Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?” – Luke 19:7 MSG
When someone makes a decision that seems to ignore or be blind to inevitable social consequences, we like to say that they are shortsighted. It’s not a characteristic that we value, and we prefer that our leaders have foresight and tact – that they have enough socio-political awareness to behave in a way that is advantageous to our collective goals. That being the case, it’s remarkable to note that Jesus often made decisions that confused and even irritated those who followed his ministry.
The Gospels are littered with verses concerning the surprise and frustration of the people toward Jesus’ acceptance of the “wrong” people and condemnation of the “right” people – they often thought of him as shortsighted with regards to the company he kept. The story of Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is one such story, and when we read it in its cultural context we see just how incredibly controversial Jesus’ actions would have seemed.
In Luke 19, we see Jesus travelling through the town of Jericho and are introduced to a character named Zacchaeus who is described as the Chief Tax Collector. Tax collectors were far more than just an inconvenience in Jesus’ day, they were considered traitors. We have to remember that the Jews were a conquered people living in a homeland that was no longer theirs. When Rome conquered nations, it was their practice to appoint people from within the conquered culture to work on their behalf and exercise their rule. The tax collectors were Jews who agreed to collect money from their own people, at times exploiting them, and deliver it to their Roman oppressors. As a result, tax collectors were considered traitors to their people and considered to have turned their back on God’s promises and purposes for his people.
But beyond being described as a normal “traitor” in this passage, Zacchaeus is the only Chief Tax Collector mentioned in the New Testament. And, we also read that he had become rich in his role. So then, he was not only exploiting his own people, but he had also gained great fame and fortune doing so. In short, Zacchaeus was a complete jerk.
However, despite Zacchaeus’ reputation in the community, Luke 19 records that when Jesus saw Zacchaeus working to get close to him he stopped, called him by name and publicly honored Zacchaeus by becoming a guest in his home.
Jesus’ posture toward Zacchaeus gave him a bad reputation with the people of Jericho. Luke notes that the people following Jesus complained about his decision – well yeah, any normal person would have been infuriated! No doubt the people wanted Jesus to publicly criticize Zacchaeus and demand he pay for all he had done. But, because Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, Jesus took it as an opportunity to love – even an evil man.
The people of Jericho believed Jesus was shortsighted because he demonstrated love to an oppressor and sullied his reputation by being associated with him. But Jesus’ actions that day initiated restitution and peace for the people of Jericho by acknowledging and standing with their oppressor when he was ready for change. He didn’t ignore or ostracize Zacchaeus for the bad things he had done, rather he directly engaged him, respected his cultural standing and as a result something truly miraculous happened – Zacchaeus’ life was changed and he publicly made amends for the horrible things he had done in the community.
There are plenty of examples of Jesus confronting injustice and sin in the Gospels, but the story of Zacchaeus reminds us that Jesus didn’t turn away even the worst sort of people who were ready for change. Zacchaeus interest in Jesus’ ministry was enough for Jesus to publicly advocate for him and take Zacchaeus’ bad reputation onto himself.
To build a rhythm into our lives of the same sort of shortsightedness Jesus displayed that day in Jericho isn’t to say that we should ever ignore, overlook or in any way condone exploitation, injustice or other sinful activity. Rather, it speaks to our willingness to welcome even the most undeserving people when they are seeking change and God in their lives – despite how socially expensive the decision may be for us.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus leaves us with several questions. Do we make it difficult for difficult people to meet Jesus? Are we a safe landing spot for people – even the worst sort – who want to change? Are we willing to love people who are on the “wrong side” of things? If they show interest in the things of God, are we willing to associate with them, befriend them and even ruin our own reputations to stand with them? Are we willing to be as socially shortsighted as Jesus was?
This week, work on changing your attitude and posture toward some of the “wrong” people in your life. Be on the lookout for opportunities to come alongside people at the first hint of change. Leave room for the idea that even the worst sort of people can change. Prepare to be a soft-landing spot for people who are finally receiving what others believe they deserve. Let it be known that you stand with and welcome anyone seeking God – regardless their reputation or standing in your community.