Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. (Luke 19:1-6)
A seemingly peaceful day was disrupted by five or six police with their guns out of their holsters chasing and yelling after a teenager. There was a lone civilian among the police and it was obvious that he was the victim of the crime. For a moment all of us were disoriented with yelling and guns waving around in the air. Mary (my wife) warned the children that were with us to stay down, just in case someone’s gun were to go off by chance. Everyone heard Mary’s voice but no one paid attention to it, including me. We were just stood there paralyzed by adrenaline. The pursued teenager was trying to dodge the police by running between two parked cars. He almost looked like he was playing catch with them. It would have been comical if it wasn’t for the presence of the guns. Finally, the teenager turned into a narrow street which was his doom. He was surrounded. It didn’t take long for the police to subdue him and he did not resist. We were relieved that it was over. The children were strangely calm but our hearts were beating fast. Perhaps they were accustomed to such a scene. We were curious about the teenager. He was homeless like them but no one could recognize him from where we were standing.
The police made the teenager sit on the ground while they waited for the patrol car. Mary and I pretended that we needed to walk pass the scene just to catch a glimpse of the teenager. I admit we are curious creatures. Unfortunately he was someone we knew. His name is Raphael and he had just turned eighteen. He is a loner and doesn’t interact with the other children and teens. We have seen him several times in our neighborhood sitting outside a convenience store begging for money. Sometimes he would smile at us but most of the time he would just ignore us. We never knew him to steal or rob but maybe today he saw an opportunity to do it and took a risk. Anything is possible. There is strong chance that Raphael is going to prison. He most likely will spend a few months in the overcrowded prisons of São Paulo. He was crying as we passed him. I think he saw us as we passed him. There was nothing we could do for him.
I don’t believe that many people felt sorry for him. I am sure that the victim of his crime was feeling vindicated at this moment. Raphael looked defeated and devastated. It is easy to forget that Raphael is not the victim. However, this does not mean he doesn’t deserve our compassion. It also doesn’t mean that we should overlook what he has done. He is a criminal and he deserves our compassion. I think this is the hardest thing for us as human beings to do. This is really the tough part of the gospel. The Pharisees had a hard time with Jesus because He showed compassion to people who really did not deserve it. The Pharisees were not upset when Jesus healed the blind and the lame. They were upset when he ate with sinners. They were upset when he accepted them as his friends. They were upset when He showed compassion to those who did not deserve it.
Many times I have seen pictures of homeless children in brochures that show them in dirty clothes and sometimes they are curled in pain from hunger. The picture conveys the idea that these poor children are victims and because they are victims, they deserve our compassion. When we think of victims, we think of people who are deprived of their basic necessities. However, our homeless children eat leftover food from restaurants and usually these are good restaurants. At night several groups come by with food and hot soup for the homeless. A teenager once told me that they never lack food and clothing, in fact, she was giving away some of her clothes because she had too much. She slept on dirty mattress in the streets but she had a suitcase full of clothes. If I made a brochure of our homeless children eating food from restaurants and having suitcases of clothes, I doubt people will be moved to help. People don’t feel pity for people who are not victims.
Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus chose to dine in Zaccheus’ house. Without a doubt, there were more deserving people than him that would have been honored to have Jesus in their home. Perhaps some of them could have been victims of Zaccheus’ unscrupulous dealings. However, Jesus decided to show compassion to Zaccheus even though among all the people there, he was deserved it the least.
Zaccheus thought he had created his personal heaven until he met Jesus. The compassion of Jesus revealed the true state of his desperate existence. It woke Zaccheus out of his slumber of self-deception. This is what compassion does. It forces people to wake up from their self-deception. There is such thing as false compassion. False compassion makes and maintains people as victims. For me, another name for false compassion is pity. I think many times we confuse “pity” for compassion. Our feeling of pity comes from a sense of guilt but compassion is a decision we make to love those who do not deserve our love.
None of our homeless children and teens would consider themselves as victims. We should not make them victims. They never made excuses for their actions and we should not invent excuses to invoke pity in others. We don’t want anyone to help these children because of pity. Pity gets us nowhere. Compassion liberates lives. Some people believe that these children are victims of society’s ills. I am not sure if we can change society but I believe a genuine experience of God’s compassion can help us to be liberated from self-deception. This is not to say the children are solely responsible for their state of homelessness. However, turning them into victims is not going to change their state. Compassion can, as in the story of Zaccheus. Change for the better is our goal.
Everyone needs to experience the compassion of God to truly see who we are. Zaccheus went up the tree to see Jesus and he discover his true state that day. He realized the wealth and power he had acquired were just deceptions. The compassion he experienced through Jesus gave him the courage the face reality. Zaccheus would have something concrete to say to our children. Only those who allow the compassion of God to transform their lives have anything concrete to say in this world of self-deception. Only those who have experienced the compassion of God can love compassionately those who do not deserve it.