I had a child in the Scripture class I taught some years ago. He was quite hyperactive and quite smart. It was clear he was largely bored with Scripture, which was a combined year 6 Protestant group that 3 of us co-led. Whilst one was providing input/lesson, the others would be on ‘crowd control’. Other leaders were more intent on sending misbehaving children from the room, which I found problematic, largely because I felt the issues were more with our style and capacity than the children’s ability to concentrate.
There was a tendency to treat these children in ways that reinforced their behaviour and our perception of them. If a child was talkative and distracted, the problem lay with him/her and she/he needed to be brought back into line. They were branded a ‘trouble-maker’ or a difficult child and considered beyond hope I suspect. I always had trouble with kind of thinking – especially when we were trying to convey God’s love for the children. And, come to think of it, I was generally bored with Scripture!
One day, one of the other leaders asked this child to leave the room – again. He nonchalantly stood and with a shake of his head left the room. I watched as he went and the look of satisfaction on the face of the leader, somewhat irked me and I took the opportunity to go outside and chat with the boy. I could tell that he was waiting for me to chastise him and tell him what a ‘bad boy’ he was and reinforce that he was a trouble-maker. I didn’t. We chatted for a while and I said something like, ‘You are bored with this aren’t you?’ He looked up surprised and nodded and said, ‘Yes, its pretty awful.’ I sensed the boy was all too familiar with the Bible stories and discovered he did go to church but Scripture was basic, non-stimulating and boring.
As we chatted, I realised that this was a pretty sharp kid who was quite intelligent and probably had trouble concentrating when his mind was rarely engaged. Scripture wasn’t challenging and he was treated like a naughty boy and so he acted into that role. This boy acted into the way he was treated! It made me think…
When I next led the class, I tried to engage the children in deeper ways and challenge them to think about life and faith, sharing stories of real people and real situations. I invited them into a journey of experiencing something deeper of Jesus and what he was on about and was surprised that the children came along. When I told engaging stories, they were with me and wanted to talk about the people and their responses to crisis and where God was in all of this. Central to the questions and conversation was the boy who had been considered ‘naughty’. Suddenly, when he was treated as someone with a brain, who could engage and had something to offer the class, he stood up. I think he grew and lived into the image and sense of being the person he was expected to be. When treated as a naughty, disruptive boy, that is what he became. When treated as someone with a contribution to make, who had good thoughts and questions, he lived into that sense of being. This boy is not unique!
In the story this week (Luke 19:1-10) we have another example of how Jesus treats people upwards; as the person they were created to be and who they could be. Elsewhere there is the story of a woman caught in adultery and the religious leaders want to stone her, according to some draconian version of the law. They appealed to Jesus and he suggested that the one without sin be the first to cast a stone. Whilst he doodled in the dirt, they all walked away, no doubt cursing him under their breath. When he looked up there was only the woman and he asked if no-one accused her – then neither did he. Jesus invited her to go and live and sin no more – go and live as you can be. Go and be the woman you really are. Go and grow into the forgiveness and mercy, the grace and compassion of God, who calls you a child. He does not treat her as a ‘bad person’ who deserves punishment, but a person caught up in a life that is less than she can be, and he offers her the encouragement to grow into something more – in God.
The story this week is about Zacchaeus, a tax collector. This meant that he collaborated with the enemy, the Romans, and collected the high taxes for them. To these taxes he added something more on top for himself – he ripped off his own people. Zacchaeus was despised, hated, rejected, excluded and ostracised. Jesus came into his village and everyone gathered along the streets to see him. Curious, Zacchaeus wanted to see him as well, but he was short, and no-one would let him through to the front. With his view blocked Zac climbed a tree to get a look. As Jesus wandered under the tree, he looked up and saw Zac hanging from a high branch and called him down.
I imagine that Zac felt all the sense of rejection and hatred welling up within him. Everyone else hated him, why not this rabbi? I imagine that as he climbed down and pushed through the crowd, he wondered what tirade of abuse he was about to receive – he would cop it on the chin. Who cared!
Well, actually Jesus did! There was no tirade, no abuse, but an unexpected and lovely acceptance. Jesus asked Zac if he could come to his home for lunch or afternoon tea… This must have been the biggest surprise, even shock! No-one went to Zac’s home. No-one would be could dead in his presence, let alone go to his house. This Rabbi wanted to visit him at home. Surely this was an honour and he rushed home with this heady, wonderful feeling of being accepted, in some strange and wonderful way.
Over some food, they chatted, and through it, Zac confessed the reality of his life and the way he ripped people off and cheated them. He promised, on the spot, to make restitution and return the money ripped off from others and to repair the relationships. This amounted to a complete reversal in his life, his attitude, and his priorities. In some strange and profound way, Jesus’ gracious actions towards Zac enabled him to see himself in a new way. When treated as the human being he could be, someone who could be loving, kind and humane, he lived into this and became that person. Whilst the people around him treated him as an outcast who would abuse and cheat them, he lived into that way.
What happens when we are treated upwards, treated as we can be rather than as we may be perceived – rightly or wrongly? What happens when we treat others as they can be, as they are deep down, as human beings who are unique, loved and special? When we are treated positively and encouraged to become the best we can be, we respond positively. When we are told we are useless… then we tend to live into that designation. Jesus always treated people upwards into the deeply profound sense of being loved in and through God. He treated people as children of God who loves and believes in us all. That is the challenge for us – to love others into becoming the truest and deepest expression of who they are created to be and to nurture them into living into this truest sense of self – in God!