Like you, I began with this passage from Luke wondering what it had to do with “habits”. I’d always heard that forming a good habit and sticking to it takes about a month, but when I tried to get the best internet advice on the topic, I found a much wider range of possibilities – from 21 days to 66 days to form a good habit. Since forming a good habit may also mean giving up a bad one, it seems likely that the two would go hand in hand but, there are times when we just need to let go of a bad habit…like smoking, for example or eating or drinking too much…all bad. We may replace the bad with the good but not necessarily.
So, what is the general rule? Giving up a bad habit may take up to 1 month or more. Taking on a good one may take more than 2 months for it to stick. Unless you happen to be Zacchaeus…he made the decision rather quickly to give up a bad habit – cheating those he was called to tax – for a good one – giving half his wealth to the poor and following Jesus. Zacchaeus was a man who would know his sacred book very well; he knew what the Law, the Torah required of him. For example, in Leviticus Zacchaeus would have read these words: “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah – dry measure, and an honest hin – wet measure: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them. I am the Lord.”[i] In those words, there is no room for cheating or charging more than is rightly due. The Law would help to establish a good honest habit and, if followed, help one to stick to it. But temptation and greed had ruled the day for Zacchaeus, many days in fact. He was ensconced in a life and in a lifestyle that took more from the poor then was necessary. He was deeply indebted to those who were supporting his bad habit but who really couldn’t afford to give him the lifestyle of the rich and famous. And he didn’t much care; he didn’t care what the cost might be to those who could least afford to give. He needed something drastic to come into his life and to make a difference and that something turned out to be a someone, Jesus. Jesus saw his worth and wanted to spend time with Zacchaeus. The little man who had climbed above the crowds to see Jesus was encouraged to come down from the heights and to join the very crowd from whom Zacchaeus earned his living…so to speak. He was not to stand above the common lot but to enter into it. It would be the only way he could converse with Jesus…not to be above the scene, but to be within it. Christ called up to him, “Zacchaeus hurry and come down” or, in other words, get off your high horse and join me here amid the throng of poor and needy…so you can recall your needs and so I can help.”
We often have to be brought around to a place where we get in touch with those deep needs of belonging, of being healthy, of feeling grounded in someone larger, stronger, more powerful than we are. We may need to ask God to help us arrest our wayward patterns of behavior, to give us another chance to let God change us. In other words, we need to release our hold on bad habits so that we assume good ones.
Moore in his book “Give up Something Bad for Lent” says these changes take time; we may need to walk through a four way process, a process, which is often used with modification by 12 step support groups like AA or Al-anon. It goes like this:
- Recognize your bad habit and call it by name. If you drink too much, admit it. If you tend to make quick judgments about others than admit that too. We are very good at fooling ourselves into thinking that what we’re doing isn’t causing anyone a problem, but we could be very wrong. We are hurting someone – first and foremost, ourselves and secondly the relationship we have with God. So admitting our bad habit is the first step toward letting it go.
2. The next step after we admit we have the problem is to make a decision to stop engaging in the bad habit. Now, this is a bit tougher. It may take strength within to stop doing what has become quite easy to do. We may not have enough willpower to let go of whatever is holding us back and may need to lean more heavily on the strength and grace God gives us. That’s okay. God doesn’t really mind the extra effort God puts forth on our behalf. the extra effort God puts forth on our
behalf. It’s what he does.
3. Step three is to replace that bad habit with a good one. Here’s where Zacchaeus excelled. He did exactly that changing the way he handled money. Instead of takingit away, he gave it away putting it back in the hands of those he had once duped. His propensity to steal from others changes as he experiences a deeper desire to sacrifice his own wealth and status for others.
4. The final step is the most important of all: to realize we have a resource that is greater than ourselves … a strength that is outside and beyond our own abilities. Trusting in God to carry us when we cannot carry ourselves; to guide us when we are lost; to heal us when we are ill with our own habitually bad habits – when we grasp the powerfully, willing helping hand of a gracious God, then we can overcome the most stubborn and entrenched bad habits that rob us of living a good, purposeful life. For, in God, nothing is impossible and once we realize this, then we will also come to realize that our bad habits can readily be released and replaced by good habits.
The reward for Zacchaeus was rapid and indisputable. “Today salvation has come; Christ said … the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” When we are caught in the bad habits that destroy our lives we feel like the lost
in need of salvation. Knowing that our God provides help to us through a saving and anointed Christ spurs us to let go of the limbs we cling to as we hide or at least try to hide from the goodness that awaits us. Then we can face our fears and dare to choose life rather than despair and death. Then we can begin to live again dining at the tables of abundance made available to us by our almighty God.
Zacchaeus teaches us much about habits – bad and good and what can happen when we make the better choice. Amen.
[i] Leviticus 19:35-37