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Photo by Nicolas Solerieu on Unsplash

A smile is a beautiful thing. It forms a bond between two people. When someone smiles at you, you become the object of their affection, at least for a moment. And we all remember how it felt back in high school when your secret crush smiled at you. (Then you realized she was actually smiling at the person sitting behind you, but that’s a story for another day.)

If a simple smile can fill us with such warm feelings, then what would it be like to have Jesus smile at you? Imagine Jesus was sitting across the room from you right now. Would he smile at you? Or is he so disappointed in you that he wouldn’t even gaze your way?

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is when Jesus smiled at someone who everyone else tried to avoid. It’s the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus (found in Luke 19:1–10). Zacchaeus was a traitor to his people, hired by the Roman government to extract taxes from the Jews. Anything Zacchaeus collected above Rome’s cut went into his pocket. There was no tax code to restrain his greed. He was a dishonest cheat, and the people knew it. They hated him.

Then one day Jesus strolls into town. All the locals start forming a crowd, hoping to get a glimpse of this Rabbi who teaches some strange things but who also performs fantastic miracles. Zacchaeus wants a peek at Jesus too, but as the story goes, he was a short man who couldn’t see above the crowd. So he hobbles up a tree to get a better view. Here’s what Luke says happens next:

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up [at Zacchaeus] and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. — Luke 10:5–6

Jesus stops right under Zacchaeus’ tree, looks up, and smiles at him. Wait a minute, you’re thinking. The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus smiled. True. But reread the passage and visualize the scene. Can you not picture it? It makes me smile, just imagining it. Jesus stops abruptly. He slowly looks up. Maybe Zacchaeus tries to hide behind a branch, too ashamed to look at Jesus. But then Jesus smiles wide as he excitedly calls out, “Zacchaeus! It’s been too long, my friend! Let’s hang out!”

This was not an exasperated father calling up to their child in a treehouse. “I’ve told you three times dinner is ready… If you don’t get down here in the next 5 seconds, I’m coming up!” No. If that were the case, Zacchaeus would have climbed down while mumbling curses under his breath. Instead, he can’t wait to come down and hang out with Jesus. (And if you need more convincing, look at how the crowd responded when they saw this little lovefest happening. They were not happy.)

So I ask you again: If Jesus was sitting across the room from you right now, would he smile at you?

Zacchaeus had done nothing to earn Jesus’ affection. He probably expected Jesus to sneer at him like everyone else in town did. And yeah, after this encounter, Zacchaeus made some pretty big promises to clean up his act. But Jesus’ smile was not contingent on Zacchaeus being a better human in the future. We never read about Zacchaeus in Scripture again, so we don’t know what his life was like after this. But we know that Jesus smiled.

If you find yourself in a mess right now, don’t be afraid to look at Jesus. Maybe everyone else is looking at you with a disappointed look. But not Jesus. He didn’t condemn Zacchaeus, and he’s not condemning you. Look at Jesus, and you’ll see a smile. It might be a small, tender smile. It could be a huge, playful grin. And with the smile comes an invitation — not to clean up your act, but to welcome him gladly.

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