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Belonging: the Zacchaeus Dilemma

Luke 19:1-10

I attended a conference a few months ago. The seminars were inspiring, and I was looking forward to hearing the keynote speaker, who was well-known in her field. But I didn’t know anyone else there, and found myself in that awkward position at lunch, holding my tray and looking for somewhere to sit. Everyone else seemed to be sitting with friends, laughing and chatting together. I didn’t want to impose, but I also didn’t want to be that person sitting by herself: ‘Billy-No-Mates.’

I was so grateful when someone tapped me on the shoulder, said they recognized me from the morning seminar, and asked me to join their little group over by the window. This socially enlightened person then got everyone at the table to introduce themselves, and soon we were all chatting together, having discovered common interests. I’m still in touch with a couple of them, even though they live far away.

This may not sound quite like the story of Zacchaeus, but I wonder if it has more parallels than we were told in Sunday School. The traditional story has it that Zacchaeus, short in stature, short on morals, and short on friends, was a tax collector in Jericho who was curious to see Jesus. He was shunned by the community because of his dishonesty, but Jesus singled him out and got him to confess his sins and pay back all that he had stolen, plus interest.

“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” (v 5) Now, from our modern perspective, Jesus’ announcement that he was going to visit Zacchaeus may sound strange; Jesus seems to be inviting himself, which is rude. But in the culture of that day, it was normal. Travelers expected to be hosted when they arrived in a new community, and Zacchaeus was “wealthy” (v 2), so he would be an obvious choice to do the hosting.

However, we see that the community in Jericho despised Zacchaeus, and when he “welcomed [Jesus] gladly … All the people saw this and began to mutter.” (vv6,7) The community had ostracized Zacchaeus and weren’t happy for him to play the role of host. He was a pariah. Jesus, by requesting hospitality, gave Zacchaeus the opportunity to be a good citizen, to play his role. Nobody else had done this for Zacchaeus for a long time.

And Zacchaeus was so grateful, that he seemed at pains to prove that he could be a positive member of the community. He announced that he would “give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Was he repenting of all that he had stolen? Or was he simply saying that he had been so honest in his dealings that he didn’t fear being charged four times for any alleged theft? We don’t know.

Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house …” (v 9) So Zacchaeus was being restored to the community. But notice Jesus’ next words: “… because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Was this a rebuke to the rest of the crowd? Had they shunned him simply for his occupation? Jesus seems to be saying, “He’s one of you; welcome him as part of your group.” Just like that kind person at the conference did for me.

When you see someone on the outside, the temptation is to think they must be strange or different. But avoid this temptation. Instead, invite them in. Give them the opportunity to play their role in the group. Do your bit to “seek and save what was lost.”

2 Comments

  1. ROSALIE J NICKEL says:

    An inspiring new way to look at this familiar story.

    1. Thanks! It’s amazing what pearls you can find even in familiar Bible stories.

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