When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
-Luke 19:5-6 (NIV)
A lot of the kids at Gainesville (Texas) Juvenile Correction Facility are there because they don’t have anyone in their corner, no one cheering for them. When you come to believe you’re all alone, and on your own, you’ll do some things that society won’t tolerate, too. And you’ll wind up, if you’re not yet an adult, in a place like Gainesville.
Let’s face it: call it a “juvenile correction facility” all you want, it’s still a prison. And life there is as limited as life in pretty much any other prison. One of those limits, of course, is that you don’t get to leave. For the term of your incarceration, all you know is the life of an inmate. And that kind of life, I’m guessing, doesn’t do much to change your belief that you’re on your own in the world. That no one is rooting for you.
The kids at Gainesville, however, do get to leave for basketball games. Just the players do, I mean. No spectators. They get to leave to play games against private schools nearby — or, at least, the schools that allow them to come onto their campuses. It’s a privilege earned by good behavior, and any small infraction can cause a player to miss a game.
I wonder how the players are treated at most of the schools where they play. Schools can be tough, kids can be cruel sometimes, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the players from Gainesville are often treated with a mixture of suspicion, fear, and hostility on the campuses of the private schools who are willing to host them. And, of course, Gainesville is always the visiting team.
So, back in February, Gainesville was set to play a school in Waco called Vanguard College Prep. Shortly before the game, two Vanguard players, Hudson Bradley and Ben Martinson, went to their head coach and school officials with some concerns. Not concerns about the safety of their team and the other Vanguard students, as you might expect. No, their concerns were about the Gainesville team.
Specifically, they were concerned about what it would be like for Gainesville to have no one in the stands rooting for them. Even the visiting team in a high school basketball game usually has some students and parents who make the trip with them. But Gainesville would have no one to yell when they scored, to cheer them on. And so Hudson and Ben had a plan: ask some of their own fans to form a cheering section for Gainesville.
Once the idea took hold, it sort of snowballed. Some students made signs for Gainesville. Half the gym’s seating was reserved for Gainesville’s cheering section. Some Vanguard girls even decided to form a Gainesville cheerleading squad.
So when the Gainesville team came out of the locker room for the game, it was into a gym half-full of kids and parents and teachers screaming for them. As they warmed up, and as the game started, they heard applause, probably for the first time ever. Every time they scored or made a good defensive play, their fans rose to their feet and screamed approval. That changed, of course, as the game went on.
By the end, there was nothing but Gainesville fans in the gym. Because when a few people believe in someone, that belief can be contagious.
“When I’m an old man, I’ll still be thinking about this,” said one of the Gainesville players.
Because when someone believes in you, you don’t forget it.
We tend to think people will change if we push them, force them, will them to be better. We tend to think that they’ll change if we just tell them what to do, hit them with a stick, withhold love and support until they earn it by behaving as we want them to. Maybe we learn behavior from the way others have treated us. We certainly don’t learn it from Jesus, though.
Jesus went to people, people like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and showed them the love and acceptance they had been denied. No one respectable, I guarantee you, had asked Zacchaeus to his house for a meal in a long time. Much less had anyone respectable been willing to set foot in Zacchaeus’ house. Just look at the way the respectable people respond, and you get a glimpse of the can of worms Jesus opens. Never mind that Zacchaeus had brought some of the treatment he had received on himself. Never mind that he might have even rubbed his disrepute in the faces of Jericho’s Moral Majority. Down deep, he wanted to believe that someone like Jesus could like him, maybe even love him, maybe even accept him as he was. And by inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ place, Jesus told him that he did. “I must stay at your house today,” he said, and in that one sentence said that Zacchaeus mattered as much to him as did any of the good people in Jericho with whom Jesus might have stayed.
Never forget that we’re as much Zacchaeus as we are the good folks, shocked that Jesus could eat with him. There are, after all, places in our hearts and lives that are just as ugly as Zacchaeus’. If the Lord could treat us with love and grace and kindness, then there’s no one beyond his reach. It’s our job, then, to take the love and acceptance we’ve received from the Lord and share it, not just by talking about it, but by loving and accepting the people whose paths we cross. We’re not called to fix anyone. We’re not called to convict them of sin and hold the wrath of God over their heads and manipulate them into some sort of mourner’s bench moment. We’re called to love them and receive them in the name of God, and trust that doing so might just open their hearts to God’s Spirit.
It certainly did for Zacchaeus. “Salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says. “This man is also a descendent of Abraham, truly one of the people of God.” But we never see Jesus tell Zacchaeus what he should do, or berate him for shady financial dealings, or threaten him with eternal damnation if he doesn’t give back any ill-gotten profits. Apparently, he just eats with him and accepts him as he is. And Zacchaeus starts to get the idea that God might just love him after all, and that he just might be able to be the person God wants him to be.
I bet there are some folks like that in your life, folks who need to know God loves them and that they can change. And they may not ever come to that realization if you can’t find it in your heart to show them that you love them and that you’re on their side. So, in the grace of God, put away the stick for a while. Start a cheering section. Shower love on someone who’s had nothing but judgment, and see if salvation doesn’t come to their house too.