Some questions about Zacchaeus! (a sermon on Luke 19:1-10)


I read what I felt was an excellent article by John Pilger yesterday, entitled “Inside the Invisible Government: War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump” where he gave a very good analysis of the way media propaganda works:

“Imagine two cities. Both are under siege by the forces of the government of that country. Both cities are occupied by fanatics, who commit terrible atrocities, such as beheading people. But there is a vital difference. In one siege, the government soldiers are described as liberators by Western reporters embedded with them, who enthusiastically report their battles and air strikes … [and] There is scant mention of civilian casualties. In the second city – in another country nearby – almost exactly the same is happening. Government forces are laying siege to a city controlled by the same breed of fanatics. The difference is that these fanatics are supported, supplied and armed by “us” … [and hence] the government soldiers laying siege to this city are the bad guys, condemned for assaulting and bombing the city – which is exactly what the good soldiers do in the first city.”

Pilger is talking, of course, of the cities of Mosul and Aleppo, repectively. “Confusing?”, he asks. It shouldn’t be This is the way propaganda always works, but I appreciate that it must sound confusing to anyone who has never been taught to question what they are told.

Today is Reformation Sunday (tomorrow being Reformation Day). Why October 31st? It has nothing to do with it also being Halloween. It’s because it was on October 3st, 1517 (499 year ago, tomorrow) that Martin Luther published his “Ninety-Five Theses against the contemporary practice of the church” – later nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

We don’t normally celebrate Reformation Sunday with any particular vigor here at Holy Trinity Church in Dulwich Hill, and I’m not intending to give a lecture on the insights of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers here today because I think that really misses the point.

Luther’s tirade against the corrupt theology and practice of the church in the early 16th century was, I believe, both courageous and highly relevant in the early 16th century, but the corrupt practice of ecclesiastical indulgences, for instance, is not really an issue for us in 21st century Australia, and much of what Luther railed against back then is no more than an object lesson in history for us now. What is relevant today, I believe, and what is the great legacy left to us by the Reformers, is the example of men and women who questioned everything they were told!

Luther asked questions! He questioned whether the beliefs and practices of his church were in alignment with the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. He (and those who followed him) questioned everything that was passed down to them by the institutions of power! This is the great legacy of the Reformation, and this is the spirit that I think we should take with us into our reflections on the Scriptures – such as today’s Gospel reading on the story of Zacchaeus.

If you, like me, have been brought up in the church then you know this story from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19. You know who Zacchaeus is, and you probably think you know everything there is to know about this man! At the very least, you know that he was a short man.

That was, in fact, the only thing I remember about Zacchaeus from my youth. That’s because we used to sing a song about him in Sunday School:

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

The problem was that I grew up not remembering any more of the song, and so couldn’t actually remember Zacchaeus doing anything that was worth remembering, but I remembered that he was little!

I suspect that most others who also had a Sunday School background would remember that this very little man also had a penchant for climbing trees – a partiality probably not unrelated to his condition of being vertically challenged.

I suspect that most of us who remember Zacchaeus from our youth also remember him with some fondness, as he was one of the good guys! Unlike the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Romans the government forces besieging Aleppo, Zacchaeus is one of the good guys in the New Testament. He was enthusiastic to meet Jesus, he offered hospitality to Jesus and His disciples, and he shared all his wealth with the poor!

Let’s stop there, as just about everything I just said then is open to question.

Firstly, we aren’t told exactly why Zacchaeus was so keen to get a glimpse of Jesus. It could have been simple curiosity or rampant superstition. It could’ve had something to do with a bet between him and his fellow tax-collectors.

Secondly, Zacchaeus doesn’t offer hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. Jesus invites Himself (though, admittedly, Zacchaeus doesn’t turn him away).

Finally, however generous and caring Zacchaeus seems to be by the end of the account in Luke’s Gospel, we have to keep in mind that we are dealing with a tax-collector, and tax-collectors in first century Palestinian society were never the good guys.

We talked a little bit about tax-collectors last week when Jesus told the story about the Pharisee and the tax-collector who turn up at the synagogue at the same time to pray. Let’s talk a bit more about them now.

Tax-collectors in first century Palestinian society would have been amongst the most moneyed and the least popular members of Jewish society, and this wasn’t because first century Jews struggled with tall-poppy syndrome in the way we 21st century Australians do. It was because they were collaborators. Tax-collectors were Jews who were profiting from the Roman occupation. They’d become a part of the system of oppression and were making money out of the misery of their people!

Every foreign occupation spawns profiteers like this. The Vichy-French were the French nationals who, during World War II, made the most of the situation and collaborated with the Nazi’s during their occupation of France. When the Allies kicked the Nazis out of France, the Vichy-French reaped their fate!

In Gaza and the West Bank today, Palestinian collaborators and informants, working with the Israeli occupying forces, are also discovered from time to time and, when discovered, they too meet their fates! And if the first century Jews had been successful in kicking their Roman occupiers out of Judea in the first century, tax-collectors like Zacchaeus would have been amongst the first who would have been lined up against the wall to meet their fates!

And we shouldn’t feel sorry for people like this, as if, like sex-workers, they fell into their disreputable profession because they didn’t have any other options. People had to pay the Romans a lot of money for the privilege of collecting taxes! When the Romans took over a country, they auctioned off the collection rights on a district by district basis. Wealthy men would thus buy the rights to a district and would then themselves 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, we are told, was chief tax-collector for the entire district of Jericho! This position would have cost Zacchaeus a lot of money, 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 taxation system!

It was other people’s money of course, and in their estimation, you were stealing it, but what do you care about that they think of you? They can’t hurt you or slow you down because you are working for the Roman government, and because you therefore have the most powerful army in the world at your disposal if you need it. People will grumble but nobody will stand up to you!

Zacchaeus was a district level taxation agent for the Roman Government. That means he was not one of the good guys, or at least certainly not in the estimation of his peers, and this also explains why he had to climb a tree if he was going to see Jesus as He passed through town, and it wasn’t because he was short (or, at least, wasn’t only because he was short).

Some of you may remember year 2000 when we had the Sydney Olympics and when the Olympic torch was carried through Dulwich Hill. One of our parishioners carried the torch for a section of that run, and everybody turned out to watch our boy carry the torch down Canterbury road. Some of those who lined the streets were shorter than others, yet everybody got to see the torch go by and nobody had to climb a tree! How? We put the little ones on our shoulders and we let the other shorter people stand in front.

Zacchaeus didn’t climb a tree because he was short. He climbed a tree because he knew that, unlike children and other shorter people, nobody was going to offer to put him on their shoulders or even allow him to the front of the crowd because they all hated him (and not without reason).

In the spirit of questioning everything, we should question too whether Zacchaeus was actually short. I know it does say in the Gospel that “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 wording is ambiguous.

While the obvious meaning is that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because he (Zacchaeus) was shorter than those in front of him, the text could be taken as meaning that Jesus was short in stature and hence Zacchaeus, though himself being of normal height, couldn’t see Jesus because he was stuck at the back of the crowd while Jesus was submerged somewhere in the middle!

This is a disturbing possibility for those of us who think of Jesus as an archetype of robust masculinity. Textually it is possible.

The more important questions though must regard what we can learn from Zacchaeus, and for this I suppose we do best to focus on the final scene:

“Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

This is a jarring conclusion. Just when we thought we’d overcome our misplaced fondness towards the man had him all worked out as somebody short and nasty … now we don’t know what to think of him!

He seems to have turned over a new leaf. He’s not saying that he’s going to stop working for the Romans but he is saying that he’s going to share his wealth, and he is saying that he’s going to do his horrible job with a degree of integrity and honesty (whatever that means in that context).

Jesus has a very clear idea of what it means – namely, that this man has found salvation and has rejoined the spiritual community of his people. “He too is a son of Abraham”.

Evangelical scholars tend to rush in at this point to make clear that while Jesus declares Zacchaeus to be saved after he makes his commitment to share his wealth with the poor, this does not mean that Zacchaeus received his salvation because he shared his money. I question that too.

I’m not suggesting that sharing 50% of your wealth is the price of a ticket to Heaven, but I wonder whether the miracle of Zacchaeus’ salvation can really be that easily separated from questions surrounding his money and wealth!

For whatever else this passage is, from a Biblical point of view, it is a story about money – the fact that Zacchaeus had lots of it and the fact that he was willing to share it – and the money focus of this passage becomes particularly obvious when we realise that the figure of Zacchaeus is being deliberately held up alongside the figure of the ‘rich young ruler’ who appears in the previous chapter (Luke 18:18-30).

I won’t go through that story in detail again here, 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 previous chapter, and it ends with the rich young ruler failing exactly where Zacchaeus succeeds!

We don’t really know if these two encounters took place closely together in time, but I assume Luke put the stories side-by-side because he wants us to see these two as archetypal figures, depicting the challenge of discipleship.  Both men are rich in monetary terms when they come to Jesus. Both are forced to make a choice between building the Kingdom of God or continuing to build their own empires. One makes the right choice, one the wrong choice.

Does that sound like a fair summation of the passage to you – that it’s all about money (again)? Don’t take my word for it. In the spirit of the reformers, question everything and think it through for yourself! But make sure at some point that you question yourself too, for Jesus’ constant harping on about money is something that we tend to find both discomforting and distasteful, and it’s all too easy for us to spiritualize passages like this so that we can domesticate them.

Personally, what I see at the heart of this story and at the heart of the money issue is the challenge of the first commandment – “you shall have no other Gods but me!” (Exodus 20:3) Jesus told us that we couldn’t serve both masters – God and mammon (Matthew 6:24) – even though vast amounts of advertising and propaganda tell us that we can!

I hear the same challenge of that first commandment when I look at the violence in Mosul and Aleppo. I know that some poor souls there are fighting only for their lives and for the lives of their families but the big players that drive the violence are motivated by these same lusts for money and power.

I know it’s confusing. It’s hard to know what to think and what to believe, and it’s hard to know when what we’re giving is giving enough! Today’s Gospel gives us no simple formula to resolve this dilemma. What we are given is the example of one man who makes a clear choice as to which God he will serve:

“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.”

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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