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‘The transformation of Zacchaeus’ – Phil Miller

As a former Tax Inspector and someone involved in helping deliver the Sycamore Tree programme in my local prison, it feels apt that I look at the story of Zacchaeus. Prison Fellowship’s restorative justice programme is of course named after the tree Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus.

The story of Jesus meeting this wealthy chief tax collector is recorded in Luke 19:1-10. As Jesus passes through Jericho, He spots Zacchaeus’s small frame in a sycamore tree which he had climbed so he could see Jesus over the crowd. Zacchaeus was an unpopular man who had taken more tax from the people than he should. He was enjoying a good lifestyle at their expense, while causing them financial hardship and suffering.

It is interesting that, despite what Zacchaeus had done, Jesus noticed him and treated him with dignity and respect. I often see the potential of those in prison to get their lives back on track as they are supported through the Sycamore Tree programme. 

I think Jesus saw similar potential in Zacchaeus and – of course – He sees it in us, too.

For me, when Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name to come down from the sycamore tree and invites Himself to his house, it is powerful and life changing. The people were dismayed that Jesus should want to spend time with someone they liked to label as a ‘sinner.’ But, there are many examples of Jesus spending time with such ‘outcasts’ and ‘sinners’ in the Bible.

Sadly, I have come across people – even in our churches – who wonder why we have anything to do with those in prison, let alone go into prison to befriend and show respect to them. They believe there are more deserving people or ministries to be involved in.

Yet, we are called in Hebrews 13:3 to, ‘Continue to remember those in prison as if [we] were together with them in prison, and those who are ill-treated as if [we ourselves] were suffering.’

Having met Jesus, Zacchaeus’s life was transformed. He promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and repay those he cheated four times what he took from them. In response to this Jesus says, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’ He saw that Zacchaeus had truly changed and was repentant for all the wrong things he had done.

It is easy to write people off as beyond hope. But, in Prison Fellowship, we believe that no one is beyond hope. Zacchaeus’s story gives real hope as we seek to help people in prison change their lives and have a better future.

Let us pray that, like Zacchaeus, the people we interact with can encounter Jesus through us and can be transformed, too.

Phil Miller is PF’s Treasurer on the Board of Trustees and a Sycamore Tree Group Facilitator. 

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