“The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19)
It’s an incredible verse. It tells you who Jesus is (“The Son of Man”). It tells you why he came (“to save the lost”) and it tells you how he did it, (by seeking!).
I realise that I’m veering towards the simplistic, by not by much. Of course, each component needs much more explanation: What does “Son of Man” mean, exactly? What does the verb “to save” include ? And precisely what does “seeking” entail?
The verse comes at the tail-end of a story which expounds all these points. It’s the given explanation of the way that Jesus dealt with Zaccheus the tax collector.
I mention his employment because it is a crucial part of the story. It’s strange that even today, to describe yourself at a party by saying: “Well, I work for the Inland Revenue,” STILL creates a slight frisson of alarm. But Zaccheus was in a completely different league. Worse, I mean. He was not simply known as a tax collector but as one who collaborated with the occupying forces of his country. A quisling. A Traitor.
And in the tight religious community of first century Palestine, he was an outsider, a covenant-breaker, a person of no character. He was “unclean” and it was forbidden to have social dealings with him.
What would that look like for us? Well, I guess it would be the very worst kind of social pariah that you can imagine. A drug-pushing child-molesting rapist? … or, really, any type of person that presses your doorbell and makes you squirm, hide behind the sofa and say “Anybody but him. I just CAN’T accept him.”
That’s the one.
And because he’s short of stature and short of a welcome, Zaccheus finds himself at the back of the crowd, peering between the branches of a tree to see the famous Jesus as he goes by.
And Jesus sees him. He knows his name, so it’s not a huge assumption to say that EVERYBODY knew his name. He was, perhaps, notorious.
But how does Jesus deal with him? There was a crowd,and Jesus must have seen many people, smiling and nodding at him. His eyes flicker across the mass, and he spots Mr Z, way back there, possibly trying NOT to be seen.
He sees him. He knows him. And he singles him out. He speaks as if they have a prior dinner arrangement, and it’s time they were getting on towards the tea and crumpets. In a word, Jesus insists on being nice. Imagine that. And in the process, he outrages nearly everyone’s sense of decency and prudish respectability.
And what’s more, he’s absolutely clear about his rationale. I’m doing this, he says, because “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”
There’s an amazing photo at the top here. It’s a mummy lizard reaching out to grab a baby lizard (or possibly a truculent teenager-lizard) who has fallen off its perch. It has lost its place and needs a hand.
The instinct kicks into being because of the relationship between the two. This is what mums do. It doesn’t need explanation or reasoning. This my son was lost and is back home again! Of course we having a party! (To misquote another of Jesus’s lost and found stories).
Jesus claimed a relationship with Zaccheus. Did you see that? He explains to the crowd what is happening; he points to Zaccheus and says, “This man too is a son of Abraham.” He’s a family member. You didn’tsee it. You just saw a reprobate scumbag but I recognised my brother.
Because I’m “Son of Man” and anything that hurts the heart of other human beings bothers me too.
And Zaccheus is “lost.” Technically, he has drifted by greed or sin or whatever, into a lifestyle that excludes him from the covenant-favour of God,and I’m here to call him home. “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.”
So how do WE restore the lost?
If it is in your heart to live the Jesus-way, then you are called into the same life of service and love. And that means that whatever the gender, or race, religion or rank of the person in front of you, you have to learn to recognise a family member, a human being. Your brother, your sister.
And second, if there’s any ambiguity about how to act after that, (in the words of the song) “Try a little tenderness.” It’s how God deals with you, after all.