What was Zacchaeus like? We know he was a wee-little man, but why did people hate him so much? In his helpful book Learning Evangelism from Jesus , Jerram Barrs helps us update Zacchaeus for our day:
In many of our cities we have one or two corrupt politicians, and a few dishonest business people who are always lining their own pockets at other people's expense. To understand the attitude of the crowd to Zacchaeus, we should try to imagine the very worst of these modern day examples, while at the same time imagining that person collaborating with whoever we hate most passionately, such as someone working with a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. This is how the Jews of Jesus' day thought of the Romans and those who collaborated with them... [And] they hated men like Zaccheus, both for their greed and for their collaboration with the enemy. (Learning Evangelism from Jesus, 86)
Maybe a modern-day example would be Bernie Madoff? But not really, because Bernie Madoff was jailed for his crimes. If not Madoff, maybe Hugh Hefner? Or your neighborhood's registered sex offenders or area drug dealers? Even these don't quite match Barrs' description of Zacchaeus.
But if these are today's villains, why aren't more of them joining our churches? Shouldn't the story of Zacchaeus be played out again and again in the life of the church? Two observations are critical.
First, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Jesus' reputation must have been legendary, and not just for being a good man. Bad men typically avoid good men because good men only highlight their guilt and shame. But Zacchaeus knew that Jesus was not just a good man; he was a "friend of sinners."
Is that true of you? Are notorious sinners climbing trees to get a good look at you, craning their necks to see if you're the real deal? Do the villains in your neighborhood, workplace, and city search you out? Do they eavesdrop on your conversations? Is your church's reputation for grace more notorious than the notorious men and women you welcome into your homes?
Second, Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus. It was true! Jesus was actually a friend of sinners, and Jesus wanted to be Zacchaeus' friend. He wanted to sit and eat dinner with him just like friends do. Jesus was excited to receive hospitality from Zacchaeus, even hospitality bought with dirty money.
Are you able to sit and eat with scandalous sinners? Can you look past who they are now to see who they could be? What about those people everyone else hates -- would you welcome them into your home while all your neighbors were watching? Would you gladly be received into their home? Or are you afraid it would compromise your "witness"?
In our anxieties about compromise and reputation, we often forget that eating with sinners was an integral part of Christ's reputation.
Why doesn't the Zacchaeus story happen more often today? There are countless reasons, but I'll offer just one.
With the politicization of everything, including the Christian faith, we are encouraged to offer our opinions on everything. And now, with the ubiquity of social media, we always have a venue. Our Twitter accounts always express shock and anger and dismay. Our Facebook feed is cluttered with opinion pieces and snarky cartoons. We delight to skewer our opponents. Many Christians seem so engaged in pontificating, you'd think it's their spiritual duty to publicly declare what is right and wrong about today's news.
But don't you think this habit gets in the way of sinners wanting to be with us and our wanting to be with sinners? How can we welcome sinners when we ridicule and lionize them. I know too many Christians who cannot bring themselves to say a single kind thing about their political opponent. (And he is no Zacchaeus!) They wouldn't want to see him, much less eat with him as a friend. And I'll bet that if he took a look at their Facebook feed, he wouldn't want to eat with them either.
If we're to be like Jesus, we must have a reputation for grace and kindness that goes ahead of us. We must be careful how we speak all the time, even about those people everyone hates. Because those same people that everyone hates, Jesus loves. He wants to be their friend. And we should, too.