Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” -Luke 19:1-5
The children like this story. It is a story to which they can easily relate. They identify themselves with Zacchaeus. At first glance, it is hard to see the connection. The man in the story was wealthy and corrupt. He did not lack anything materially. Our children are homeless. They sleep under a bridge. They don’t have any possessions. Besides all these differences, they see something in Zacchaeus reminds them of themselves. Many of us may not want to identify ourselves with him. We prefer to think that we are better than him. For most of us, this story is an example of the power of God’s grace. We liken the person of Zacchaeus to that of a drug dealer, or a politician standing for Presidential election or someone we would like to easily allocate into the cesspool of objectionable personality. However, our children see a complex human being in Zacchaeus not unlike themselves.
We know how this story ends, even our children are very familiar with it. We tend to focus on the ending and ignore some interesting details in the story. The author of the gospel saw that it was important that we knew about Zacchaeus’ physical stature. His small stature wasn’t a physical ailment or some other impairment that warrants special attention. It was just something that helps to give an insight into Zacchaeus’ personality. The gospel wants us to go beyond the superficial assessment of a person in society. It requires to question why a person is the way he or she is. The story tells that, because of his height, Zacchaeus could not participate in the event of the day; the arrival of Jesus in Jericho. Even though he possessed wealth and power as a tax collector, it did not give him privy to the one of the most important events of the city. He was an outsider and most likely had always been an outsider. No one cared that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus. In fact, no one cared if he existed or not. This must have been the story of his life. He was alone and had to make his way in this world. He chose the wrong way to do it. He was ruthless and unkind. He stole from people and the flaunted his wealth. People began to notice him. They despised him but he apparently did not mind this as long as they were forced to acknowledge his existence.
The more we get to know our children the easier it becomes for us to see the connection between Zacchaeus and them. The thing that brings them to the streets is not poverty; it does have a small contributing role but it is not the major reason. Our children don’t mind being poor. They can adapt to it. However, they do mind being neglected and ignored. They don’t demand too much attention but they want to know that their existence is important to someone. Most of them have suffered a trauma which caused them to flee to the streets. It is not even the tragic circumstance itself that brought to the streets. It is the unfortunate fact that no one cared enough to notice or help them through their traumatic experience. They take refuge in the streets hoping that someone will notice them. Those who engage in criminal activities don’t do so because of survival. They can have food and clothing without stealing. They can even buy drugs with the money they get from begging. However, people only notice their existence when they steal. People only think of the homeless children when they do something negative. Most of the time, they are invisible because they occupy such a small space in their lives or society just the like the man of small stature in the story from the gospel.
Zacchaeus was hidden from the crowd but Jesus noticed him anyway. This was a dream come true for him. He did not need to do anything to be acknowledged. Jesus knew him by name and broke bread in his household. The people despised the fact that Jesus wasted his time and energy on this person. People liked to crowd around the person of Jesus. They often spoke of Him. Unfortunately most of them hardly understood what He came to do. He came to look for those whom we want to forget in society. In this story, it was a wealthy man; in others, this person was a forgotten widow or a homeless beggar. They come from different social backgrounds but they share a common trait. All of them occupy a small place in the hearts and minds of people, so small that it is easy to forget that they exist. Most of the time, people don’t even think that they deserve God’s grace. Strangely, God chooses these people to help understand the meaning and immensity of His grace. However, if we choose to remain in our hatred and apathy, then we won’t be able to see or appreciate it.
Zacchaeus had been taking from people all his life. He found his identity in possessing things aggressively. However, now he discovered that this was unnecessary. He changed. He became a giver.
One remarkable change in our relationship with the children over the past few months is the fact that they are beginning to offer things to us. Usually it is some simple snacks. They have done this before as a courteous gesture but now there is a subtle difference. They offer us things that they buy with their own money. They even insist that we take it when we politely refuse. They want us to have something of theirs. They don’t want our relationship to be one-sided. They want it to become a mutual relationship. They want to be generous with us. This is a sign of genuine spiritual transformation; generosity always begets generosity.
Zacchaeus experienced God’s generosity and he could not help but become generous himself. However, he did not try to give to Jesus anything. There was nothing he could offer Him that would measure up to what he had received. Jesus had given Zacchaeus his existence. He realized that even though the world around him had ignored him all his life, Jesus knew him by name. No amount of money or power could compensate for this gift he had just received. The only thing he could do was to follow the example of Jesus. He gave to those who couldn’t reciprocate and he also undid the wrong he had done in his life. He had spent his life taking and now it was time to give.
There are Zacchaeus all around us. Some are rich and powerful and some are poor and isolated. They are people whom we like to forget. However, they are not different from us. They are just like us trying to find a place in this world. They are just like us trying to find a reason to justify our existence. The only difference perhaps is that they are more aware of their anonymity in this world then the rest of us. God chose Zacchaeus to show that even though you are despised and hated by the world, this does not disqualify one from God’s grace. The children understand this valuable lesson. They are glad that Jesus chose to dine at Zacchaeus’ home. It gives them hope. It gives us hope as well.