I've been a foster parent for a half-dozen children in the past. These were short-term placements averaging six months or so, and came through the juvenile court. All the kids had problems; that's no surprise.
Teenagers try our souls sometimes, and these particular teens perhaps more than most. Through these relationships, however, and through my work in the Ohio Youth Commission, I learned a great deal about human behavior and the crucial importance of what we can give to each other. Let me tell you about two of my teachers.
Sandy at fifteen was the oldest of three children in her family. She was also the only one to have ever been in trouble. The schools and the police primarily saw her as a habitual truant and a runaway. In elementary school her grades had been above average, but now she was failing everything. At best, she was considered to have a serious attitude problem; at worst, she was truly incorrigible. Her father was a truck driver and her mother worked in a small manufacturing plant.
Tom was seventeen, a senior in high school, who smoked pot regularly and was charged with possession twice. We quickly learned to check our antique mantle clock, which soon became a favorite hiding place for his stash. The courts considered him a rebellious youngster who defied authority at every turn. He did acceptable work in school when he was there, when he tried, or when wasn't sent home for violating the dress code.
Tom had an older brother in college and a younger sister at home. His father was a white-collar professional and his mother a nurse in a physician's office. They live in a nice house in a newer subdivision at the edge of town. From the outside looking in, they probably seemed to be an ideal family. From the inside looking out, the situation was far different.
These were both troubled kids and, fortunately, they weren't both with us at the same time. I lived in a smaller city then and, because of this, I knew something about both families although from a distance. Sandy, like Tom, came from an outwardly stable, but internally dysfunctional family. In both situations there were long-standing relational problems between the parents.
Sandy and Tom both acted out the problems of their families. They lifted up a secret that was supposedly well-hidden within. To others, they were the problem in nice families, but actually they were the result of those families.
Both of these teens were very sensitive, though they tried to cover this with a hardened "I don't care" attitude. They were good actors, fooling others and perhaps even themselves. They were alike in that they both were intelligent, full of potential, and profoundly unhappy.
Their social downfall was that they realized things too clearly. They, of all the family members, were most disturbed about the disparity of the way things seemed to be and the way they actually were. They had the most trouble living with this good family/bad family reality. They couldn't stand hearing their families praised as models, while knowing the anger and animosity that was there just below the surface.
When they tried to do what they could in their limited way to heal the family wounds, they were put down for their efforts. The parents protected their denial, in part, by stifling the one child in each family who knew that something was tragically wrong. Perhaps it wasn't intentional, but Sandy and Tom got a strong message of rejection, which they interpreted as not being good enough. And they dealt with this label in the only way they knew how in their adolescence: they ran away or turned to drugs.
These perceptive children, who are actually the smartest and strongest, often see themselves as the dumbest and weakest. They are put down by parents because they know the real problem in the family, and by teachers and other adults because of their defiant actions. So why didn't their sisters and brothers react as they did? Probably because they weren't bothered as much by this imbalance between appearance and reality. Their awareness was less or their tolerance greater.
For Tom and Sandy they were too sensitive to let things go unnoticed. Their blessing was their curse. So the problems of others ended up becoming their problems as well. They were the lightning rods of their families. Only after they got zapped repeatedly and finally came to the attention of the court, did their parents even begin to confront their own shortcomings.
I found that what brought about a change in Sandy and Tom was to be taken seriously in their assessment of things at home, to be able to talk freely about this, and to have people who believed in them and loved them. We had to call them repeatedly on their self-destructive patterns until they began to live out of their positive side. It was there all the time, of course.
When they were accepted and made to feel good about themselves, there was reason for a wholesale change of direction and behavior. What ultimately reinforced this emerging, responsible self in them was that they returned to a healthier situation at home than when they left. Together, with the help of family counseling, good things began to happen. The last I knew Tom was preparing for college and I heard that Sandy, who was academically behind, had all her high school credits finished just halfway through her senior year.
That was years ago now.
Our story today from Luke tells of Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus. He wasn't much liked and it's not hard to understand why. As a tax collector for the occupying Romans he was seen as a collaborator and opportunist, in much the same way as Iraqis who work for the U.S. today. Zacchaeus was probably well off, but he paid a stiff price for this by being ostracized by his people. He was an outcast of society as surely as any thief or person of questionable reputation.
Yet here is a man who, upon hearing that Jesus is traveling nearby, does a most unlikely thing: he runs down the street and then climbs up a tree to see better—certainly undignified actions for a man of his privilege. Perhaps people laughed at the little tax collector as he hurried to his wayside perch. They probably hoped that he would fall and kill himself. It would serve him right.
Imagine the surprise, the anger even, of the crowd when they see Jesus stop to acknowledge this ludicrous man in the tree. Beyond that simple notice, Jesus then speaks directly to this sinner and invites himself to Zacchaeus' house, an offer that the man would have never dreamed to make to such a holy person. "Come down," Jesus says, " for I must stay at your house today." Zacchaeus is so honored that he scampers down from the tree and takes him immediately to his home.
The crowd grumbles as they make their way through the streets. Zacchaeus stops and declares, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, will I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Perhaps this even surprises Zacchaeus to hear himself saying these words because money has obviously been his prime motivator. Astounding, to say the least!
Note the order in which things happen in the story. It is not Zacchaeus' offer to change that softens Jesus to him; rather, it is Jesus' reaching out to him that brings about a change in the heart of this man. Jesus extends friendship to this defiant, despised man and makes him feel worthy—perhaps for the first time. "Today salvation has come to this house...."
When someone believes in you, even when you can't believe in yourself, it can mean all the difference in the world. This is what Christ did, over and over in his ministry and often to people who thought themselves beyond that possibility. They thought little of themselves because others shut them out of "acceptable" society and demeaned them as bad persons, permanently beyond redemption.
Jesus surprised the people then, and maybe us today, by declaring that his ministry is especially to the lost and those without hope. Even they, he declared, can have a place in the kingdom of God.
I wonder sometimes what kind of life these two young people from my past are living today. Perhaps our paths will cross again and I'll find out. But this I know from Sandy and Tom who were called delinquents: when love reaches out to a cold heart and will not let go, it can bring out love in return. When people believe in us, we begin to believe in ourselves.
That's the way God reaches out to us and that's the way we are told to deal with others.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church