Does God really love the top-wealthy 1%? (A sermon on Luke 19:1-10)

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” (Luke 19:12-6)

According to the most recent report made by Credit Suisse, the richest 1% of the world’s population now owns more than 50% of the world’s wealth. Indeed, while the world’s total wealth has apparently grown in recent years, this wealth is becoming ever-increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of the world’s citizens, such that, according to Oxfam, the world’s 8 richest men now own as many assets as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.

If you’ve read Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (and I have, twice, though I struggled to fully understand it both times), you’ll know that (at least according to Piketty) it’s all to do with capital ownership and the way capital works, and that the really rich are making most of their money off their money and not off anything particularly productive that they are doing with that money.

Bill Gates, for example, doesn’t make most of his money from the sale of Microsoft products anymore but from the interest he earns on investments made with money that originally came from the sale of Microsoft products. In as much as we might think that uber-rich geniuses like Gates have a right to their riches due to their entrepreneurial genius, it’s not genius that is responsible for the biggest ongoing incomes nowadays but simply money itself, which is why so many those who own so much of the world’s wealth are people who were simply born into the right families.

I find all this a little disturbing.

Is that because I’m jealous? Why don’t I have a billion dollars? It may be that in part.

Is it because I’ve spent so much of my life trying to combat global poverty, and have seen first-hand how the bottom 1% of the world’s population are forced to live? No doubt that is a part of it too.

Either way, I recognise there is an issue of prejudice on my part. I don’t struggle with prejudicial feelings towards people of different races or gender or sexual orientation, but when it comes to the 1% – to the wealthy elites of our world – I confess that I do struggle to see them as truly being my sisters and brothers in the human family.

If I ever get to meet one of these 1%, will I struggle to show them respect? Moreover, if it’s not Bill Gates, who I know has a philanthropic side, but someone who’s made most of their money from investments in armament companies, will I shake their hand or will I self-righteously walk away, or do something even more outrageous?

The point I want to make here is that Zacchaeus – the man whom we meet in Luke chapter 19 and man Jesus parties with – is part of this 1%.

I grew up with Zacchaeus. It’s one of the privileges of being brought up in a Christian household with a dad who was a preacher. You become familiar with a lot of the characters of the Gospel stories, and we used to have a song about Zacchaeus:

Zacchaeus was a very little man.
Zacchaeus was a very little man.
Zacchaeus was a very little man.

That’s all I can remember of the song, and that’s just about all I knew about the man, except that he was a jolly sort of fellow with a penchant for climbing trees. And then I grew up and discovered that none of this was true – Zacchaeus probably wasn’t jolly, he most likely didn’t like climbing trees, and he wasn’t necessarily short either!

Now I know that in the Gospel story it does say “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” (Luke 19:3) but the original Greek is as ambiguous as the English at this point. The ‘he was short in stature’ could be a reference to Jesus and not Zacchaeus.

This would still make sense in the story as, if Jesus were short, it would indeed be difficult to see him if He was submerged in a crowd. It is though a disturbing thought if you’re used to thinking of Jesus as an archetype of rugged masculinity.

Regardless of Zacchaeus’ stature, it is highly unlikely that he was in the sycamore tree because he loved climbing or because the tree was an obvious vantage point, for the sycamore is just not a climber-friendly tree.  They tend to be very high in the leaf-to-wood ratio.  There’s lots of foliage, but not much to stand on!

Apparently the word ‘sycamore’ comes from two Greek words, meaning ‘fig’ and ‘blackberry bush’, and there are indeed similarities between these forms of flora, not least in terms of their ‘climbability‘.  Certain things were never meant to be climbed, and I suspect that blackberry bushes, cacti and sycamore trees should all be on that list.  Moreover, you’d need a good size sycamore just to bear an adult’s weight.

If Zacchaeus were both short and slender, this would, of course, lessen the demands he would have placed on the tree, but if indeed he was (like so many rich people) short and stout, the tree may well have been swaying under his weight, which might, of course, have been what attracted the attention of Jesus to him in the first place – the absurd figure of short, fat man, desperately trying to maintain his balance, perched in a tree that was barely able to support his weight!

The key point I’m making here is that the reason Zacchaeus was in the tree wasn’t because it was a great place to be. Zacchaeus was there because he had no choice.

Some of you have been in Dulwich Hill long enough to remember the Sydney 2000 Olympics when the torch was carried to within a block of our church by one of our parishioners – a young lad named ‘Johnson’. All of Dulwich Hill turned out to watch Johnson carry the torch down Canterbury road. Some of those who lined the streets were shorter than others, of course, and yet everyone got to see the torch go by and nobody had to climb a tree! Why? Because we put the little ones on our shoulders and let other shorter people come to the front. Zacchaeus was a guy nobody wanted on their shoulders, and nobody was going to make way to let him through to the front. Why? Because they hated him.

Why did everybody hate Zacchaeus? It wasn’t because he was short, and it wasn’t even because he was a part of the 1%. It was because he was a part of that 1% who made their money explicitly from the misery and oppression of other people.

Zacchaeus was a tax-collector, and not just any tax-collector. He was “a chief tax collector and was rich”, Luke tells us (Luke 19:2), and I don’t think you could have been a chief tax-collector and not been rich.

The way the Roman system worked was that when they took over a country they auctioned off the collection rights on a district-by-district basis. Wealthy men would buy the rights to a district and then they’d auction out the rights to specific gates.

Levi, son of Alphaeus, who we read of in Mark chapter 2, was a man who had purchased rights to one of these gates (to the lakeside gate at Galilee in his case). Zacchaeus was chief tax-collector for the entire district of Jericho! The position would have cost Zacchaeus a small fortune, but with the Roman tax rate set at 2.5%, and the tax-collector able to set his own commission on top of that at whatever rate he pleased, there was a lot of money to be made through the Roman occupation!

You were betraying your own people, of course, and profiting off their misery, but what did you care? They can’t hurt you or slow you down when you have the most powerful army in the world at your back. People will grumble quietly but nobody will openly stand up to you! Having said that, if the Jews had been successful in one of their uprisings, people like Zacchaeus would have been amongst the first lined up against the wall after victory was won.

This is what we do to those who collaborate with an occupying force. Think of what happened to the Vichy French after World War II, after the liberation of France. It’s the same thing that happens to Palestinians today in Gaza or the Wet Bank who are found to be collaborating with the Israeli Defense Forces. It is hard to sympathise with people who collaborate with the enemy, especially when they do so solely for the sake of making money.

I remember last year when Mr Trump ordered that missile attack on Damascus in response to an alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government (an allegation that has subsequently been thoroughly discredited). I read an interesting article that asked the question ‘who stood to benefit from this attack?’, and the answer was given in very stark dollar and sense figures. The arms manufacturers (Lockheed and Raytheon corp.) made a killing (literally).

Zacchaeus is one of those who made a killing off the misery of his own people. If you’d been thinking of him as one of the good guys, think again. Zacchaeus was a collaborator, a thief, a traitor – the worst end of the 1%. Having said that, before we write him off completely, we need to bear in mind that Jesus really liked him!

“Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham.”” (Luke 19: 9)

These are challenging words indeed! Just when we’ve worked out that Zacchaeus is not one of the good guys but is, in fact, one of the bad guys, Jesus tells us ‘No – he’s just one of the guys!’ He is your brother, in fact! He’s not one of them – for good or for bad. He’s one of us!

This great declaration of Jesus – that Zacchaeus is one of us – comes, of course, after Zacchaeus starts behaving like one of us, by sharing out his great wealth.

“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.” (Luke 19:8)

Evangelical scholars like to assert here that while Jesus declares Zacchaeus’ salvation after he makes his commitment to share his wealth, this doesn’t mean he receives salvation because he shared his money, which is no doubt true, so far as it goes. Even so, we wouldn’t be doing justice to this story if we didn’t take seriously the centrality of the issue of money here, and this focus becomes particularly clear when we realise that Zacchaeus is being held up alongside the figure of the ‘rich young ruler’ who appears in the previous chapter of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:18-30).

I won’t go through that story in detail now, but you will remember, I suspect, the story of that rich young man who comes to Jesus wanting to be a disciple, and Jesus says to him, “one thing you lack. Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, …  and come, follow me” (18:22) That’s in the chapter immediately preceding this one, and the story ends with the rich man failing exactly where Zacchaeus succeeds!

We don’t really know if these two encounters took place near to each other in time, but we can be sure that Luke put the stories side-by-side for a reason, and I assume that it’s because he wants us to see these two as archetypal figures, depicting for us the challenge of discipleship.  Both men are very wealthy when they come to Jesus. Both are forced to make a choice between building God’s Kingdom or continuing to work on their own empires.  One makes the right choice, one the wrong choice.

The story of the rich young ruler concludes with Jesus shaking his head and saying, “how hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God” and that, “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom” (18:26). This leads to an outcry from the disciples, who say, “who then can be saved?”  And Jesus say, “what is impossible for humanity is possible for God” (18:27).

In the very next chapter, the impossible happens. The camel goes through the eye of the needle, the rich man sheds his possessions, and salvation comes to his house.  Both men come to Jesus with faith, high hopes, and with wealth.  One could not let go of his wealth, and we’re told that he, “went away sad” (18:23). The other opened his hands and his heart and, we’re told, “received [Jesus] joyfully” (19:6).

I won’t dwell on the implications of this for all of us here, except to quote one more interesting statistic that I came across when researching the distribution of the world’s wealth. One figure that caught my eye indicated what you needed to be worth to rank in the top 50% of the world’s wealthiest people, and the answer was around $3,000, which I’m guessing would put almost all of us here in the top half of the world’s wealthiest people. Perhaps if we were living in first century Palestine with our current level of wealth, some of us would be in the top 1%! Who knows?

In truth, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the 1% or the 99%. The issue for Jesus, from what I can see, was never how much you had but what you were doing with what you had, and whether you’re behaving like a part of the team. For we’re all in this together – no good or bad guys, no us and them. Just us – all Abraham’s children.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, November 3 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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