Forgiveness and Justice: Two Keys to Reconciliation

The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) is a consistently fascinating read. It embodies many distinctive elements of a great story—a surprising twist, dramatic turns, and a shocking resolution. In the story, a man of wealth and power cannot find a spot on the street among the crowds as he endeavors to get a good look at Jesus. This is partially because the man is short but also so despised by people that they would crowd him out. Thus, like a child, this man of short stature climbs a tree along the street to look down for Jesus, and, to his surprise, Jesus looks up at the despised outcast and calls him by name. Jesus decides to spend time at the home of the sinner of sinners. But perhaps the most shocking element of the story is its climax, as Zacchaeus pledges to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back to those he defrauded four times what he took.

The story of Zacchaeus is a story of reconciliation. Jesus chooses Zacchaeus and stays in his house because he desires him to be reconciled with God and people. This is after all the same Jesus who asserted, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (v. 10). More importantly, however, the story reveals the manner in which divine-human reconciliation is inseparably related to human-human reconciliation. It offers a much-needed correction to a popular evangelical misunderstanding of reconciliation that regards reconciliation as a purely personal transaction between God and individuals, often with no mind given to its interpersonal effects.

The pledge of Zacchaeus (v. 8) is all the more shocking because of its stark contrast with the story of the rich ruler who came to Jesus previously (Luke 18:18–30) and inquired about obtaining eternal life. This rich ruler prided himself in that he had kept the Ten Commandments from his youth and gave some indication of his interest in Jesus’ ministry. However, when given the choice between retaining his wealth and following Jesus, he “became sad; for he was very rich.” In encountering Zacchaeus, Jesus did not make the same request. Zacchaeus freely volunteered his acts of charity and reparation after his meeting with Jesus. His story strongly suggests that a rich person, even one guilty of crimes, can indeed be reconciled to God. In some instances it seems the camel can pass through the eye of the needle (Matt 19:24)!

What may have compelled Zacchaeus to make such a radical decision? Why did the rich ruler, religious and well-trained in the law, resist reconciliation, while Zacchaeus, an outcast and a sinner, embraced it?

The answer is rooted in Zacchaeus’s experience of the costly grace of God demonstrated by Jesus. Zacchaeus saw the risk Jesus took by choosing and fellowshipping with him. Jesus was already being accused of being a friend of sinners by Pharisees, and Jesus’ decision to stay with Zacchaeus alienates him further from the entire community. This alienation includes Jesus’ own disciples, because the text notices, “All, who saw it, began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (v. 7). Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, was intentionally breaking social norms by associating with Zacchaeus. Repercussions were sure to follow his action.

The story of Zacchaeus dramatically renders the manner in which divine reconciliation occurs and further reveals its appropriate motivations among those being reconciled. Zacchaeus’s pledge was motivated by neither legalism nor desire for personal perfection, but by God’s grace. Having been reconciled with God by the costly grace of Jesus, Zacchaeus was now motivated to reconcile with his neighbors and victims, too. This is evident in Zacchaeus’s decision to give half of his wealth to the poor and to compensate four times what he owed to the victims of his deceit, which far exceeded the legal requirement prescribed by the Hebrew Scripture (Lev 6:5). Zacchaeus’s story reveals the heart of grace through its actions: it acts not only to merely fulfill the letter of the law but endeavors to also fulfill the spirit of the law, something that only God’s costly grace can fully and consistently achieve.

Illustration by Denise Louise Klitsie of Harriet Tubman for FULLER magazine“Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? Does it not cast a reproach on our Maker to despise a part of His children, because He has been pleased to give them a black skin? Indeed, children, it does; and your teachers ought to tell you so, and root up, if possible, the great sin of prejudice against color from your minds.”

+ Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), in an address at a Sunday School Convention in Battle Creek, Michigan. An abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner was a compelling speaker who spoke with authority as a freed slave. The pomegranate she holds is a symbol of the fullness of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection.


As in the narrative, interpersonal reconciliation is no easy task. Like God’s grace, it is costly. Imagine with me for a moment how Zacchaeus would have followed up his pledge for charity and reparations later. How might Zacchaeus’s wife and children have reacted to his decision? What was it like for him to come face to face with the victims of his exploitation? Some might have become homeless; some might have lost family members (as a direct or indirect result of his exploitation, as we saw in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis). For some families, even reparation would not have been acceptable or sufficient. To confront the hardship and suffering of people would have been personally shameful and heartbreaking to Zacchaeus. He more than likely experienced hostility from some of his victims. The actual business of disentangling his web of past financial abuses and economic oppression would be far more challenging than simply making and keeping a pledge. Additionally, Zacchaeus would more than likely have found continuing in the position as chief tax collector difficult in light of his new ethical commitments.

What can we learn from Zacchaeus’s story for our own tasks of reconciliation? Zacchaeus’s act of reconciliation was a response to Jesus’ reconciliation. As Jesus took a risk and paid a significant price in reconciling with us, that same divine grace compels us to take a risk in reconciling with others. The story reveals that reconciling with others is rooted in the will of God; thus we should be motivated by God’s grace and by our gratitude rather than by guilt or shame. Guilt and shame do not move a person toward God; rather, guilt and shame produce procrastination, fear, and paralysis. The power of divine grace is far stronger than the power of guilt. God’s grace, though invisible, is transformative; it sets a new motion in our hearts. Once entered into our heart, it convicts, compels, and convinces us away from the fear, anxiety, and shame toward the hope of reconciliation and a fresh start.

Walter Brueggemann speaking at the 2015 Fuller Forum“This reach towards the Other does not constitute an abandonment of the self, so in God’s reach toward the Other, God does not abandon God’s own self. And there is evidence in many places of the Old Testament that God’s self-regard overrides the Other because God will not be mocked or trivialized or cheapened. But this reach towards the Other means that the relationship out of which we get justice, grace, and law is always about othering.”

+ Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament theologian and professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Seminary. He was the featured speaker for the 2015 Fuller Forum.

To highlight the effect this type of grace can achieve, I want to share with you a story of a Christian woman, Katrina Browne, who assures us that the story of Zacchaeus is still possible today. Katrina Browne was a theological student at the Pacific School of Religion. Through one of her courses at the seminary, she was challenged to think about the meaning of reconciliation. Although she had heard about her own ancestors’ involvement with slave trade, she had never done much about it. Inspired by the class, Katrina began to dig deeply into her family history. By studying ledgers, family diaries, and other historical documents, to her surprise she discovered that her Rhode Island ancestors had run the largest slave-trading business in American history. Over three generations, from 1769 to 1820, the DeWolf family brought more than ten thousand slaves across the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, they accumulated enormous wealth. And for two hundred years, the DeWolfs produced many distinguished public servants, educators, respected businessmen, and prominent Episcopal clerics. One of her ancestors, James DeWolf, became a United States Senator and was reportedly the second richest man in the nation at the time.

What do you do with this kind of sordid secret? Do you move on, as if it had never happened? Do you ignore it because you personally have had nothing to do with the slave trade? Katrina, as a Christian, chose a difficult route. She decided to share her family’s shameful history with the public. Katrina invited two hundred descendants of the DeWolfs to join her on a journey to explore their family’s past. Only nine came. Together, they retraced the route of slave trade from Bristol, Rhode Island, to the slave forts of Ghana and the remains of a family plantation in Cuba. Along the way, the ten of them discussed the impact of the slave trade on Africa and America. A documentary entitled Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North was the result of their trip and their work together. I imagine Katrina experienced at least some blame and hostility from her family members and from the communities they researched—from people who must have felt shame, guilt, and embarrassment because Katrina chose to publicly share their family’s or communities’ story.

The story of Katrina Browne should inspire us all because it dramatically reenacts the core of the Zacchaeus narrative. Katrina’s action offers a small but important step toward racial reconciliation in our country. Katrina Browne and her cousins chose to engage in the ministry of reconciliation. She understood that although she was not responsible for the wrongs of her ancestors, although she could not compensate all the victims of her ancestors (particularly because she does not know who they are), reconciliation at the minimum requires speaking the truth about slavery and making an authentic acknowledgment of the pain suffered by its victims. This is important because genuine reconciliation is impossible without the restoration of trust; and trust is rooted in the truth, including the acknowledgment and confession of past wrongs.

Some evangelicals think forgiveness alone is sufficient in achieving reconciliation because that is what God did in Jesus Christ. Their focus is often interpersonal peace, harmony, and love rather than justice, reparation of wrongs, and equality. However, Miroslav Volf warns in his award-winning book Exclusion and Embrace, “forgiveness is not a substitute for justice.” Forgiveness without justice is cheap reconciliation. Genuine and lasting reconciliation is possible only on the basis of both forgiveness and reparation of wrongs. Reconciliation has two locks to open. One might say, if forgiveness is one key, then justice is the other. Forgiveness is the one half of reconciling work that a victim exercises, while justice is the other half of reconciling work that is reserved to the perpetrator. Only after having achieved both goals can true reconciliation occur.

Illustration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Denise Louise Klitsie for FULLER magazine“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

+  Martin Luther King Jr., from his speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” given the day before he was murdered at the age of 39. King (1929–1968) was an American minister, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and leader of the African American civil rights movement. Best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights through nonviolent civil disobedience—based on his Christian beliefs—he was considered one of the greatest orators and Christian leaders in American history.

Dr. King’s legendary speech “I Have a Dream” is his compelling appeal for a national reconciliation. With a moving force, it envisions a new America that is racially integrated and reconciled not only legally but also spiritually and morally. King dreamed: “One day, . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Although reconciliation was the goal of his movement, however, King did not preach a cheap, counterfeit vision of reconciliation. Most Americans do not know that his speech actually starts with a stinging criticism of white hypocrisy that had consistently denied the basic rights of African Americans and other people of color. King firmly rejects the status quo of racial inequality because it is a stumbling block toward reconciliation. He solemnly declared: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” As much as his noble vision of the fully reconciled America was genuine and compelling, his commitment to justice was equally firm and uncompromising. He urged the nation to “lift itself from the quicksands of racial injustice and to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.”

Scripture tells us that the ministry of reconciliation is not optional because reconciliation is the heart of the gospel. It is central to what Jesus achieved through his atoning death on the cross. If we are reconciled with God, then we are to reconcile with others. The Apostle Paul clearly says, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). These two reconciliations are not separate; one is incomplete without the other, and God’s reconciliation is completed in our reconciliation with other people. Paul says in his letter to Ephesians: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14).

Fuller Seminary faculty member Cameron Lee speaking at the 2015 Fuller Forum“The kind of neighborliness envisioned by the parable of the Good Samaritan requires the imagination to see beyond our taken-for-granted in-group loyalties and the self-righteous and the self-protective interpretations that support them. Unfortunately, we simply can’t assume that every child of God operates out of a robust ‘engagement ethic’ or ‘imagination ethic.’ When God’s law and current events are read through the lens of an implicit (and quite possibly unrecognized) safety ethic, imagination is being constrained by survival needs. That deficit of imagination is not going to be fixed by taking the right seminary class.”

+  Cameron Lee is professor of marriage and family studies in the department of marriage and family in Fuller’s School of Psychology. Read more from him and other members of the community here.

Christians are called to be the ambassadors of reconciliation. An ambassador is one who is sent to another nation (a territory of sovereignty) as the representative of her own nation. She is an alien by nature there, as she represents a different sovereignty and reality. An ambassador lives in the nation where she serves, but she is not of that nation. The ministry of reconciliation is similar. When Paul called Christians as the ambassadors of reconciliation, he understood how much reconciliation is a difficult, in fact foreign, reality in this world. However, through the ministry of reconciliation, we embody and represent the divine reality of shalom to this broken world.

Reconciliation from a biblical perspective does not refer to passive absence of enmity but active presence of friendship. Hence, reconciliation cannot be forced, just as forgiveness and apology cannot be coerced either. To repair a broken relationship and move toward friendship, each party needs to go an extra mile than what the law requires. Reconciliation requires the courage to be vulnerable (a victim’s forgoing of her rights through forgiveness as well as a perpetrator’s confronting his shames through truthful confession); therefore, the road to reconciliation leads toward Golgotha—denying oneself and carrying one’s cross, as Jesus did. And it is possible only through God’s grace.

Engaging in the ministry of reconciliation will likely render us vulnerable. We may run the risk of being ostracized by our own community while receiving unfair anger and animosity from others. However, we should not be discouraged because we are saved not by cheap grace, but costly grace—the grace that moved Zacchaeus and Katrina Browne. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NASB). And this assuring promise of Jesus Christ will always live with us as we engage in the ministry of reconciliation as God’s ambassadors in this world that is hungry for God’s grace and thirsty for friendship.

+  The author wishes to thank Jason Fallin for his assistance with a stylistic revision of this article.