The following blog entry was adapted from a chapel speech given by Dr. Clevering on October 30, 2013
One of the great things about finding a major in college is that you get insight into the Bible from a whole new perspective. A history major might learn more about ancient Mesopotamia and therefore have a better understanding of the culture and customs of the people surrounding Israel. An English major might learn about syntax and parallelism and have a better appreciating of the poetry of the psalms. And a psychology major may have insights into Jesus’ social interactions.
One passage which I feel I understand better as a psychologist is Luke 19:1-10. This is the story of Jesus meeting Zaccheus, the tax collector, and going to eat with him.
To understand the psychology in this story we also need to understand the historical setting of the story. Zaccheus was Jewish. And he collected taxes from the Jews on behalf of the Romans. If that weren’t bad enough, the taxcollectors in those days were allowed to charge people whatever they wanted so long as the Romans got their portion. That meant the tax collectors got to line their own pockets with a lot of extra cash. So we can’t think of these tax collectors as just an ancient version of the IRS. Tax collectors were pretty shady characters and they fraternized with the enemy. In fact, because of their interactions with the Roman gentiles they were considered to be unclean by their fellow Jewish countrymen.
As a tax collector, Zaccheus is what we would call an in-group deviant. In-group deviants are in your in-group. They have an association with you. When you use the pronoun “we” it includes them. They belong to one of the groups you belong to. Other people make a connection between you and them. But they are different, and weird, and just not normal. They don’t go along with the group norms. They are an embarrassment. The term deviant refers to the fact that they deviate from what is expected. They deviate from how everyone thinks they should behave. Deviants don’t do what they’re supposed to do and don’t think how they’re supposed to think.
Zaccheus was an in-group deviant. He was Jewish, he lived among his fellow Jews and counted himself as a belonging to the Jewish people. And yet he collected taxes for the Romans. He associated with gentiles and took money from his own people. So nobody liked him.
Studies show that people tend to dislike an in-group deviant even more than someone from a rival group. One interesting study was conducted at a university which was known for being a party school. It was not cool to be studious at this university. The students at this university were asked to rate how much they would like to be friends with several types of people. One type was someone at their own school who spent a lot of time studying. Another type was someone from a rival school who spent a lot of time studying. The people at that university said they would rather be friends with the studious person from the rival school than someone from their own school who was studious. In other words, it is easier to love a Roman than someone from your own group who collects taxes for the Romans.
This is why Jesus’ behavior is so fascinating. In the book of Matthew Jesus verbally commanded us to love our enemies. That is really hard. But we can often get away with thinking we do this. After all, an enemy is an abstract concept. Enemies are not in your in-group. They aren’t your people. You don’t feel a connection to them. You don’t come into contact with them often so it’s easy to love them in theory. But then in the story of Zaccheus, Jesus commands us by example to love our in-group deviants. This is so much harder.
Just think how easy it is to talk about accepting each other’s differences and how hard it is to love that guy who always sits with you in the cafeteria making awkward comments and asking you to explain all your jokes. How easy it is to accept the guy in the cool car driving by you on the road and how hard it is to love your clueless upper-class roommate who has no idea what it really means to work hard for something. How easy it is to attend a civil discourse presenting both sides of a political debate and how hard it is to love your best friend from high school who insists on posting the most ridiculous, biased, political nonsense on facebook. How easy it is to volunteer at an agency working with people recovering from addictions and how hard it is to love and forgive the person in your own family struggling with addiction. How easy it is to have an international-style worship service and how hard it is to love that member of your church who let slip a racist comment the other day.
Those people just don’t get it. They are so embarrassing. They are so frustrating. They are so hard to love.
The passage ends with Zaccheus having a change of heart – He gave half of his possessions to the poor. Jesus then declares “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10) Jesus reminds everyone that Zaccheus is a son of Abraham. He reminds everyone of who Zaccheus belongs to. We must seek the ability to love our in-group deviants because they belong to us and we belong to them.