Responding like Jesus: accountability, repentance and forgiveness

By Andrew Phillips 06 Mar 2019

'Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus', James Tissot. c.1886-1896

In the last few weeks, in the state of Virginia, the three most important statewide elected officials (all Democrats) have been mired in scandal.

A photo in Governor Ralph Northam’s medical yearbook was published, showing two people, one in blackface, the other in a Klu Klux Klan robe. Northam apologised for the photo, then subsequently denied that he was in it. He did, however, admit to wearing blackface while at medical school.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault by two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson.

Attorney General Mark Herring said that he wore blackface as a student in the 1980s.

At time of writing, all three politicians still hold their respective positions, despite calls for resignations from local and national politicians.

The cases raised here are complex (and I am not judging or equating them) but they raise important questions around accountability. An ‘obligation or willingness to accept responsibility’, accountability is especially important for those who hold power over others; it is one of the main ways we restrain and limit power, and it is widely recognised as a societal good. In all cases, the media played a key role in sharing and reporting photos and testimonies. Moreover, in the case of Northam, his yearbook photo was initially shared with a right-wing website by his former classmates. It’s easier today than it has ever been to hold people accountable (including by private citizens). But how can Christians think biblically about accountability, especially for public figures?

Accountability, repentance and forgiveness

Throughout the gospels, Jesus consistently holds the powerful accountable. In Jesus’s time, the most powerful individuals among the Jews were religious teachers. The Pharisees appeared to be the most moral and religious Jews of their day, careful to observe all the ritual Mosaic laws. Jesus, however, holds them to account in a startlingly direct and combative way, especially for abuse of their religious authority (Matthew 23:4). After the Pharisees criticise Jesus’s disciples for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath, Jesus says: ‘If you had known what these words mean, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the innocent.’ (Matthew 12:7) Jesus is quoting Hosea, and places himself in a long tradition of prophets who held the powerful in Israel accountable.

But Jesus also models forgiveness. Consider the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). Tax collectors were deeply unpopular – they were considered treacherous collaborators with the Roman oppressors, and became rich by collecting excessive tax. Zacchaeus is an example of a powerful individual who had become wealthy through injustice and corruption. Yet Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he will stay at his house. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the crowd following Jesus are angry: they think that Jesus is not holding Zacchaeus accountable. But they are wrong. Although we are not told exactly what Jesus said to Zacchaeus, the effect that eating with Jesus has on him is astonishing. He gives away half of his wealth to the poor, and promises to provide fourfold restoration to those whom he had cheated. Jesus says: ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:9-10)

What can we learn from this? Jesus does hold Zacchaeus accountable, clearly. Zacchaeus’s response tells us that. But Jesus also offers Zacchaeus forgiveness. That was Jesus’s mission, ‘to seek and save the lost’, to offer forgiveness to those who did not deserve it. At the house of Simon the Pharisee, it is the ‘sinful’ woman whom Jesus forgives, not Simon (Luke 7:36-50).

Forgiveness is accompanied by repentance. Zacchaeus takes substantive action, demonstrating that he wanted to live differently. We are not saved by our actions, but repentance is an important part of being a
disciple of Jesus. Speaking a message of forgiveness and repentance is part of our mission too (Luke 24:46-47).

Jesus’s ministry upholds both the importance of accountability and the importance of forgiveness and repentance.

Accountability for today

Reflecting on Jesus’s ministry, then, here are some ideas for how Christians can think about accountability:

  • We should hold people in positions of power accountable.
    Jesus’s example gives Christians a strong motivation to be a
    prophetic voice in our society. We should hold the powerful accountable, support others who do so, and seek structures and systems of accountability. This is part of pursuing justice.
  • Different situations require different responses.
    Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees and with Zacchaeus are different, although he holds both accountable. We should not oversimplify issues, as media bandwagons sometimes do. Context, nuance and the personal response of the individual are all important.
  • Repentance is vital.
    Most Pharisees neither recognised their need for forgiveness nor repented, and Jesus condemned them for this (Luke 18:9-14). We should listen to those who wish to confess and repent. This does not mean we are naive: many people say words of  repentance hypocritically. But we also need to avoid the opposite problem of cynicism. We should try to make it possible for people to repent and live differently. As Zacchaeus shows, repentance should also be accompanied by substantive action.
  • Jesus calls us to radical forgiveness.
    Where crimes have been committed, people must go through a due legal process. Forgiveness does not negate the consequences of our actions. It does not mean it is wrong to call for politicians to resign, for example. Nevertheless, we
    should not forget just how radical Jesus was regarding forgiveness. Zacchaeus had enriched himself by exploiting others – yet Jesus forgives him. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christians are called to forgive, following Jesus’s example.

We need more accountability in our society. But we also need to set accountability alongside repentance and forgiveness. Ultimately, this is rooted in the mercy God has shown us: ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:32)

Andrew Phillips is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from Oxford University, with a BA in Classics and Biblical Hebrew.

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