Zaccheus is a tax collector. We’ve heard about them before…it was 4 weeks ago when we heard about another tax collector, Levi,…they’re sinners. They’re liars and thieves…they take from their own, skimming off the top before they pay Rome….or rather, inflating the amount due, before they hand anything over to Rome. These guys are bad. Do you remember Levi? The one who was supposed to be a priest? The family failure who not only didn’t become a priest, but became a crook? Well, it’s another one of him. And we all know about them.
We really don’t need much more explanation at this point…Zaccheus was a tax collector… that means, he was a sinner of the worst kind. (sigh) another one of those people that Jesus decides to go hang around with. And not surprisingly when it happens, everyone around them, balks saying, “seriously?!? A sinner?!” Three years into Jesus’ ministry and it still doesn’t make any sense…why would this guy, this rabbi, this man of God, insist on wasting his time with the sinners.
Now, while the crowd might not get it…we do. We understand who Jesus is…he’s the one who forces us out of our comfort zone to deal with people we normally leave out of our inner circle. We might not like it, but we get it. But, if we dig a little deeper into the text, I think we might find something all together different.
The scripture tells us that after Jesus calls him from the tree and invites himself over for dinner, Zaccheus tells Jesus he’ll give half of what he has to the poor and pay back anyone he’s cheated 4x’s the amount. Now, that seems appropriate seeing as how he’s a lying scumbag. But, there’s actually another way to look at it…2 ways actually.
#1 Think about what Zaccheus is offering to do. He’s going to give HALF of what he has to the poor. AND THEN he’s going to give 4x’s what he owes to anyone he owes anything to. Now, either he’s an incredible investor and grew the money he took from people in some incredible ways…all before the stock market or flipping real estate. OR…he’s actually been a reasonably decent guy such that he hasn’t defrauded many people…so he’s willing to take the risk of offering 4x’s what he does owe. MAYBE Zaccheus isn’t as bad as we thought.
or #2 there’s a translation issue from the Greek to the English. Most of our translations say he “will give and will payback”. But the way the Greek is, there’s actually the possibility that it says “I’ve been giving half of what I have to the poor and have been giving 4x’s what I owe to anyone I’ve defrauded.” He has been doing these things…and, by translation, will continue to do these things…
So, it’s not that he’s some marvelous convert who has a big come to Jesus moment and his life is changed (and we all scoff under our breath doubting that anything will really change for him). But instead, it’s this guy that we’ve known was a sinner…a liar and a thief who doesn’t turn out to be any of those things. We’re forced to immediately re-evaluate him for all the things we thought we knew…but really, then we have to re-evaluate us…because now we have to admit we are prejudiced. And that recognition hurts. We judged him based on superficial things…things we thought defined his character.
I’m sure none of you have ever made assumptions about someone, believing you knew them, or at least knew enough, because you knew a certain something. Well, since I’m normally one of the lead sinners in a congregation, I’ll just own it. I’ve dealt with racism, sexism, homophobia, size-ism, classism, and age-ism…and that was just last week! I’d like to laugh and say no, but, honestly, if I were to think about it, I’m sure I’ve pre-judged someone in each of those categories in the last 7 days and that does not make me proud. I’ve worked for years to deal with my prejudice that you’d think I’d be a lot further along than I am, but what can I say? I’m a work in progress.
We all learn to make these quick superficial judgments very early on in life. In elementary school the kids make judgements based on gender. The girls think the boys couldn’t possibly be fun to play with and the boys make the same assumption. Hopefully after a few years in class they start to see a little differently but then they adopt other judgements and classifications for one another.
In high school we had about 550 students. And there were 4 main buildings that sat around the quad. During break time you could find certain crowds of people in certain areas. There were the preppy people, the nerds, the indians, the druggies, the cowboys, and the Mexicans. Our titles were about as sophisticated as our judgements. And most of us thought we knew people based on where they stood around the quad and the title that gave them. And, sadly, for us, no one really tried to challenge the titles or the assumptions. I had to wait until college to be challenged on what I thought I knew about people.
I am not proud of my prejudice, but I share about it to let you know you’re not alone, and to say that it’s worth confronting, every time it comes up. When we make superficial judgments based on limited facts, we’re setting ourselves up for prejudice. Before I started at UCLA, we had an on-campus orientation and were placed in various groups. I don’t remember a lot of people from my group, but I do remember Miguel. He was a Mexican with long dark hair in a pony tail, thick glasses, and what cholo clothes…he was a gang member from East LA. At least that’s what I surmised from my 30 second assessment of his outfit and his hair. To be fair, he was actually from East LA, but he wasn’t a gang member. Now, it took me awhile to learn that since I was automatically fearful since I thought he was in a gang. But eventually we started talking and got to one another. Turns out Miguel had never been in a gang. His dad was a chef and his mom was a housekeeper. Miguel was smart and caring and one of the most tender-hearted people I had ever met. Apparently my snap judgment was a little amiss.
And, to highlight the irony of my prejudice, after we graduated, Miguel went to work for the Mayor of LA on his gang reduction task force. Miguel finds creative and fun ways to engage area youth to find connection and value before they get into the gangs. They’ve shown incredible success with their program…so much that he’s been sent around the country to train others and now he is in Honduras, where there is one of the worst gang problems world wide, training people and beginning to bring peace, and hope, and light into those communities.
Lots of times we make snap judgements, and Jesus challenges us to see people diffferently. He is always drawing us into the deeper story and helping us see that what we know on the surface isn’t actually the whole story. If we want to know people…we have to spend time with them, we have to get to know their story. People are surprising. They’re rarely everything we think they are…whether that’s kind and prim and proper because we see them well dressed and well spoken, or whether that’s rough and mean and aggressive because they look dangerous, or whether that’s lazy and a drunk because they’re dissolved and spent the night on the street. People are more than they appear and Jesus wants us to know that. He models what it looks like to spend time with people…even the people everyone else scoffs at, because he knows that time together is the key to relationships that change us and grow us into better people all around.