The Zaccheus principle
In previous posts I’ve discussed my current reading of the Gospels with an aim to become better acquainted with Jesus. I find this challenging, because I’ve been programmed to read the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) for information–Bible truths, principles, precepts, theology and life answers.
Truth be known, Bible information often hides Jesus.
In my quest to read with a different set of eyes, I came across the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19. Luke identifies three things about this man.
- He collects taxes.
- He is rich.
- He is short.
All three are significant. They speak of the public shame Zaccheus experienced, particularly at the hands of the religious community.
The Jewish public deeply resented tax collectors. Taxation reminded them of Roman occupation and control–a constant reminder that things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. To collect taxes for the hated Romans represented the ultimate betrayal.
Adding insult is the fact that Zaccheus is rich. He’s darn good at what he does–ripping people off. He does so for Rome’s benefit as well as his own. The only thing that chaps us more than someone taking advantage of us is when they seem to get wealthy doing it.
Finally, Luke takes note that Zaccheus is short. God has nothing against being short, but society tends to marginalize based on physical appearance. Tax collecting was so abhorrent in Jewish culture that town folk couldn’t find enough reasons to dislike, shun and marginalize those who stooped so low.
Any fabricated flaw justified their contempt. “He’s short? All the more proof that he’s scum!”
As Jesus walks into Jericho, crowds begin to line the streets. There’s such commotion that it becomes difficult to get a view of Jesus as he makes his way through town.
Especially if you are short.
Not to be deterred, Zaccheus climbs a tree. We discover a fourth description of this man. He is a seeker of Jesus. Twice Luke tells us that Zaccheus is intent on “seeing Jesus.”
Perched on a branch, Zaccheus not only gets his desired view, but Jesus walks directly under the tree and invites himself over for the evening.
What is Jesus doing here?
If we’re not careful, we’ll immediately rush to theology and biblical principles.
- Jesus is making a statement about prejudice and how we are to love the most despised and shunned people of our society.
- Jesus is demonstrating inclusion.
- Jesus is showing us that God operates on a different economy than we do and extends his grace to all, even the most undeserving.
All these are beautiful realities. But I think there’s something more basic and real going on here. If we simply settle for theology, we’ll miss Jesus.
Jesus genuinely likes Zaccheus and wants to hang out with him. This is the real point of the story.
I can’t see Jesus going into this with other motives. Jesus doesn’t spot Zaccheus in the tree and say to himself, “This would make a great teaching moment. I’ll blow everyone’s mind and go over to that guy and see if I can get him to invite me over for supper. That will drive home the point to these self-righteous religious leaders. Imagine the sermon illustrations this will make.”
Nor can I see Jesus saying to himself, “Hey, if I go over to that short guy in the tree, it will make a cool song for Sunday school kids. I can hear it now, ‘Zaccheus was a wee-little man, a wee-little man was he . . .'”
If these are Jesus’ motives, then he’s just using Zaccheus. He reduces Zaccheus to an object lesson.
Jesus is in the moment. He loves Zaccheus and naturally wants hang out with the guy. He can’t seem to help himself from taking the initiative and inviting himself over for the evening.
To add to the beauty of the story, Jesus no doubt knows all about Zaccheus’ background and lifestyle. But they don’t seem to matter a lick to Jesus.
Later, we hear Jesus laughing with delight, celebrating Zaccheus’ repentance and new-found faith. No one is more thrilled than Jesus to see salvation come to this ‘wee little man.” Zaccheus will no longer be known as a filthy rich tax collector.
Jesus becomes even more clear against the contrasting response of the respectable Jewish community. They’re indignant and incredulous. “How could Jesus stoop to such depths by hanging out with such a scum of a low-life? ”
They certainly don’t like Zaccheus. They don’t want anything to do with him. The only good purpose Zaccheus provides is sermon fodder for what sinners look like.
This leaves me questioning myself. Why do I extend myself to others? Why do I do this thing we call “ministry”?
- Do I tell someone about Jesus because I genuinely care about them and like them, or because it will make a cool story to tell my Christian friends?
- Do I give my money to Christian ministry because it’s a genuine expression of love for Jesus and others, or is it more about trying to live by biblical principles?
- Are my acts of generosity and compassion calculated efforts aimed at setting good examples or satisfying my conscience, or are they authentic demonstrations of love?
Hopefully as I keep hanging out with Jesus in the Gospels, I’ll find myself relating with other like Jesus did with Zaccheus.