In Luke 19, we read about a man named Zacchaeus who was successful and wealthy. When Jesus came to Jericho, the crowd caused Zacchaeus to climb up a tree in order to see Him. While we don’t know everything about Zacchaeus, we can deduce much and also ponder about this man.
It is possible that Zacchaeus was acquainted with a fellow tax collector named Levi. Mathew 9:9 says that one day Jesus saw a man named Matthew (Levi) sitting in the tax collector’s office. It seems reasonable to assume that most Jews knew Matthew as “the tax collector.”
It is easier to label people than to love them. However, labels tend to dehumanize a person. For example, at a time when African Americans were commonly called racial slurs, it tragically was common to live in a segregated society. At a time when Japanese were called racial slurs, it tragically was not a problem for that same society to put them internment camps. Thankfully, to use such labels today is widely known to be wrong.
Jesus did not see a label—a “tax collector.” He saw a “man named Matthew.” To know someone well enough to know his name indicates a personal relationship. No doubt, Matthew was a sinner. Because Jesus called Matthew by his name, he had influence with Matthew. Is it not true that the people who have influenced us the most in our lives are the people with whom we’ve had a personal relationship? As a result of this influence, Matthew became a follower of Jesus.
The story gets better. Simon was a member of the Zealot party. They were prone to violence, so tax collectors saw them as enemies. We don’t know how Simon met Jesus, but he became a follower of Jesus also. Can you imagine the look on the face of Zacchaeus when he saw Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot eating and laughing together as followers of Jesus? Surely that did not make sense to Zacchaeus. He wanted to know more about this man Jesus, even if he had to climb up a tree in order to see Him.
While other Jews avoided sinners like Zacchaeus, Jesus did the opposite. He chose to enter into the house of Zacchaeus. Some religious leaders criticized Jesus for this, but he came to “seek and to save” those who are lost. For Jesus, that meant getting beyond labels and getting to know sinners as people with names.
The tendency to label others has not gone away. In fact, it is common to see people refer to sinners with labels. Yet Christ did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. Condemnation will get an “Amen” from the choir, but not from the crowd of sinners.
Today, somewhere there is a young girl who is pregnant and alone. She thinks her only option is to have an abortion. I wonder: what is her name?
Today, somewhere there is a man angered by racism in society. He doesn’t see any option except violence. I wonder: what is his name?
The church is the most powerful entity in the world. We can turn the world upside down, but the weapons of our warfare cannot be carnal. When we love sinners unconditionally, we will know them as people, and we will know them by name.
Then we will have influence in their lives so that we can lead them to Jesus. No barrier can withstand the power of love.