Following Jesus is a lifetime of trying to change the world and running straight into the truth that it’s we ourselves who need to be saved.

This week, I have been challenged by a story from the life of Jesus. It’s in the beginning of Luke 19 – the often familiar and infantilized story of the tax-collector Zacchaeus. (Raise your hand if you just started to sing “Zaccheaus was a wee little man, a wee little man, a wee little man was he!”)

(Oh, Sunday school… bless it.)

In this story, Jesus is in Jericho and a crowd has gathered. The crooked tax collector Zaccheaus was there. He can’t see over the crowd so he climbs up a tree to see Jesus. In the middle of that crowd – which likely would have included more than a fair share of holy or influential or important or preferred or religious people – Jesus heads right for that tree and calls out to that guy – the one who is a social and religious outcast, ridiculously perched up in the branches –  to come on down because Jesus wants to go to that guy’s house for supper.

I mean, honestly.

Jesus always picks the wrong guy.

Of course, everyone in the crowd gets quite bent out of shape, muttering among themselves about how Jesus is now the guest of a sinner. Not only did the guy betray his religion, Zacchaeus has betrayed his people, his nation, colluding with the powers that be for his own gain and oppressing the very people who were supposed to be his people.

Imagine if Jesus was in our world right now and he headed right over to someone who cooperated with and benefitted from oppression, someone who had traded integrity for political power, someone we distrust, someone who we feel is dangerous, someone who stole from people in a socially acceptable and governmentally blessed way, someone who took the very religious or national identity that we cherished and basically stomped all over it for his own gain. (I’ve got a few people in mind already.)

Ugh. We hate that guy.

We’d all be there muttering, too. We’d all be wondering about this Teacher who apparently had missed the important parts of the very Law he claims to teach.

We don’t hang around with people like that, Jesus. Don’t you know? Good people wouldn’t be caught dead with a man like that.

Just like we don’t hang around with women who are caught in the act of adultery, we don’t hang around with Samaritans, we don’t hang around with powerless children, we don’t hang around with women who have a bad reputation, we don’t hang around with beggars or the poor or the oppressed or the criminal or the possessed or the socially marginalized or the ones who aren’t allowed to come to temple with the good religious people, good gracious!

Get it together, Jesus.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about this ignorant people you’ve placed in your inner circle, they hardly can offer the counsel of the most learned among us, get your optics and your brand straight.  

And, hey, news flash, we certainly don’t go to the personal home of a corrupt politician for a bite to eat.

But he does it anyway.

Jesus seems not to care about our who-is-in and who-is-out line in the sand. He doesn’t seem to care about what we think about all the wrong folks hanging around with him. 

Jesus picks the wrong guy :: Sarah Bessey

He’s not ignoring the Laws they are trying to defend – after all scripture tells us, he came to fulfil the Law and not one line would be lost – but while also revealing the Love behind the Law and the inadequacy of it to replace or restrict or encapsulate the real love of a real God for their people. Jesus came because God so loved the world. After all, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in the book of John, it was because God so loved the world that Jesus came to us. Jesus came, not to condemn the world but to save the world. 

…including the guy we would rather be condemned, to be honest.

One of the things I love most about this story is that because of an encounter with Jesus, Zaccheaus turns around gives half of everything away. He is so moved by Jesus, he vows to pay back anyone he has cheated four times the amount he stole. That’s extravagant repentance. And it’s over and above the minimum the Law said had to be repaid in cases of theft, so he’s acknowledging he did steal, he wasn’t just “doing the government’s work” but nope, he totally stole and he’ll admit it. He’s not just fulfilling the letter of the Law, he’s repenting with the heart of the Law.

That’s not a begrudging “okay, fine, I’ll stop being a crook but I’m keeping all my stuff and my reputation” repentance, that’s “I’ll go bankrupt making it right and I’ll own the sin I committed and here have everything because all I want is the Kingdom of Heaven in your presence, Jesus!” repentance. Whew!

Jesus welcomes him, calls him a “true son of Abraham” for this. And he reminds us: The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Zaccheaus was lost, Jesus sought him out, and in this moment of repentance – which was so much more than just money or position – he’s reoriented to the Kingdom of God.

I’ve been thinking about this over the past week because I was thinking of the word “today” in that passage. Jesus says “Today I must stay at your house” and then later “Today salvation has come to this house.” The appointment is now.

We’d rather another day, another house, another time, another kind of sinner.

But today is the day. Today is the day.  and today is the day when salvation comes to that house because of Jesus.

Today is the day for the wrong guy.

It’s perhaps telling where we see ourselves in that story.

Are we the crowd, resentful and muttering because we think That Person shouldn’t be included because they aren’t righteous enough or holy enough or good enough or acceptable enough or just enough? Do we have a long list of people we’d probably be pretty mad to see Jesus hanging out with in our world? Do we begrudge seeing Jesus head right to a certain house with a certain person? 

Jesus messes with us. We have our sort of people we want to keep out.

Sure, we’re okay with this kind of sinner being included but not that kind. But over and over, Jesus picks the wrong person in our eyes.

(Including us.)

Or perhaps we see ourselves more in the one who everyone else wants to keep out.

Then we are the ones who hear our names called out in front of all the people who would rather keep us out of the Kingdom of God and we see Jesus say, “Today, today, today, I’m coming to your house.

And all we can do is receive the Christ with such joy and relief. Our sin – everything that damages us and damages our relationship with God and damages our relationships with one another – is over!

So we turn everything in our lives upside down and inside out to be with him, to cooperate in making all things right, today.

thank you for sharing…
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Disagreement
  • Tim

    Today is a scarey and beautiful word all at once, Sarah. It’s the word God uses to let us know he really wants us. The thought astounds me.

  • Sarah Allen

    Oh Mrs. Bessey. Thank you for sharing this age-old story and bringing life back into it. I see myself on both sides. Living in the South, I am the angry person enraged that my fellow brothers and sisters would dare endorse many of the Christian leaders who are selling out for monetary gain and public notoriety, abandoning individuals and families who need their support now more than ever. Namely, those struggling with mental health issues, addiction and cyclical poverty.

    I also see myself AS the margainalized and forgotten. It’s a rough time in my husbands life being diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness that has left us feeling utterly confused about the plans God has for us and leaning on the funds of society to keep us and our children from becoming homeless or destitute. This is not a popular position to be in society and I find myself daily asking God, why us? Can’t you see how much those around us judge and look down upon creatures like us who aren’t able to support ourselves right now? I see the others like us and it absolutely amazes me how ostracised we are. It’s a lonely place for sure and has been eye opening in the best AND worst of ways. Is this what you meant when you told Jeremiah that you have “plans to prosper him and not to harm him”…?

    I digress. Both sides can stand to learn from this passage and I thank you for sharing.

  • Sara

    Jesus sure makes it hard to hate. Even the ones we like to hate. Thanks for this reminder. And I was definitely singing the song while listening to the reading at church Sunday.

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  • I just read this through a second time today, and I am crying. Jesus is the only clear thing to me right now.

  • Raquel

    Finally read this. Thank you, Sarah. Such a needed and beautiful reminder.