When I was in college, I started writing a short play based on the Zacchaeus story. There was a man in our church named Bill who stood at an awesome 6’10” and I thought it would be ironic to cast him as Zacchaeus. “A wee little man was he.” Not.
The wee man who said, “Oui,” to Jesus has always been a favorite Sunday school story (Luke 19:1-10). Little kids connect with the little man. It even has tree-climbing and going over to a friend’s house to play or something like that. But our community has found that this story usually relegated to kids is an essential one for us as disciples/followers of Jesus — people who don’t just follow the teachings of Jesus, but who follow Jesus in the way he did things.
The first thing we see about Jesus is that he isn’t hidden away from people. He’s in a crowd. That doesn’t mean Jesus was an extrovert. He needed his quiet time, his alone time. People exhausted him, but he loved them so much that he spent a lot of time with them. So, we do the same, putting ourselves close to people so we can love them.
Next, we see that Zacchaeus was interested in Jesus. That’s the tree part of the story, where Zac climbs a sycamore tree to get a better view of Jesus. Jesus sees Zac’s interest and makes the first move, the one that initiates a relationship. Similarly, we look for interest in others, but we don’t wait for them to make the first relational move. We are the sent people of God. Jesus said, “Go,” so we go, making the first move.
For most of us, that first move is an invitation for dinner or coffee or something else. Generally, we invite people into our own space or a neutral space that we feel comfortable in.
But here’s the big thing: Our goal is not to get people into our space. Our goal is to get into their space.
So, once Jesus has made a connection with Zacchaeus, he invites himself over to Zac’s house. It’s the key moment in the story. It’s also the kind of action that determines whether we are missionaries or not. Do we make the move from our space to their space?
Getting Zac to synagogue wasn’t Jesus’ goal. The people in the synagogue hated Zac. It’s the last place he wanted to be. Similarly, it’s not our goal to get people to go to church with us. They feel the same way about church as Zac did about synagogue, the same way dudes feel when going to Victoria’s Secret with their wives.
What Jesus did was get into Zac’s space, into Zac’s world, the place where Zac was most at home because it was his home. It’s there as the guest that Jesus stops talking and Zac takes over. And the same goes for us.
Our goal is to enter into the places where others feel most comfortable and then to listen to them. Really listen. That’s when we listen to not just the subjects that people talk about, but the exact wording they use. The language people use reveals all kinds of things about how they view the world and God and themselves. We miss all that when we replace their words with our own vocabulary. And if we miss that, we’ll miss our opportunities to speak gospel when they signal us that they’re ready to hear it.
For too long, I’ve filtered conversations through my interests. When other guys talk about golf, for instance, I tend to zone out, not being a golfer. But I’ve recently discovered that the things that others are interested in which I’m not skilled at are some of my most missional opportunities. I recently asked a new acquaintance who brews beer if I can join him as he brews, learning how to do it from him while helping out as much as I can without ruining things.
Entering others’ space. Engaging in others’ interests. Learning others’ language. This is what missionaries do. And only when we do these first are we able to speak gospel in ways that they are able to hear it.
These are skills and practices we’re learning together as we take seriously the reality that the United States is now the third largest mission field in the world. If we are to reach the Zacchaeus’s in each of our lives, they’re skills and practices we all need.