Zacchaeus: a story of loss

Zacchaeus: a story of loss

Glynn Cardy

Sun 30 Oct

The unique Lucan story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, is one of the more theatrical biblical tales. 

On the one hand it is simply another illustration of the Jesus method of going to those on the margins and eating with them.  In this case the marginalized group is not the poor, sick, women, or foreigners.  In this case it is the rich, and more importantly those who have financially prospered (by fair means or foul) from the Roman occupation of 1st century Palestine.  A modern equivalent might be prospering through having shares in a munitions company.

While the means of acquiring the wealth might be the political offence, the religious offence committed by Rabbi Jesus was polluting himself, and his entourage, by eating with ‘those’ people.  Eating was no small thing.  To eat with a stranger was to be vulnerable, to open one’s heart and mind to the foreign and the profane.  To commune with an alien, a sinner, is to contaminate each other.

Palestinian society was strictly ordered to keep holiness and profanity apart.  To break with such order, to cross the boundaries, was to theologically challenge the accepted understandings of God and faith.  A modern equivalent might be a prayer meeting of Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims – for such a meeting would raise questions about who or what is being prayed to, what is prayer, and does God mind who we are praying with.

So Jesus with his topsy-turvy big dream of what the world might be like if all could eat together was, as he passed through Jericho, doing his usual disturbing/infuriating thing.

As a footnote to this drama, it needs to be pointed out that the words ascribed to Jesus in this story are taken from other sources.  Robert Funk[i] tells us that there was a secular proverb (‘since when do the able-bodied need a doctor?  It’s the sick that do’), that the Jesus movement appropriated[ii] to explain the revolutionary praxis of Jesus.  

Likewise the reference to Zacchaeus as a ‘son of Abraham’ is a common motif in the early Jesus movement, prior to the Gentile focus in later writings.  The ‘son of Abraham’ message, applied here, is that Zacchaeus is not an outsider, but ‘one of us’, regardless of his proclivities or politics.

On the other hand, the interesting thing about this tale is not Jesus but Zacchaeus.  And with Zacchaeus there is an Act I and an Act II. 

Act I has this vertically-challenged rich and powerful man climbing a sycamore tree.  A modern equivalent might be to imagine Nicholas Sarkozy, or Silvio Berlusconi, or – going back in history – Robert Muldoon, climbing a tree in order to see a provocative faith-healer from Ekatahuna.  And, of course, in the modern equivalent, these men wouldn’t climb a tree.  It would make them vulnerable, isolated, and open to being derided.  They would use their power to make Jesus come to them.  And yet Zacchaeus climbed a tree.

The other thing about climbing a tree is that it changes one’s perception.  I suspect that is part of the attraction that tree climbing has for children and adults: it gets you up, off the ground, widening your horizon.  You see what you have largely seen before but you see it from a different angle, and thus you see it afresh – as if for the first time.

Spiritual change and growth usually requires a change in perception.  It might be in meeting with a stranger, an alien.  It might be in travelling to a foreign land.   It might be in accepting an invitation by a friend into a room in their soul previously kept locked.  It might be in entering a room in your own soul previously out-of-bounds.    

Whether there is any historical accuracy to this drama or not, the tree climbing tells us that Zacchaeus, in order to change his perception made himself vulnerable and an object of derision.

Act II is the after-dinner statement.  We don’t know of course what discourse happened over the course of the meal.  Did Jesus lay out his vision, programme, and challenge?  Or did he simply eat, listen, laugh, and enjoy the cuisine?  The drama skips all this, making no comment.  However, dangerously and disturbingly, it includes Zacchaeus’ words: “Look, half of my possessions, Rabbi, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  The four times as much is echo of Exodus 22:1.

Given that his method of income generation was considered to be fraudulent per se, potentially this statement (vow?) would radically strip Zacchaeus of much of his wealth, and therefore much of the structural support of his identity, values, and purpose in life.  Following Jesus would mean significant loss.

The story affirms Zacchaeus with the words: “Today salvation has come to this house”.  Note please that salvation (salos – health, wholeness, ora) is not premised upon any set formula – it is not premised upon a personal commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour, or to any other theological grouping of words, or to any quantitative action [the rich young ruler[iii] who asked to give up all his possessions to follow Jesus might have thought Zacchaeus got off easy!].  Salos, spiritual wellbeing, is different for each person.  But, as this story underlines, it does affect every part of our lives – including our professions and possessions.

I wonder sometimes, supposing Zacchaeus was a historical person, what became of him afterwards.  After giving up so much and trying to make restitution was he ever really accepted and trusted by the community he’d extorted and the followers of Jesus?  Was part of the vow the loss not only of wealth but of friendships and identity?  I think sometimes we create ‘happily-ever-after-on-earth-or-in-heaven’ endings for biblical stories.

David Galston[iv] points out that most of Jesus’ parables involve loss.  In the profit and loss economy – which operates inside all our heads – following Jesus comes down on the loss side of the ledger.  The woman who sweeps up the lost coin spends more than that coin is worth in throwing a party to celebrate finding it.[v]  How dumb is that?  The prodigal son returns home but does not regain the legacy he has blown – the farm will now belong to the elder brother who he is still estranged from.[vi]  This is happily ever after??  The rich man who invites the poor, blind, and lame to the banquet, loses not only financially (he would have received reciprocal invitations from his own class) but has socially plunged himself into the world of outcasts and shut the door on his former world of privilege.[vii]  He’s not going to stay rich for long!

The cartoon, printed in the notices this morning, has Jesus preaching “Blessed are the poor…” and a Donald Trump-like figure in the audience saying: “Wrong!”  I like this cartoon because in the profit and loss economy – which is not the ‘evil’ market out there, but the way we calculate in here (our heads) – the Donald character is correct.  The poor are not blessed.  They don’t live happily ever after.  To be poor is to suffer.  To be poor is to lose in the default operating system of winners and losers.  It is, quoting Donald, to be a loser.  To follow the big topsy-turvy vision of that dreamer Jesus, where all will eat together and all will have enough, is to experience a lot of loss, and especially for those who have a lot to lose.  Ask Zacchaeus.

I mention all this today in the context of ordination.  As I mentioned during the week to our new parish councillors I’ve been learning about Presbyterian understandings of ordination.  On the one hand elders are selected, entrusted, by the congregation for tasks – leading in pastoral care, governance, and mission for a set term.  So ordination is a doorway into something you do. 

On the other hand, ordination – like for ministers of word and sacrament – is for life.  It is not just about tasks that need doing, it is about a way of living/being in God [however you understand ‘in God’], for the rest of your life.  And as I said to the new parish councillors this is the high calling and magnificence of Presbyterian polity.

The story of Zacchaeus gives us some hints about this ‘way of being and doing in God’.  In terms of tasks/doing we can see Jesus exercising pastoral care by talking and eating with a marginalized tax collector.  We can see Jesus, by his eating and affirmations, proclaiming a vision, and inviting others into it.  We can also see in the story Zacchaeus inviting a stranger (Jesus) into his home – an ‘other’ who spouts alien ideas.  We can also see Zacchaeus radically embarking on a programme of repentance and restitution which will result in a radical new direction in his life. 

In terms of being in God, the actions of Zacchaeus – taking himself somewhere different in order to change his perspective; opening himself to ridicule; displaying his vulnerability; welcoming the hillbilly[viii] itinerant preacher into his home; vowing to give ‘til it hurts and then some… all this points to a person placing himself in the Holy crucible, and then having to live with the results.

This placing oneself in the presence of God is the discipline, the joy, the loss, the scary bit, the unknowing-ness of a life of faith.

[i] “The Five Gospels”, p.373.

[ii] Mark 2:17.

[iii] Mark 10:17-21.

[iv] “God’s Human Future: The Struggle to Define Theology Today”, 2016.

[v] Luke 15:8-10.

[vi] Luke 15:11-32.

[vii] Matthew 22:1-10.  Please note that Matthew has severely edited the original parable.  I preached a sermon on this passage in 12th October 2014 and have that available for anyone interested.

[viii] Galilee was seen as hillbilly country.  Hence also the reference to Ekatahuna!