Over this past year, the story of Zacchaeus kept popping into my mind.
I feel as though I’m increasingly facing discord amongst so many groups of people – including those who perhaps should treat one another with love. Time and time again, I would consider how Jesus behaved in certain situations, responded to problems, and interacted with people.
Yes, just like the bracelet. “What would Jesus do?”
And time and time again, I kept thinking, “Zacchaeus.”
I wasn’t really sure why. It had been years since I’d even read the story, though of course I remembered the basics.
Finally, I opened my Bible and read.
And I wept.
You see, years ago, my husband and I went on a mission trip to Vancouver. There, we partnered with individuals who were operating a church for Iranian refugees. Our task while there was to learn more about Iranians, and refugees in general, and assist in inviting local Iranians to the church for a party. To this day, my husband says it was the strangest but most rewarding mission trip he has been on (it was my first and, so far, only).
As our hosts taught us about Iranian culture, one of the things impressed upon us was the notion of honor versus shame. In the western world, we are often preoccupied with justice – with right versus wrong. In the Middle East, actions are judged on how much honor (or shame) they bring to the doer, as well as those associated with him. An example of this, we were told, is to stay in someone’s home. Whereas we would find it rude to invite yourself to spend the night at someone’s home, in Iranian cultures, it is a sign of great honor. You are honoring the host by offering to come into their home.
And so, I was struck anew when I read the story of Zacchaeus, with this knowledge firmly in my brainspace, even years later.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of Jericho, a Roman province. Tax collectors were known for being greedy and even sometimes stealing. Jews regarded tax collectors as traitors who were working with the enemy (Rome) to line their own pockets. Suffice it to say, Zacchaeus was not likely to be well-regarded by this Jewish man.
This much I’ve been taught since I was young. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors were bad. Jesus was nice to Zacchaeus anyway. Zacchaeus repented and became good.
It was on this fresh reading, however, that I specifically noticed two aspects of the story that I had overlooked (or just not had the knowledge to notice).
First, Jesus calling Zacchaeus by name. Naming is important, especially in the scriptures. By knowing and using Zacchaeus’ name, Jesus openly admitted that he knew exactly who Zacchaeus was and what Zacchaeus has done. This encounter was no accident.
Second, the call: “I must stay at your house today.”
Reading this, I finally realized what exactly Jesus was doing when he called to Zacchaeus. He was not just “being nice” to a known sinner. He was honoring him. In spite of all Zacchaeus was and all Zacchaeus had done, Jesus chose to honor him. And he chose to do so before Zacchaeus offered any sort of confession or repentance.
Jesus loved him first.
How often do we attach stipulations to our “love?” We expect others to treat us well in order to earn our good treatment. We expect kindness in return for our own kindness. We hesitate to sacrifice. We hesitate to put ourselves out there. What if we get hurt? What if people talk?
In this short story, Jesus illustrates for us a practical implication of loving someone with agape love. We are called to love first, without knowing what the result may hold. And that is equally true for those who are easy to love and those who are a bit unsavory.