Formations 06.12.2016: Grace at the End of the Line

Luke 19:1-10

Niels Larsen Steven, “Christ and Zacchaeus” (Wikimedia Commons)

Niels Larsen Steven, “Christ and Zacchaeus” (Wikimedia Commons)

Before beginning as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys, I graduated from Mercer University. In the three weeks between finishing school and starting work, I gave up on productivity and chose to go fishing instead.

I fly-fish, and as a participant in the most pretentious and least effective form of fishing, I have succumb to the all-too-natural tendency of defending my choice in angling technique. Luckily, those who came before me established a tradition of infusing ideas from physics, philosophy, and art into the descriptions of fly-fishing, from which I craft my arguments. In 1992 one thread of this tradition broke into the mainstream with Robert Redford’s adaptation of A River Runs Through It. Anyone who has seen the film may remember the sweeping lines preserved from Norman Maclean’s original source overlaying landscapes of men fly-fishing in Montana.

Towards the beginning of his story, Maclean remembers his father, a Presbyterian minister, teaching him to cast a fly rod. In what is best described as a Reformed Theology of Fly Casting, he weighs the relationship between life, grace, and power.

Since it is natural for man to try to attain power without recovering grace, he whips the line back and forth making it whistle each way, and sometimes even snapping off the fly from the leader, but the power that was going to transport the little fly across the river somehow gets diverted into building a bird’s nest of line, leader, and fly that falls out of the air into the water about ten feet in front of the fisherman. [ . . . ]

All good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

If Zacchaeus were to have taken up fly-fishing on the Jordan River, we might expect him to make the same mistake by trying to force distance rather than allow the energy of the fly line to carry the fly. Most beginners expect success in casting to come with physical strength. Zacchaeus likely approached his life in the way that most cast for the first time. He stole from his own people in order to achieve economic control, political power, and social influence.

But despite every customary indication of success, Zacchaeus was dead in so many other ways. His community despised him, and with a sunken spirit, he climbed a sycamore tree, a source of food for the poor, in order to see the man with a reputation for healing people. Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree, accepted his hospitality, and proclaimed salvation on his house.

Effective fly-casting does not come by brute force but by receptiveness to a slight pull at the end of the rod. The sensation is easily overlooked, but it is the first step to finding life at the end of our line. Zacchaeus discovered the grace of new life in small places, and he was unable to withhold what he found. He welcomed Jesus, maybe the grumbling crowd too, into his home for a meal. He paid back what he took four times over. And in his movement towards cultural insignificance, he discovered a source of grace so powerful that it nourished him in ways power and wealth never could. Strong-arming our way into abundant life appears to fail categorically. But the overlooked places and forgettable moments may be the places where God meets us in our smallness, calling for us to embrace the grace that can propel us into new life.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), 3-4.


• What about Luke’s story of Zacchaeus surprises you?
• What are the expected ways that we have been taught to establish success?
• Where are the unexpected places you have encountered God?
• What are some unexpected things God might call you to?

Reference Shelf


The first three Gospels contain about twenty references to publicans, Jewish men who collected taxes and tolls for the Roman government. They were held in contempt throughout the Roman Empire, including Israel. They were regarded as betrayers of their own people, and many of them were greedy and dishonest; John the Baptist instructed publicans to collect only those taxes which were properly authorized (Luke 3:13). Because they cooperated with the Romans, publicans were ceremonially unclean and could not participate in Israel’s religious activities. In the Gospels they are associated with sinners (Matt 9:10), Gentiles (Matt 18:17), harlots (Matt 21:31), extortioners, the unjust, and adulterers (Luke 18:11). In these associations, the Gospels reflect an attitude toward publicans which was understandably widespread.

Fisher Humphreys, “Publicans,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 724.

Zacchaeus the Camel

So why is he up a tree? Wealthy, powerful people do not run ahead of the crowd and climb a tree if they want to see visiting preachers. They get their people to call up the preacher’s road manager and set up a private lunch at their club. If they want a seat to watch the parade, they have someone arrange that, or have their goons clear a space and set up a chair and bring them a drink. The ruler has no problem getting to Jesus. He’s there in the crowd, watching the parade of babies and Jesus’ reaction to the disciples’ role as bouncers, and when he’s ready, he just asks Jesus what he wants to know. I submit that in the real world of Luke and his audience, nobody believed that the crowds could really prevent Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus if that’s what he wanted. So the fact that the crowds are a problem tells us something about Jesus and about Zacchaeus’s frame of mind. First, Luke’s Jesus is nobody’s pet teacher. When the ruler calls him “good teacher,” he shrugs it off; Jesus is not about swapping favors and being the grateful client to some generous wealthy patron (see the discussion of this at 7:10; 7:11-17; and 7:36-50). Second, Zacchaeus acts as if he knows this, and does not use his influence to get close to Jesus. He could have pushed through the crowd to ask his question, like the ruler; he could have hollered, like the blind man; instead, he sprints ahead of the crowd and shinnies up a tree, just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Like the tax collector in the parable, he knows he needs mercy.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 589-90.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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