An Arm Around Your Shoulder

Jackie Robinson is celebrated as the first African-American to play major league baseball, breaking the color barrier and changing professional sports forever. (Note: Actually, Jackie wasn’t the first black ballplayer in the major leagues. That honor belongs to Moses “Fleet” Walker, way back in 1883. But that’s a history lesson for another time.)

Robinson is lauded today but was reviled in 1947 when he signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When he jogged onto the field or came to bat at opposing ballparks, the sneers and slurs were deafening.

Jackie preferred playing at home, in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where there were no racial taunts—until he misjudged a sizzling grounder. A trickle of boos quickly swelled into a roar. Jackie stood at second base, head bowed, humiliated.

Shortstop “Pee Wee” Reese walked over, draped his arm around Jackie’s shoulder and glared at the 25,000 spectators. Ebbets Field became as quiet as a graveyard.

Jackie said Reese’s arm around his shoulder saved his career.

Crowd conduct is often judgmental. Callous. Brutal.

Luke introduces us to Zacchaeus, a short-stuff who had become rich by exorbitant tax-collecting fraud (Lk 19)—the sleazebag of Jericho. When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was trekking through town, he wanted to get a look at him. His curiosity had been simmering for nearly three years—ever since he’d heard that Matthew, one of his tax-collecting comrades had gone batty and was quitting his lucrative tax racket to join up with this nowhere-to-lay-his-head Jesus.

Zacchaeus moseyed into the crowd, hoping to go unnoticed. Fat chance. People bitterly hissed his name, cursed him. Skirting the mob, he ran ahead as fast as his short legs would carry him and scrambled up a tree. It was from this perch that he first saw Jesus.

When Jesus came close, he stopped, looked up, and locked eyes with Zacchaeus. When he spoke, Zacchaeus’ heart almost stopped: “Zacchaeus, come down, I’m going to your house with you.” Jesus knew his name, his address, and his reputation.

The next few hours are blank space—Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about. But he does tell us the end of the story: Zacchaeus said, “Lord, I’m going to give half of all I have to the poor, and to those I cheated I’m going to give four times as much as I took.”

Jesus looked at him and said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” And his last recorded words to him were, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

How’s that for an arm around the shoulder?

Have you ever been lost? I don’t mean damned-and-doomed lost—I mean lost because you took a wrong turn and ended up in the wrong place. Are you there now? Have you lost your way because you’ve abandoned your principles, your values, your fervor? If you’ve walked away from your better self, there’s a good chance it’s messed up your relationships—with people and with God.

Maybe you made a mistake, misjudged a situation, bungled a play. You’re standing at second base, head bowed, humiliated, defeated. Do you still have a chance to get in the game?

Yes, you do.

Jesus sees the good in you; knows your heart; knows your worth. That’s his arm around your shoulder, standing up for you, turning you in the right direction, telling you that the game isn’t over.

“If God is for [you], who can be against [you]. . . . [You] are more than conqueror through him who loves [you]” (Rom 8:31, 37).

How’s that for an arm around your shoulder?

Lace-up your cleats and stay in the game.

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