Jesus comes into Jericho and sees Zacchaeus up in a tree. As soon as Jesus speaks a kind word to this hardened tax collector, the man is changed. Zacchaeus becomes remarkably generous. His heart, like the Grinch’s, grows three sizes. If we (I say this with the collective royal “we”) as a congregation are Jesus in the world today, then this is how the god-forsaken should respond to us. Repentance is not held up by the stubbornness of the pagan’s heart, it is held up by the paucity of winsome examples of real goodness.
The thing we need to address directly is the pervasive nature of prejudice and racism. In Jesus’ day it was assumed that people couldn’t be religious if they worked certain jobs. Tax collectors, shepherds, and foreign soldiers were consigned to non-person status. Today we assume that people can’t be trustworthy (or safe to enter the country) if they belong to certain religions. We judge people on the basis of their skin color or sexual orientation in a way that would have made the people of Jesus’ day blush. Our prejudices are woven into the fabric of our lives, so much so, that we expect our church leaders to reaffirm them. The only difference between today and the first century is the unwillingness of those we exclude to climb trees.
What made Jesus distinctive among the religious teachers of his day was his commitment to crossing the artificial barriers of race, gender, occupation, and economic class. His greeting of Zacchaeus was very natural. He wasn’t setting up a program to end discrimination against tax collectors. He simply asked to enter the man’s home and break bread. He was constantly doing this kind of thing. It is unimaginable that today he would hesitate to hug a transgendered person, or live beside a muslim, or give a job to an ex-con. It is this naturalness, a gift of the Holy Spirit still seen in some Christians today, that won people to him. I think that spirit is still available to the church. Herein lies our real hope for sharing Christ with the next generation.