Zacchaeus: The Rich Man Gets Woke

12/12/2016 06:48 pm ET
A man was [in Jericho] named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree. Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus said, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Luke 19:1-10 NRSV, edited

This seems like a cute story, nothing really earth-shattering, which is strange considering that it comes at an incredibly pivotal moment in Jesus’ life. This is the very last event before his entry into Jerusalem and the suffering and crucifixion which follow; it is the last moment of Jesus’ semi-normal life of teaching and healing before meeting his destiny. In fact, because of this story’s important placement in Luke’s Gospel, many Orthodox churches read this passage every year on the last Sunday before Lent. So why would Luke give this little story pride of place in the arc of Jesus’ life?

Zacchaeus was a rich man and got that way by legal yet unsavory methods. In the Roman Empire, areas were divided up and auctioned off to tax collectors like Zacchaeus, who paid Rome a fee for the right to collect taxes in his city, Jericho. He then had to shake people down for their taxes to make sure he got his money back–plus quite a bit extra as profit. It was totally unregulated–whatever tax collectors could grab, they kept. And those in power didn’t care how fairly the people at the bottom were treated as long as there was no unrest or uprising. Zacchaeus looked at this unjust system and said, “Okay, I’ll play along. I’m not gonna worry about what I’m taking from others, that’s their problem.” Some would say that makes him a successful businessman. That makes him smart.

However, that’s not how his neighbors saw him. They called him a “sinner,” which is how all tax collectors were thought of. They collaborated with Rome against their fellow citizens, and so they were shunned and rejected. This system works well for Zacchaeus until he looks around and realizes he doesn’t have any friends. And he knows the reason for this, no one has to spell it out. He knows that he has sold out his community for the sake of money, that his love of wealth has completely isolated him.

But he hears stories about a traveling rabbi, how just before entering Jericho, he gave a blind man back his sight. How right before that, he told a rich young man to give away everything that he owned, that that was the one thing he was lacking. Zacchaeus puts those things together and wonders if maybe he, also a rich man, can receive the one thing he’s lacking and be healed. Zacchaeus is looking for an intervention. So he rushes ahead to climb a tree and get a look at someone who is the opposite of him. Someone who, rather than turning his back on his people and profiting off them, has devoted himself to teaching and healing them. Someone who, rather than pursuing wealth and a nice home with lots of possessions has chosen a life of poverty. But someone who, instead of being lonely and reviled, has a crowd of friends following him. Zacchaeus makes a choice. The moment of Zacchaeus’ salvation doesn’t come when Jesus pronounces it, nor does it come when he says he’ll give half his possessions away. The moment comes when Zacchaeus runs towards that sycamore tree.

When Jesus talks about salvation coming to Zacchaeus’ house, that’s not about getting into heaven. This is earthbound salvation that Zacchaeus experiences right away. It’s not so much that he’s been forgiven his sin as much as been freed from it–freed from his addiction to wealth and restored to his community. And just like that, he has a new life--like a blind man suddenly able to see again.

Back to why this story is so important at this point: Jesus is at the threshold of Jerusalem and knows he won’t be with us much longer. He’s transitioning out of his role as a teacher and rabbi and moving into his priestly role, absolving Zacchaeus of guilt and blessing him. Zacchaeus’ story is a lesson in how Jesus’ followers are to get along without him. Zacchaeus doesn’t need Jesus to tell him what to do, he just needs to be absolved and blessed, which we all need when we start on a new path.

But don’t mistake this for a story of personal healing. Zacchaeus’ sin was not violence or betrayal, or any other personal wrong, it was economic injustice to his community. We haven’t all defrauded others as Zacchaeus did. But many of us do benefit from an unjust system, where, for example, food is brought to us by people who often can’t afford themselves to buy what they’re serving. Where our socks and t-shirts and Christmas toys are shipped to us from China and Bangladesh, made by people who get nothing close to minimum wage and don’t even have safe work conditions, just so we get to pay $5 for a bag of socks and feel psyched that we scored such a bargain.

The way an unjust economic system thrives is not the people at the top manipulating high finance. It depends on the people at the bottom grabbing what they can from those around them, because if they’re doing just a little bit better than the next guy, they keep their mouths shut and don’t worry about what the people at the top are doing. This is how all corrupt economic systems work. It’s how drug dealers work. It’s how the executives at Wells Fargo and other Wall Street banks work. And it’s how Zacchaeus worked until he got woke.

Like Zacchaeus, we don’t need someone to tell us right from wrong–we know what’s right. We don’t need someone to tell us that making exorbitant profits off the backs of your brothers and sisters is wrong. We don’t need someone to tell us we’re living in an unjust system, we know it, and some of us know we’re benefitting from it and our addiction to those benefits. You don’t need to wait for Jesus to walk down your street to run and claim your healing and freedom from that unjust system. Be healed of the compulsion to get everything you can for yourself. Let salvation come to your house. Not the kind you have to wait till you get to heaven for, but the kind that frees you in this life to walk beside your brothers and sisters as equals and in freedom, like Zacchaeus, a sinner no more.

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