In Sarah’s children’s bible, the story about Zacchaeus is subtitled “The man who didn’t have any friends (none).” Zacchaeus was a tax-collector. He worked for the oppressive Roman government collecting taxes from the Jewish people. Moreover, he took more taxes than he was supposed to do and kept the money to make himself rich. I am not sure what the modern day equivalent is, especially in the midst of a pandemic: the young lad who stock-piles toilet roll and hand wash and then sells it door to door on an estate where many elderly folk live charging four times the price? The rich pub owner who refuses to pay his staff properly during lockdown despite his own massive profit?
You get the picture. Zacchaeus was hated by his own people. So when Jesus comes to town and Zacchaeus wants to catch a glimpse of him, it’s little wonder that he doesn’t try to push through the crowds. No one is going to give him a leg up. No one is going to make space. Shoulders will be pressed together more tightly. Faces will be turned away.
And so Zacchaeus decides to climb a tree ahead of the crowds. That way he will be able to see Jesus, but no one will be able to see him.
But Jesus does see him. Jesus waits until the moment when he is directly underneath hi and then looks up and calls him by his name, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today,”
You can imagine the outrage from the crowd. Does Jesus not know who this person is? Does Jesus not understand the ways in which Zacchaeus has betrayed the Jewish nation and stolen from his own people?
Of course, Jesus does know these things. If he knows Zacchaeus’ name, and his exact location hiding in the tree, he also knows who he is and what he has done. And it is not that those things don’t matter to Jesus. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care that Zacchaeus has down some really bad things, and hurt people in really serious ways. Jesus isn’t about to offer him a congratulatory clap on the back. But he is able to see something in Zacchaeus that furious crowd is not able to see. Jesus sees that Zacchaeus too is “a son of Abraham”. However ugly Zacchaeus’ life has become, he is still God’s creation, still God’s child. And so he invites himself for tea.
And in doing so, he ushers in transformation. In treating Zacchaeus with love and dignity (even if we do not think he deserves it), Jesus bring about a radical change in Zacchaeus’ heart and behaviour. Zacchaeus gives up his wealth. He makes restitution for those he has scammed. He demonstrates extravagant generosity in place of his selfish money-making ways.
In our society today, we are seeing some pretty atrocious behaviour. Youths spitting at elderly men and women. Abuse of NHS staff. Selfishness in stockpiling whilst others go from shop to shop desperately searching for baby milk and nappies. Rich business tycoons hoarding their own wealth whilst their employees are thrown into dependence on benefits and food banks.
But Jesus withholds judgement. He opts instead for love. It is uncomfortable for us to even think about it – to think that some of these men and women should be loved, or that they could change, but that is the uncomfortable message of Zacchaeus today. That change is possible. Jesus is indiscriminate in the way that he loves. He is a God of justice, and he promises that all will be held to account for their actions, but he also promises that he has come to seek and save the lost. He has come exactly for those that we deem unworthy of his love and forgiveness. He has come to bring salvation to unexpected houses, to restore unexpected people to his family.
Which probably means that I should pray for Boris Johnson instead of badmouthing him. It probably means I should talk to the youths hanging around outside the shops instead of berating them for their unthinking behaviour. It probably means I shouldn't have got so cross at the dog-walker who tutted at me and my kids. It probably means I should seek to understand the fear, anxiety, peer-pressure and misinformation behind people's actions before judging them for those actions. Knowing that Jesus came to seek and save the lost. All the lost. Not just the ones I like and happen to agree with. But all the lost, and that includes Zacchaeus. And it includes me.