!”

I was devastated, and filled with shame all at once. I had been set up and played for an idiot. As I shuffled into the classroom, I walked back to the owner’s desk and handed her the note. Then I left those dark days of note stealing behind me, forever shamed into living a clean and blissfully ignorant life.

Shame is never something we like to feel. Shame is embarrassing and painful and at the worst, life-threatening. The story of Zacchaeus, in Luke 19, shows what happens to a person who has been publicly and shamefully condemned. You’re probably familiar with the story: little man climbs a tree, Jesus has pity on him, and He goes to his house for dinner. But there’s a lot more going on between those lines.

The first verse says, “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through” (Luke 19:1).* Even though this seems as though it’s just setting up the scenario, Jesus is actually being rude here. Middle Eastern custom always makes a huge event out of someone famous. A massive feast is prepared, the businesses all stop, and everyone comes out to see the famous visitor. But the first verse here tells a different story, because Jesus shows He will only be entering and passing through. The crowd would have been extremely disappointed, and a little insulted.

Then here comes the most hated man in town, Zacchaeus. Hated because he was a sellout to their overlords, the Roman Empire. Hated because he abused his position as tax collector by becoming rich through cheating. Hated because their own rabbis said it was OK to hate him. In fact, the Jewish writings of the time claimed that God overlooks it when you lie to a tax collector about your income.
Zacchaeus knew that going out in a large crowd could be dangerous for him. So he ran ahead and looked for the easiest place to see this Jesus, while being safe from the crowd itself. A huge sycamore tree loomed over the road, and Zachhaeus climbed up quickly. But being in that tree made things worse for any conscientious Jew. According to the rabbinical traditions, anyone who sits under a tree or in a home with a sinful man takes on the man’s uncleanness. The crowd would have pointed and laughed at Zacchaeus, but they would’ve steered clear of the tree itself.

Jesus, however, avoided nothing. He marched right up to the tree and looked up into its branches. The crowd would have gasped—all of them thinking: Doesn’t He know who this is and that He is now ritually impure? Worse yet, Jesus pointed at the man and suddenly changed His plans to leave town. “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Not only did He invite Himself (considered quite rude), but He shunned the feast given by the town . . . to go and eat with the most despised man around! The crowd would have gone nuts, and the Bible records as much. “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner’ ” (Luke 19:7).

Jesus takes on our shame—I’ve heard that all my life. But here I can see exactly what it means. It’s not some fancy religious principle—it’s literal and brutal. Jesus knew what He was doing by standing under that tree, and He knew what He was doing by eating in that home. For Zacchaeus, literal and true salvation had come to that house, but the world he lived in didn’t want to see it. With His actions Jesus turned the crowd’s anger to Himself instead. Refusing their offer but voluntarily taking part with Zacchaeus turned the crowd against Jesus and saved Zacchaeus.

I want to be like that. I want to see the people who are despised and shameful and do something to ease their pain. And I want to accept Jesus and what He’s done for me in taking on the guilt and the shame that I have created for myself. The funny thing is, when you’ve had someone step in for you like that, you’re just never the same person. Zacchaeus turned over a new leaf that day, and the town he lived in would eventually have to see that. All of this happened because Jesus took a risk and stepped out to take on the shame that was never really His.

* Scripture quotations in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Greg Howell is a pastor in Washington and with his wife has coauthored a teen devotional titled Fusion. He prefers to spend his time snowboarding, behind a camera, or running around like a crazy person chasing his four kids.

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