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How to engage in difficult dialogue the way Jesus did with Zacchaeus

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Simple friendship can change hearts and minds.

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)

Maybe you remember the children’s song from CCD: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he …” But to Jesus’s contemporaries, this memorable story from Scripture was no quaint tale for children; they would have found it scandalous.

To understand why the story of Zacchaeus was so shocking, you need to understand the hated role of tax collectors in 1st-century Jewish society. It was bad enough that corrupt tax collectors made their fortunes at the expense of their countrymen, greedily taxing them beyond what the law required and keeping the difference. But even worse was their collaboration with the oppressive Roman occupiers, of whose domination the tax collectors were a constant reminder.

Perhaps no figure was as universally despised, distrusted, and outright shunned by his own people. Tax collectors were considered ritually unclean, and to enter a tax collector’s house or even touch his possessions would defile others in turn.

But the same Christ who enters into our bodies in the form of bread and wine, and changes our sinful hearts into something more closely resembling Himself, entered the house of the tax collector and transformed this avaricious man. That very day, Scripture tells us, Zacchaeus made this stunning act of charity: “Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.’”

Most people of the era would never have given Zacchaeus the time of day, but Jesus sensed in him an openness and willingness to listen—and the grace of Jesus’s friendship altered the course of Zacchaeus’s life. Some traditions hold that Zacchaeus even became a bishop in the early Church.

At the simplest level, this story shows us how Christ treated those who disagreed with Him. When he first met Jesus, Zacchaeus was living in outright opposition to the Gospel, yet Jesus treated Him with perfect respect and kindness. Zacchaeus’s conversion is a powerful reminder that no one is so lost they can’t be redeemed: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Again and again, in the Gospel, we see how Christ’s love changes those around him. Pope Benedict XVI said it best: “Once more the Gospel tells us that love, flowing from the heart of God and working through the heart of man, is the force that renews the world.” Crucially, of course, Zacchaeus’s cooperation was needed; Christ’s kindness extended to his enemies had no such transformative effect. But when He saw a heart open to friendship with Him, He was willing to cross the barriers of what was socially and religiously acceptable to reach that soul.

No matter how much you may disagree with someone, if they are open to dialogue, Christ has shown us how to respond. “No one ever converted because they lost the argument,” as the saying goes, but simple kindness and small acts of friendship have changed countless hearts. If we can continue to extend friendship, even when it’s hard or when others look askance, we can be at peace knowing that we are imitating Christ.

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