Ever since I was a young child I have always liked the story of Zacchaeus found in the New Testament in the book of Luke, Chapter 19 I think it was because as a kid I identified with the fact that Zacchaeus was described as a short man. Recently, though, I've begun to see something else in the story of Zacchaeus - something that is especially relevant to teachers in the classroom.
Before I go any farther in this post, please note that I recognize that there are members of this network who aren't fans of the New Testament to the same degree that I am. Rest assured, the point of this post will not be to proselytize. Rather, just like all teachers search high and low for good object lessons, I am sharing a story that I believe will provide a framework that can help us improve as educators.
If you're unfamiliar with the very short (pun-intended) story of Zacchaeus, here it is:
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
In his book Blue Like Jazz, author Donald Miller recounts a talk he heard author Brennan Manning give about Jesus' impact on Zacchaeus. Manning had a take on the story that I had completely overlooked. Because he was a tax collector, Zacchaeus was despised by his entire community. Tax collectors were cheaters. Zacchaeus' dishonesty made him rich at the expense of the people. He was an agent of the state and a visual representation of oppression. An entire community despised him, and yet he continued to be who he was and do what he did.
Along comes Jesus of Nazareth who, according to the New Testament writers, was perfect and pure. Zacchaeus was still Zacchaeus - dishonest, greedy, and selfish. In verse 5, perfect and pure Jesus says to dishonest and greedy Zacchaeus, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."
The 2 different reactions to Jesus' command are striking in contrast. The people who were gathered around muttered and criticized Jesus for being the guest of a sinner. But look what Zacchaeus did: In Luke 19 verse 8, 'Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”'
Why did Zacchaeus change?
Zacchaeus changed because one man showed him love and approval. Don't hear me wrong. No one, Jesus included, would have approved of Zacchaeus' misdeeds. But by showing him love and compassion and by seeking him out despite his wrongdoings, Jesus showed Zacchaeus that he approved of his very existence. Jesus' approval did what an entire town's hatred could never do. Jesus' love and approval caused Zacchaeus to completely change his ways. The town's hatred - the fact that they despised Zacchaeus - did nothing to change him.
See the application for the classroom? Think about how many Zacchaeuses are in our schools everyday. The reality is that our classrooms are filled with kids who are making bad decisions - decisions that hurt others and lead to negative consequences. You know what else are schools are full of? Judgmental adults.
Let's be honest - we educators are pretty good at being judgmental. We're often like the others in story who were upset when this important person chose to spend time with Zacchaeus. After all, making judgments - from red marks to disciplinary referrals - is part of our job. But we often carry our judgmentalism too far and end up judging the value of the young people as human beings. We treat the Zacchaeuses of our schools as the town treated the real Zacchaeus. We despise them. Perhaps we aren't outwardly antagonistic - perhaps at times we are - but in our hearts we think about how nice school would be if certain kids weren't there. We hope they don't get placed in our classes. We feel it necessary to let them know that we do not approve of the way they are. Even when our words don't express our true thoughts, our heart's message is heard by our Zacchaeuses.
This post isn't about disciplinary consequences for inappropriate actions, by the way. I'm not saying detention hall or discipline referrals shouldn't exist. In fact, consequences for actions can and should be applied in a loving manner. Discipline is intended to be an act of love. It is intended to DISCIPLE and guide students. I'm not suggesting that we boycott our school's disciplinary process. I'm talking about something with a much greater potential for impacting a life than a referral. I'm talking about our heart's ability to speak messages of love or disapproval. Whether a referral is written for a student or not, please consider the overall daily message each and every student hears from your words, your expressions, your actions, and your interactions. Do they feel approval? Or do they feel judged?
I write this post as the ultimate townie in the Zacchaeus story. I'm not all that talented, but judging others is definitely something for which I have a knack! I am convicted by the Zacchaeus story, though. I am determined to speak messages of approval to the Zacchaeuses in my building. That will not happen unless in my heart of hearts I stop being a judgmental person.
Would we like to see kids make better decisions? Would we like young people to become more mature and, therefore, find greater success in school? Sending them messages of judgment for their misdeeds and mistakes won't work. Let's instead try letting them know that we approve of them. Let's do like Jesus did for Zaccheus and meet them on their turf, in their world, as they are. For some kids, your love might be the only love they experience all day.