By Ched Myers, on Luke 19:1-10
First, as always, let’s put this Sunday’s gospel reading in its broader narrative context. The story of Zacchaeus represents the culmination of one of Luke’s important subplots: Jesus’ challenge to rich men (Gk plousios) to “turn their lives (and assets) around.” As pointed out in previous posts, this narrative strand forms the backbone of Luke’s “Special Section” (Lk 11-19), a pattern worth reiterating here (with links to my comments earlier this year):
- 12:16ff: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly…”: Parable of the foolish farmer’s stockpiling of goods, Jesus’ teaching on greed
- 16:1-13: “There was a rich man who…”: Story of the ‘De-fective Steward’, Jesus’ teaching on God and ‘Mammon’
- 16:19-31: “There was a rich man who…”: Warning tale about Lazarus and the rich man
- 18:18-30: “…for he was very rich”: Ruler’s rejection of the call to discipleship (omitted by the RCL in Year C)
- 19:1-10: “Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich” (Sunday’s gospel)
This impressive sequence of stories is uncomfortably candid about the bad news of divine justice as judgment on systems of economic disparity. Luke is, however, ultimately more concerned about good news—not only to the poor, but also to the rich, as today’s gospel makes clear.
But the Zacchaeus story represents a narrative opening as well, part of a sequence that sets the stage for Luke’s Passion narrative. The cluster of episodes in 18:18-19:10 is the second to feature “two rich men and a beggar” (the first was in Luke 16). In the midst of it, Jesus tells his disciples that he is “going up” to Jerusalem for a final confrontation with the Powers (18:31-34). While this is not the first such portent in Luke (that subplot began back in 9:44-51), it is the last. At the conclusion of the Zacchaeus story, Luke writes: “As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (19:11). Jesus goes on to tell the dark parable of the minas, a warning tale about the political fate of those who resist the Mammon system (19:12-27). Then, on the heels of this “reality check,” the final push on to Jerusalem commences:
- 19:28-40 Jesus leads a symbolic “march” through the city gates (see my comments here)
- 19:41-44 Jesus laments over Jerusalem’s fate
- 19:45-48 Jesus “exorcises” the Temple of “robbers”
I would argue that this narrative section in Luke 18-19—all of which is skipped over by the RCL except the Zacchaeus episode!—succinctly articulates why Jesus is inevitably headed to the Cross. That is, it demonstrates, in deed and word, the economic and political character of Jesus’ ministry, which was perceived as sufficiently subversive by the local and imperial authorities of occupied Palestine that they felt compelled to execute this prophet.
As I’ve emphasized repeatedly during our Ordinary Time sojourn through Luke’s Special Section, our first world churches do not like to talk about economics, particularly about the disparity between rich and poor. But this topic cannot be suppressed in Luke’s gospel. In this section, for a second time, Luke juxtaposes a poor and a rich man, as he did with the “political cartoon” of Lazarus and Dives back in 16:19-31. Each is associated with Jericho: Jesus heals the blind beggar on approach to the city (18:35-19:2), while the wealthy tax collector is the first person he encounters within it. By “pairing” these characters, Luke is trying to get us to see the realities of both destitution and affluenza, and the relationship between them.
In American churches, Zacchaeus is often portrayed as a fat little man who climbed a tree to see Jesus (there’s even a dumb Sunday School song to this effect). But such sentimentalizing obscures the real economic terrain of the first century. The tax collectors referred to in the New Testament were local Judeans employed to do “tax farming.” They were employed directly by the Roman government to extract taxes, customs or tolls on land, products and persons. In this system the authorities received their money up front, and the tax farmer charged commissions on what he then collected. It’s not hard to see how such an arrangement would be ripe for extortion and graft. Because of their position as agents of Rome, and their exploitation of their own people, publicans were socially rejected, religiously excommunicated and viewed as political traitors. The chief tax collector would have been the most rapacious and thus the most despised.
As a political and economic structure that strategically advantaged the elite, the ancient tax system was no different than our modern systems. For example, our taxes fuel U.S. foreign and military policies that oppress Palestinians half a world away. So tax systems were and are rightly the subject of theological and moral critique and engagement (right, graffiti on Israeli “security” wall in Palestine).
Zacchaeus, as chief tax collector for the Judean frontier, strategically headquartered his operation in Jericho, a center for trade and port of entry for all traffic crossing the Jordan from the east (the river ford five miles east was one of only three points between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea at which the river could be crossed).
Most translations depict Zacchaeus as “short” (19:3), yet the Greek term hēlikia in every other usage in the N.T., the Septuagint and the papyri means “young in age.” This suggests that Zacchaeus had probably inherited his position at the top of the hierarchy as a result of family patronage, likely to the royal house (indeed, Herod the Great had kept his winter palace in Jericho). Because of all this, Jesus’ peasant audience would have been strongly and justifiably prejudiced against Zacchaeus, something that is reflected in the crowd’s reaction in 19:7. But this is a story full of surprises.
The first surprise is that this universally scorned representative of an oppressive tax system that funded the Roman occupation is portrayed as curious about Jesus of Nazareth. While the phrase “he was trying to see who Jesus was” (18:3) could simply indicate “surveillance” on his part, at a narrative level it connects Zacchaeus to the beggar in the preceding story (18:41): both characters want to see! To be sure, young Zacchaeus’ social position contrasts sharply with that of the unnamed street person: the former assumes a commanding treetop position from which to view events (the elite are used to “looking down” on people), while the latter had to cry out for attention repeatedly, his years of marginalization having made him invisible. Yet Luke’s juxtaposing suggests that both characters are “blind,” if in different ways. Though on opposite ends of the social divide, the narrative binds them tightly together—an “interdependence” of rich and poor that is key to Luke’s vision of how the world can be transformed by the gospel.
The second surprise is that Jesus addresses Zacchaeus directly, calling him down from his perch high above the crowds (19:5). This seems to “fulfill” Mary’s revolutionary Magnificat, which at the outset of Luke’s story (1:52) sang about divine justice bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly (which Jesus has just done with the beggar in 18:42). In a third twist, Jesus then invites himself over to the tax tzar’s place for dinner. This is somewhat strange, given that the Nazarene has been slamming rich people in his teaching thus far, and moreover has just seen a rich man summarily reject his call to discipleship (18:18-30). Yet here Jesus is, demanding hospitality from this class adversary!
This is immediately followed by another surprise: Zacchaeus hurries down and welcomes Jesus “joyfully” (v. 6), an unlikely and indeed courageous step for someone of his social standing. After all, by welcoming the itinerant teacher he also opens his elegant villa to Jesus’ funky entourage—including now the beggar from the previous story! But this reflects a core conviction of Luke’s: for those trapped in the insular bubble of Affluenza, encounter with the poor is the first step to liberation.
Though we might miss the drama of such seditious “class mixing,” the characters in the story do not: “All who saw it began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (v. 7). Apparently Zacchaeus can sense the tension from these poor folk who actually resent the prospect of lodging at an oppressor’s house! So Luke tells us “he stood still” (v. 8a; Gk statheis). In yet another connection to the previous vignette, this is the exact phrase describing Jesus’ response to the blind beggar’s screams: “Jesus stood still (Gk statheis) and ordered the blind man to be brought to him…” (18:40). To stop in one’s tracks—taking the time and attention to hear and feel the cry of the poor rather than walking past—is Zacchaeus’ second step of liberation.
This invokes the greatest surprise of all: Zacchaeus’ remarkable rejoinder: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor….” (19:8b). He has correctly perceived that Jesus is interested in more than hospitality, and more than a personal change of heart. Apparently, word of the Nazarene’s campaign had gotten to Zacchaeus; we can assume that he had received “reconnaissance” from underlings who’d interacted with Jesus (beginning with Levi back in 5:27f). Having “gotten the message” that God’s Kingdom demands redistribution of wealth, Zacchaeus pre-empts Jesus’ challenge by volunteering to do exactly that!
This response stands in stark and stunning contrast to Luke’s previous stories about rich men, especially the narrative’s only discipleship rejection story in 18:22-23. Moreover, Zacchaeus offers restitution, not charity: not only will he redistribute half of what he owns, but “if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (19:8b; one can imagine Jesus raising an eyebrow: “If???”). Luke is alluding to the Torah principles of restitution plus for thieves: “When someone steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep” (Ex 22:24). The Levitical version demands restoring what has been “taken by robbery or by fraud” plus 20%, a process which is adjudicated through rituals of accountability (Lev 6:1-5). Luke shared the widespread assumption in antiquity that the rich become so by stealing from the poor—as they do still today.
Because structural inequality is both unjust and unsustainable, Luke’s Jesus throughout this gospel shows and tells, in both personal and political ways, the old Jubilee vision of the Hebrew Bible, which he seeks to rehabilitate. Moreover, Luke seems to take a special interest in the tax collecting class, because he understands how key they were to the political and economic oppression of the Roman occupation. Tax collectors symbolized everything that had gone wrong for and with the nation, so at the very outset of the story they come to John the Baptist asking what they need to do to “turn around” (3:12). They agree with the Baptists’ proclamations about the justice of God (7:29), and in 18:9-14, a penitent tax collector is sharply contrasted with a self-justifying Pharisee. Luke believes that even this most pariah of social groups can get a new start with the gospel of justice.
Here, at the conclusion to Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ Jubilee ministry, the system of exploitive wealth is collapsing from the top down, even as it is being renewed from the bottom up by Jesus’ communion with the poor. Luke is well aware this unlikely scenario is nothing short of miraculous, intimated by the compelling, if subtle, symbolism of the “mulberry tree” (Gk sukomorea) in which Zacchaeus sat. Earlier in the story, when teaching about predatory sin and redemptive forgiveness, Jesus says: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree (Gk sukaminō), ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (17:6). Here someone high up in that very tree is “uprooted,” and transplanted in Jesus’ new order. A poor man and a rich man have been granted vision back to back, and both make the decision to join the movement that seeks to destroy the gulf that divided them.
In celebration, Jesus makes an extraordinary, threefold response:
- He proclaims that “today salvation has come to this house…” (19:9a), which he means quite literally. His rag-tag discipleship community has “invaded” Zacchaeus’ home, and in the rich man’s encounter with them are the seeds of radical change.
- “…because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9b). Zacchaeus is restored to membership in a body politic that eschews him because of his ignominious profession. This phrase yet again links his fate to the poor: near the beginning of Luke’s Special Section, Jesus encounters a “bent-over woman,” symbolizing those crippled by debt (likely to tax collectors!). After liberating her, he similarly renames her “daughter of Abraham” (13:16). In other words, only through a Jubilee that restores both the poorest and the richest to health will the family of the Great Ancestor be made whole. This trope also reminds us of the dialogue between the recalcitrant rich man Dives and the unequivocal Abraham in 16:19-31, which revealed that the intractable gulf between haves and have-nots is ultimately “hell to pay”!
- “For the Human One came to seek out and to save the lost” (19:10). Without apology Jesus stipulates that the rich are lost unless they repent—which concretely means redistributive reparation.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus stands with the poor because they are dehumanized, and challenges the rich because they are inhumane, hopelessly addicted to privilege and power. This is why a change in heart is necessary, but not sufficient; true conversion requires that the structures of economic apartheid must be deconstructed. And Zacchaeus has removed the first brick.
But it is only one brick, and the system still stands. This story is not a “happy ending”; this is gospel, not fairy tale, as the next story painfully demonstrates. Luke’s parable of the minas (19:12-27), omitted by the RCL (see my comments in chapter five of The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, 2001) is a sharp reminder of the “cost of discipleship” for anyone who would defect from the Domination System. Here begins Luke’s Passion narrative and Jesus’ via crucis: “As for these enemies of mine…bring them here and slaughter them in my presence” (19:27). As Philip Berrigan put it, “The poor tell us who we are, the prophets tell us who we could be, so we hide the poor, and kill the prophets.”
Jesus said plainly that it is impossible to serve God and Mammon (16:13). We still don’t believe him. But this Sunday, on the eve of Halloween, the gospel is again scary. For one final time in Year C, Luke challenges us rich Christians to embrace, like Zacchaeus, the terrible truth that divine justice in a world of disparity demands reparation. May we too “see,” and be restored to the Beloved Community!