You’re a judge in a court of law. In front of you is the accused. He’s a short man, so he’s been given an extra step to stand on. He awkwardly brushes a sycamore seed off his shoulder, but the handcuffs prevent him from reaching the ones in his hair.
He’s quite possibly the most hated man in town and for good reason; not only is he a tax collector, working on behalf of the occupying forces, but everybody knows that he takes more money than he’s meant to and keeps it for himself. He’s even done it to you. Working for the enemy and stealing from his own people! He’s a treacherous thief in an expensive suit. Now it’s up to you to decide his sentence.
So what will it be? Community service? A fine? Banishment to a distant land? What would be a just punishment for Zacchaeus’ crime?
Samuel Ryder’s Year 9 students have been wrestling with similar questions recently. In their Crime and Punishment lessons, they imagined that they were judges presiding over various cases with the power to hand down whatever sentence they felt was appropriate. It raised all sorts of interesting conversations about why we punish people. Is it most important to compensate the victim or to protect the rest of society? Should we help the offender to change, or is justice only served if we go after revenge? What do our answers to these questions reveal about our personal values?
When in doubt, Christians look to Jesus for help. But sometimes the example he sets can prove even more baffling. Many of the Year 9s were surprised by how Jesus treated Zacchaeus, the treacherous thief in an expensive suit, when he spotted him perched in a sycamore tree.
No community service, fines or banishment - just dinner.
“Why would Jesus want to have dinner with that terrible guy?” asked one student. “I thought he’d be hanging out with the good, religious people.”
The people at the time were just as confused. But Jesus ate a lot of dinners with those on the margins of society, those who no one else wanted to be around. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” he explained. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
While we don’t know what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about over that dinner, we know that it was the turning point of Zacchaeus’ whole life. There and then he decided to pay back everything he’d cheated out of people four times over and give half of everything he owned to the poor. It almost sounds like he paid a fine, but he paid it willingly and as part of an effort to repair the damage he caused and begin a new, better life. He was offered a second chance, by one who knew his name and saw value in him, and he grasped that chance with both hands. Shane Taylor, whose story you can hear about in the video below, is a living example of how transformations like this are still happening 2,000 years later.
So here’s the challenge Year 9 were left with: if change is possible for Zacchaeus and for Shane, is it possible for all of us? And if it’s possible for all of us, should our justice system allow us all a chance for that change to happen?