The Law of Unintended Consequences

Heritage Presbyterian Church

October 30, 2022
21st Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture readings – Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Luke 19:1-10

In early 2018, when the Covid-19 pandemic began in our country, it is fair to say that we were mostly caught off guard.  Scientists, government leaders, educators, businesses, and even churches had no realistic, well-thought-out plan on how to deal with a pandemic effectively.  So, shortly after Covid hit with a vengeance, a Covid policy appeared for everyone to follow.

This policy mainly consisted of the following:

  1.  Avoid others in large groups.
  2. Don’t leave your home unless absolutely necessary.
  3. Wear a quality face mask and wash your hands often.
  4. When a vaccine is produced, get it as soon as possible.

This policy was the best that could be done at the time and with the knowledge we had at the time…believe it or not.

However, with that policy came some truly unexpected consequences:

  1.  Greater isolation led to increased levels of sickness within family groups and those businesses that continued to gather in person for work.
  2.  More time alone led to an almost exponential growth in mental health issues, including new ones for those who didn’t have those issues in the first place.
  3. Increased worker challenges appeared as workers and employers had to decide if working in person was worth the risk.
  4. More students at every level fell behind significantly due to a lack of in-person instruction from their teachers.
  5. An increase in workers of all types resigning their jobs continues to plague us today.

Additionally, suspicion became the order of the day, especially toward the following:

  1. Government officials and policies – which led to increased defiant behavior towards anyone in authority, especially government officials;
  2. Doubt in historical models that could have helped us better address the current pandemic – which led to an increased doubt in overall historical models and events.

Churches around the country have faced the following problems:

  1. Significant decreased in weekly church attendance;
  2. Significant outbreaks of Covid when churches insisted on gathering before an effective vaccine was available;
  3. A striking increase in financial problems;
  4. Most notable of all: an increase in individual approaches to faith practices – in other words, many people “doing their own thing” when it comes to their faith practices.

If we had known what would happen when various Covid policies were enacted, I wonder if we would have done anything differently.  But no one can argue effectively that the law of unintended consequences didn’t occur in reaction to those policies.

This particular law has a clear definition:  

Unintended consequences are outcomes of a purposeful action that are not intended or foreseen.

In other words, good intentions but unforeseen actions that often occur.

If we could only tell the future, this law might never exist.

If we did a better job of asking, “What-if?” this law might not occur as often.

If Christians listened and prayed instead of impulsively acting and hoping the Lord will bless and approve those actions, Christians might see better results of their well-intended plans, dreams, and actions.  

And yet…what about Jesus?  Was there ever a time when Jesus didn’t see what was going to happen when he did something we read about in the Bible?  How about today’s Gospel reading about Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbed a tree in order to get a good look at Jesus?  How might the Law of Unintended Consequences have unfolded that remarkable day?

First of all, in Luke’s Gospel, we are ONLY told that little bitty Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus; we are not told that Zacchaeus was seeking forgiveness or a cure for some ailment or for a demon to be cast out.  All we have is a simple urge to get a good look at Jesus of Nazareth as he passed through Jericho.

Next, when Zacchaeus climbed the tree in order to get a better look – which is a good idea for those of us who are not tall and want to see something – is there any evidence at all that he was going to shout to Jesus or wave at Jesus or swing down from his branch right in front of Jesus?  In other words, did Zacchaeus have any other plan that might have been changed by his actions?  Again, the text is silent on this point.

Finally, once Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree, the story takes a very unusual turn – and that Law of Unintended Consequences began to work.

First, Jesus told Zacchaeus that he was coming to his house for dinner that very night.  Then and only then did Zacchaeus come down from the tree and welcome Jesus…and the Law went into full, dramatic, very public effect.

Next, the crowd muttered that usual charge against Jesus: “He eats with tax collector and sinners!”  Zacchaeus immediately responded that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he has ever cheated by four times the original amount.  Good move, Zack…well played, especially with Jesus standing right there.  You think anyone in the crowd saw that move coming?  Was that an unintended consequence of Jesus inviting himself to dinner?

Finally, Jesus pronounced that salvation had come to the house of Zacchaeus and reminded everyone within earshot that Zack was a son of Abraham – another of those who Jesus came to save.

So many things that occurred that would not have occurred if Jesus had not looked up into that tree and called to Zacchaeus.

So many things that occurred in the background that we don’t even know about…such as its effect on other tax collectors… such as the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ words…such as the amount of taxes that probably went down in the greater areas of Judea, which probably got the attention of the Roman authorities.  Wonder what they did about it…

Often, in our eagerness to get things done, the Law of Unintended Consequences occurs at the worst of times.  Often, it is a reaction that most people could see clearly if only time was taken to give a problem and its possible solution a really good look by some folks who have common sense.  Often, it is a result of human pride, arrogance, and a history of lucky guesses in the past that leads folks to push ahead into problems and situations that might never have occurred.

  • What would have happened if Lincoln had tried to free all the slaves on the first day he came into office in 1861?
  • What would have happened if building standards were significantly strengthened in Florida and other common hurricane strike zones BEFORE the big storm hit?
  • What would have happened if Jesus had no idea what would happen before he called to Zaccheaus?

I have always enjoyed “what-if” situations because they force us to think in ways that give credit to other answers, other methods, and the Law of Unintended Consequences occurring even when we are absolutely positive it won’t.

So…what to do with this knowledge, Christians?  How do we do our best for the Lord and avoid the Law of Unintended Consequences?

First of all, notice that our Gospel story seems to have no pride or arrogance at all in the two main characters: Jesus and Zacchaeus.  We should rid ourselves and especially our decision-making of all pride and arrogance if possible.  A little humility goes a long way.

Second, we should involve more people in any significant decisions making that might occur, and that includes people much younger and less experienced than ourselves.  If young people, even children, have a voice in decisions, it trains them up to be a participant in bigger decisions that all of us must deal with in our lives.  The “we’re-all-in-this-together” mentality is a good one for families, staffs, businesses, and especially churches.

Third, after a big decision is made and examined on all sides, take a little time to pray.  We should not ask for the Lord to do something, but rather our prayer should often be that we ask the Lord to bless our planning, our dreams, and ourselves as we seek to work His will.  Sometimes big decisions must be done quickly, but we always have a time to say a prayer.

Finally, I have made the Law of Unintended Consequences sound like such a negative thing in most of today’s message; that’s because it often turns out to be a negative thing.  

But perhaps we should also look for those unintended consequences to occur and look with amazement and joy and faith when the Lord’s will is worked right in front of us, often in ways we NEVER saw coming.  

How many people were blessed because of the unusual meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus?

How many things were changed in how many lives because Jesus happened to look up in that tree as he was passing by?

How many lives were changed forever and how many accounts were shared from person to person because of the forgiveness of the Lord – the same Lord that loves and forgives us all?

The Law of Unintended Consequences is real.

But its unintended consequences can be the will of the Lord working its way in our lives.