It is impossible for us not to have grown up without “preconceived notions” of people, places and things. From the time we are born we are surrounded by visual and auditory signals that influence the way we view our world. In time these “prejudices” are tempered by our intellect personal convictions and we either accept or reject those judgments and opinions. And so it is in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). In this Gospel Luke really exaggerates the stereotype of the despised man in the community to make a point: Zaccheaus (let’s call him “Z”), was rich; a chief tax collector, and he was short (?). In the shame-based culture of his time, being a tax collector was tantamount to being a traitor. The tax collector was expected to “extort” money from his people and turn it over, minus his commission, to the Roman oppressors. As Luke referenced his height, my guess is that Z was probably shorter than most people of his time. In any case, we can understand why Luke’s audience would to rush to judgment.
In the beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” characterizes how “inherited” racial prejudice and intolerance can destroy relationships. On the other hand, they can be overcome by understanding and love. In that song Lieutenant Cable describes how his Philadelphia blue-blood upbringing has caused him to retreat from his love for the Tonkinese girl, while Nellie, the young nurse from Little Rock, cannot accept the fact that the man she loves had fathered inter-racial children. You've Got to be Carefully Taught.
Z knew who he was and knew what he had done. He saw shame in the eyes of his community and was quite happy to be concealed. There are those among us who are naturally drawn to the promise of healing and wholeness but instead opt to “hide up a tree” because they are among the disenfranchised and not a part of the in-crowd. Like Z, it’s safer for them to look from a distance than risk shame or embarrassment.
In keeping with Luke’s familiar surprise endings and his unlikely heroes, Jesus called Z out and “invited himself” to his home. In turn, Z immediately responds and repents, at which point the story reverts to the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn't like based upon its pre-conceived notions and prejudice.
Nancy Rockwell writes “what Jesus treasures in the despised is their ability to hang on, to survive with part of their own humanity intact, despite the way they have been treated by the world. This part of themselves becomes their shining light, becomes the window of their soul and a lighted path for all out souls…They are here to show us how to keep going in deep darkness, how to survive the bullies, how to have hope in mean times…No wonder, then, that we celebrate the saints in the dark of the year, a time they understand well, a darkness in which they shine.” (The Bite in the Apple).