Bernard Sauvagnat, ThD, is associate editor for the French edition of Ministry. He resides in Montpellier, France.

My natural inclination is to judge others. Yes, I should know better. The apostle Paul tells us to regard others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). This is important for us to remember when we encounter people—

whether in person or in Scripture. Take Zacchaeus, for example: how do we look at (or judge) him?

Judging like the crowd

Most readers of Luke’s Gospel consider Zacchaeus to be a traitor working for the enemy who rode to the top unscrupulously on the backs of his countrymen. Jesus transformed him into a generous son of Abraham who righted his wrongs and broke free from his past. But is this only way to understand the narrative? Let’s look at the facts.

Luke 19 contains no mention of dishonesty. It introduces us to a man called Zacchaeus who is chief tax collector and rich. Zacchaeus is also short, and the crowd is impeding his goal, which is to see Jesus.

When Jesus comes close to the tree where he is perched, Jesus calls him by his name, “Zacchaeus! Get down quickly! Today in your home I must stay!” (v. 5).1 Although this is an imperative, Zacchaeus feels no reproach from Jesus. Instead, he complies and welcomes Jesus with joy.

The crowd, on the other hand, criticizes Jesus and judges Zacchaeus: “In a sinner’s home He stops!” (v. 7). But Zacchaeus is not discouraged by this indirect slight. He stands, turns to Jesus, and calls Him Lord. Is Zacchaeus just being polite here, or is he confessing Jesus’ divinity? It is left for the reader to decide.

Zacchaeus continues, “Half my possessions, Lord, to the poor I give. And if I extorted something from someone, I give back four times!”
(v. 8). Here again, the reader can choose what meaning to give to these words. They can mean, “From now on I will . . .” or “I’ve always . . . It’s my way of living.” Greek grammar allows both readings. Why do we almost naturally lean toward the former?

The narrative ends with these words from Jesus, “Today salvation entered this house. He also is a son of Abraham” (v. 9). Then Luke adds, “For the son of man came to look for and save the lost” (v. 10). What was Zacchaeus saved from? From the sins assumed by the crowd or the bad reputation that kept him away from Jesus and the others?

To read this text as a conversion narrative is possible, but not compulsory. It can be read as Jesus discovering an honest and generous human pearl, a victim of prejudices. The text does not say that Zacchaeus is not a sinner and does not need God’s grace to be saved. It simply says that the crowd judges him a sinner. In this case, Jesus acknowledges that Zacchaeus’s bad reputation does not prevent him from welcoming salvation and being worthy of the identity of being one of Abraham’s sons.

Standing out from the crowd

Let us not join the crowd. If we adopt its vision, we risk being obstacles to those who want to discover Jesus but feel too small beside us. We risk being shocked that Jesus could stand by them. We risk being embarrassed when we learn the hard way that God will accept people only if they bow down and not if they remain standing in front of Him. We risk thinking and acting as if we are better than others.

We risk still more by imagining that God cannot see honest and generous people in all social groups. People who are doing good without thinking they merit anything. People who, like the sheep of Matthew 25:37–39, are surprised to be blessed after giving food or water or clothes and visiting Jesus simply because it was natural for them to act as brothers and sisters to those wounded by life.

Yes, let us regard others as better than ourselves!

  1. Scripture is the author’s translation from the original Greek.

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