I ran away once as a kid. I was mad about something ten year-olds get mad about—mad enough that I had to step up my normal fit or else risk being interpreted as only typically mad. The most untypical thing I could think to do was to pack a backpack of snacks and books and run away. So I ran to the backyard, climbed into my tree fort, and sat fuming in the snow.
After an hour or so, I decided it was time to go home. I was sure my mom was worried, troubled at the thought of me being lost and alone. I was also out of snacks, freezing, and beginning to see that my brilliant plan was riddled with inconveniences. So I made the long trek back to the house, expecting a reunion of apologies and hot cocoa. After all, to them, I was lost and now found, and this seemed a necessary occasion to celebrate. I converged, however, on a much less climactic scene. Nobody had noticed I was missing. When no one is looking for you, it lends a hopeless dimension to being lost.
Centuries before this scene, a man named Zacchaeus entered a big crowd only to be largely ignored. He was trying to join the group that had gathered to see Jesus as he passed through Jericho. Zacchaeus was a small man, but he was also the chief tax collector, and so he was chiefly despised. The walls of men and women who blocked his view were excluding more than a man of diminutive size; they were shutting out a man of depravity, wealth, and corruption. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree.
The rest of the story is all the more unusual for a man of his position. Zacchaeus was sitting inconspicuously in a tree when Jesus walked by, looked up, and called him down. At his invitation, the morally bankrupt, socially shunned tax collector came down from the tree and his life took a dramatic turn. At the conclusion of their time together, Jesus proclaimed of himself: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”(1) Zacchaeus had been found.
The Greek word for “lost” in this passage is best understood, not as doomed or damned as is sometimes interpreted, but “not in the right place.” The effect is that the finality of “lostness” is somewhat assuaged, conveying first that there is indeed a right place, but also the notion that the very quality of lostness is known. Inherent in Jesus’s description of the misplaced coin or the sheep that has gone astray is that someone is looking. Someone is looking in a way he would not be looking if it was found or if he thought it was gone forever. That is to say, what is lost and in the wrong place is being sought by the one who knows the right place. Likewise, what is lost is missed. And as I discovered as a ten year-old, it is this quality that makes all the difference.
It is this quality that makes the journey of faith and belief one that is well worth taking. Like those of us displaced by a sense of failure, banished by the judgment of others, or lost in anger or fear, Zacchaeus, prior to meeting Jesus, was simply in the wrong place. But he was not beyond the saving reach of the vicariously human Son of God who came to find him. He was lost, but there was someone looking. Jesus came to Jericho and to Jerusalem neither confirming customary exclusions nor endorsing social and spiritual hierarchies. In fact, immediately following his encounter with Zacchaeus—a man lost in his own wealth and the corruption that surrounded it—Jesus came beside a man lost in blindness and poverty. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost wherever they might be lost. Thus, despite his way of life up to this point, Zacchaeus was not to be cut off from the people of God or God himself: “For this man, too, is a son of Abraham,” said Jesus. And his words seemed to be spoken as much to the crowd who shunned the sinner as to the sinner himself.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Luke 19:10.
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