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From his column A Minute with Donminute-with-don-03-15-1

The televisions in the sports-themed café where I was eating lunch were tuned to the obligatory channels. There were at least a dozen screens of various sizes, with three or four channels playing simultaneously. The weather and most of the stories reminded me it was basketball season. But the story that caught my attention was about baseball. The headline touted a handwritten apology recently penned by a disgraced star.

His offense was the use of banned Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). He was coming off a season suspension from the game, and apparently realized he needed to make some kind of statement before returning to the field. To his credit, he chose to apologize to his fans, his team, the league, and anyone else he’d offended. His prior responses blazed with arrogant defiance and counter-accusations. But with his return to the field just weeks away, he chose to admit the obvious and repent. That player, of course, is Alex Rodriguez, third baseman for the New York Yankees.

At the time of this writing, it is still too early to know just how this will play out. Generally, Americans are generous with grace for their fallen heroes. This is especially true in the sports world when there is hope that the rehabilitated star can return to the team and improve the chances of winning. In our world, winning matters more than other things to which we give token allegiance.

The apology contained an interesting dose of reality. Mr. Rodriquez admitted that some would be skeptical of his note of remorse. I admit, I’m one of those persons. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it is possible that time and future behavior will convince me of his sincerity. For now, it is hard to see this as anything other than a publicity ploy, creatively timed to smooth the way for his return to earning millions of dollars playing baseball. An apology accompanied by a relinquishment of all he had earned as a result of his bad behavior, (we used to call that restitution) would have more impact; however, I doubt we’ll see such an expression of remorse anytime soon.

Pondering this unfolding story reminded me of the short taxman Zacchaeus. There is a lot to love about the gospel narrative around his encounter with Jesus. His curiosity illustrates how the human heart longs for divine connection. The honesty and compassion of Jesus reminds us all of how indebted we are to His grace. But the unsolicited offer of Zacchaeus to seek to restore what he had gained unethically is astounding. In this day, it is way beyond the normal expression of mea culpa.

Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed by the freedom and joy that came with forgiveness and redemption that he could not limit its expression to himself. He had to extend it to those within his sphere of influence. He was so grateful for grace he could not help but respond with generosity. And he, no doubt, was fearful that failure to make amends would return him to his former state of spiritual and social exile.

Given the dollars involved, it is unlikely we’ll ever see Zacchaeus-like largess from fallen celebrities. On the same day Mr. Rodriquez’s story broke, another article announced the decision of an arbitration panel in the case of cyclist Lance Armstrong. The multiple Tour de France winner had sought to retain the millions of dollars he’d won while also cheating at his sport. After much defiance, Mr. Armstrong did publicly utter some regrets, but he is no Zacchaeus. He’s fighting to keep his ill-gotten winnings.

The scripture is honest in stating that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” It is also full of reminders that even the redeemed and “called-out” ones are forever human and subject to any manner of faults, failings, and foibles. In such a world under such conditions, there is nothing more needed or amazing than grace.

But grace affects humans in different ways. Some are overcome with amazement, while others are jaded by such divine generosity. They take the extension of God’s love for granted. Unfortunately, for those of us who are charged with stewardship of this precious message, this may be one of the greatest vocational hazards we face.

A few years ago, I was privileged to hear Dr. O.S. Hawkins, president and CEO of GuideStone Financial Resources (formerly the Southern Baptist Annuity Board), speak on “the fear factor.” (A free download of “Fear Factor” is available here.) He reminded the ecumenically diverse gathering of the fear of God for those engaged in God’s work. He said a biblical understanding of the fear of God isn’t that God will lay His hand on us in retribution. Rather, it is that He will remove His hand from us because we have strayed from His mission and principles. Perhaps, in addition to being overwhelmed by grace, Zacchaeus was gripped by this fear.

God’s grace community walks in dangerous environs. We give ourselves to proclamation of full and free forgiveness. We assure those who hear the message that no sin is beyond the scope of God’s redemption. We move among those who need to hear these words. We rejoice with them at the point of their personal acceptance of this free gift. But we must take care to not become so accustomed to seeing the effectiveness of the antidote that we lose our fear of the disease. And, if we are not vigilant, we may also lose our fear of the forfeiture of God’s favor and blessing.

For all of us, there are moments when we need to apologize. It is in those times perhaps we should consider, “What would Zacchaeus do?”


Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.

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