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Brian Rapske Ph.D.

Stray Cats and Tax Collectors

 Andrea was frantic. Freddie, her beloved cat, was lost! That may not have been Freddie’s sense of things, but that’s the way Andrea saw it.  They’d adopted the black cat from the Humane Society animal shelter. They searched for Freddie in all the usual places–and the not so usual ones–around the house, in the yard and throughout the neighbourhood. Everyone knew Freddie to see him, but there was no Freddie to be seen!

It took some time to find Freddie; in fact, three years!

Freddie was picked up as a stray and returned to the animal shelter where personnel, as part of the processing, discovered that Freddie had had a microchip  implanted under his skin at the time Andrea’s family first adopted him and took him home. The shelter was able to contact Andrea’s family, who’d moved in the meantime, to let them know that Freddie had been found.

After three years, Freddie and Andrea were finally reunited!

In the nineteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives us his expressed mission statement: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Luke 19:10) There is a strong emphasis in Luke on "lost and found" things and persons (see especially Luke 15). But Jesus’ mission statement occurs in the context of a controversial dinner engagement in Jericho.

The "stray cat," in this case, was a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. 

One might have thought that Jesus would not have had time for a man so roundly hated in the community for the extortionate way he earned his living and how badly this hurt people. Zacchaeus was a religious write-off, unworthy of Jesus’ time and attention as far as the community was concerned.

The fact that Jesus went to Zacchaeus’ house raised tension in the community toward Jesus himself. "What’s Jesus doing, hanging around with the obviously-wicked?" people thought. "At the very least, it shows a very poor sense of judgment."

 

ZACCHAEUS–A DIVINE POSSESSION LOST

The challenge in the community’s "othering" of Zacchaeus was that it ignored a very important reality. One that the Christian community needs to reckon with too  when thinking about and relating to the lost.

Zacchaeus the stray was lost, but he still belonged to God!

The signs of that possession in the text are plain to see. First, there is Zacchaeus’ name; it’s a variant of the name "Zachariah" which means "the righteous one." Zacchaeus had been born under the covenant of God and raised by a Jewish family to see himself as part of the people of God and God’s possession.  His name suggests a parental hope for his highest and most godly aspiration. Second, he showed the sign of being God’s possession by his intense curiosity about Jesus. Luke relates, "he wanted to see who Jesus was." Perhaps Jesus’ reputation as a "friend of tax collectors and sinners" had created the interest.

These were all divine "microchips" embedded beneath Zacchaeus’ lost exterior. They’re like the divine "microchips" of possession embedded in Zacchaeus-types all around us.

Sadly, Christians over-frequently forget that the lost also belong to God–whether they acknowledge it or not!Stray Cat

As far away as he was from God, the signs of divine ownership on Zacchaeus were there to be seen–if one cared to look! Like the lost sheep of the shepherd, the lost coin of the woman, and the lost son of the father, Zacchaeus was still a treasured possession, but out of the hand of God. Zacchaeus had lost his way through involvement in the Roman taxation system, buying contracts to collect taxes and then sweating, gouging and cheating his fellow Jews to make a huge profit. There was no room for faith, fellowship or friendship in any of this enterprise. He’d traded them all away for the love of money.

Zacchaeus was lost to God. He had no comfort. But something was drawing him and someone was drawing near to him.

 

JESUS–SEEKING AND SAVING

Jesus’ mission from God was to "seek and to save what was lost." Jesus has made it our mission too (Matthew 28:18-20).

But what does it take to "seek"? It takes time for one thing. Jesus was certainly spending time on Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was one important reason why Jesus was in Jericho. Whether it was divine insight, good planning, or something else, he was why Jesus looked into the sycamore-fig tree (vv. 4 and 5: Zaachaeus wanted to see Jesus, but probably not be seen), called the tax collector by name, told him to climb down, and invited himself over for a meal.

Jesus’ intensity and initiative with Zacchaeus was unashamed, purposeful, and persistent.

Obviously, more than hospitality took place between verses 6 and 8 in the narrative. Like the meal with another tax collector named Levi (Luke 5:27-32), there would have been spirited conversation, and in that context there would indeed have been intense and very direct positive engagement from Jesus on the subject of who Zacchaeus ultimately belonged to and was resisting–that he needed to return.

Seeking not only called for Jesus to be daring and creative; he also had to have thick skin. Religious types criticized Jesus for "hanging out with the wicked;" consorting with spiritual losers. But he was unphased by the disapproval. Jesus knew his mission. He couldn’t seek and save the lost if he only hung out with the "holy." 

The logic seems pretty clear; but, sadly, modern day disciples somehow just don’t get it.

 

WHAT DOES "SAVED" LOOK LIKE?

It’s pretty easy to know when you’ve found something or someone physically. But what does a "found" or "saved" person look like spiritually? While people who are saved become orientated more closely to God and his people and have a growing interest in "spiritual" things, it may be that the answer to the question is a whole lot simpler and less generic than we oftentimes make it.

Perhaps the answer to the first question comes when we’ve answered a second question: "In what way(s) is that person lost?" If there is a significant change in that expression of lostness, we can have a measure of confidence that that person has been "saved."

Consider Zaacheus. He was lost in the area of money. He’d sold his soul for it and sold out his faith and community for it. The acquisition of loads of cash was his passion; it was his god. That’s a big one for people today.

What does "found" and "saved" look like? It’s when there is a transformation of Zacchaeus in the area that most profoundly expresses his lostness.

When Zacchaeus openly and publicly confessed that he had formerly been a lover of money above everything else and that he had put that all aside, it was clear something absolutely profound had occurred in him. Where before he had been a grasping hoarder, now he was a man of charity. The rabbis indicated that if one gave away as much as 20% of their possessions, this was "righteous." Zacchaeus declared that he would give away half of all he owned! Zacchaeus had formerly been a man with a seared conscience when it came to cheating others by his office; now he declared that he would repay those he had cheated plus significant damages (v. 8; cf. Leviticus 6:1-5; Exodus 22:1; 2 Samuel 12:6). In the area where Zacchaeus was most lost, that was the area where there was a demonstration that he had been found.

Zacchaeus was saved right to the very bottom of his wallet!

Jesus knew it and he declared as much: "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham." (v. 9)

 

A FEW QUESTIONS

Lost. What indications are there in the people you know and want to share the gospel with that they bear the stamp of God’s ownership on them? Have you ever told them this? How have they become lost? You’ll need to be quite sensitive to observe and listen. Make this a matter of prayer asking for spiritual sensitivity to "read" people for their lostness.

Seeking. Do you and your church show the pattern of Jesus in aggressive, clear, straightforward, sharp-eyed, daring, tough-skinned and persistent seeking? Do you hang out with the lost?

Found. As you share the good news about God’s love, are you looking to see friends and acquaintances "found" in the particular areas in which they have shown themselves to be lost?

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