First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 24

William Loader

Pentecost 24: 3 November Luke 19:1-10

We are nearing the end of the journey to Jerusalem. The last anecdote which Mark tells also related to Jericho: the healing of blind Bartimaeus as he left town. Luke knows another story and so rearranges the itinerary slightly. The encounter with the blind man now occurs on the way into town. This enables him to slip in the story of Zacchaeus as an event which took place while he was passing through. It also enables Luke to make it a fitting climax to Jesus’ ministry: a conversion of the greatest order and to have Jesus declare: ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (19:10). This ‘conversion’ also echoes the conversion of Levi, the toll collector, in 5:27-32. There Jesus declares that he has come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (‘to repentance’ being Luke’s addition to what he found in Mark). Luke is fond of such echoes. Both conversions have a financial theme.

The story is dramatic and lends itself to being acted out. Perhaps it was remembered in part because of the distinctive physical features: Zacchaeus’ small stature, climbing a tree. Just as striking would have been Jesus’ willingness to invite himself to be guest of such a person. Jesus did get into trouble for his meal companions, including his eating with toll collectors and their doubtful associates (see also 7:31-35; 15:1-2). Luke reproduces the three way tension which doubtless played a role in the ministry of the historical Jesus. The three reappear constantly; Jesus; someone whom Jesus befriends; and the critics.

Perhaps the rather odd sounding, ‘For he too is a son of Abraham’ (19:9b), goes back to Jesus. It is odd sounding to a Gentile audience. It may reflect the Jewish focus of Jesus’ ministry. The Gentile focus of the church developed only later. The point within that context is that Zacchaeus is not a nobody. He is also a human being - in that context, a child of Abraham, ‘one of us Jews’. Among his people Jesus would write no one off. It was this basic attitude which later, almost of necessity, spawned the mission to the Gentiles. They, too, had to be included. At one level, therefore, the story is another celebration of Jesus’ radical application of God’s love. God keeps an open table. Jesus expresses this by challenging Zacchaeus’ hospitality. This is not unlike what Jesus tells his disciples to do in Luke 10: turn up on their doorstep for a meal and see what happens!

The criticism is the same as what we find earlier in Jesus’ ministry according to Luke and to which Jesus often responded with parables (for instance, in Luke 15). Luke is not disputing that Zacchaeus is a sinner, although some have read Zacchaeus’ comments about restitution as a refutation of such an assumption. That would run contrary to the way Luke frames the story and links it to other such stories. Zacchaeus is a sinner. It was almost a ‘given’ because of the kind of trade he was engaged in and would be the assumption both of Luke’s hearers and of the people of Jesus’ time. Nothing indicates that issues of food or purity laws are to the fore, such as whether Jesus would be eating untithed foods or be entering unclean areas. The focus is moral sinfulness (which may well have been linked with the other concerns). Jesus’ critics believe he should value people according to their compliance with scripture’s laws and keep his distance if they don't. Jesus, for whom scripture’s laws also matter (see Luke 16:17!), values people because they are people. It is a matter of priority.

Luke’s story may be wanting to deal with the problem which such generosity creates or is believed to create. Paul’s Christian critics would have poured in their anxieties at this point and perhaps pointed their finger at Corinth to prove their point. ‘Love must be conditional; otherwise people will just go off the rails!’ Luke’s story is wanting to show that the response of Zacchaeus to Jesus’ initiative of acceptance is to make major changes. It is almost as though we should be listening to Romans 8:3-4. What the Law was not able to achieve, God has achieved by sending his Son, with the result that the just demands of the Law are now more than met. Zacchaeus is now prepared to give half his wealth to the poor and to make fourfold restitution (an echo of Exod 22:1’s requirement). I hope he did his sums; it assumes only an eighth of his income came through embezzlement! Oversimplified, the anecdote does provide a vehicle for arguing that morality can be the fruit of attitudinal change, conversion, a changed relationship to God.

It is just as likely that Luke also has in mind Christians who need a better understanding of salvation. It is one of his constant themes. Change, conversion, needs to incorporate a changed attitude and behaviour in relation to wealth. In fact it is striking that Jesus’ declaration that ‘salvation’ had come to Zacchaeus’ house follows immediately after the report of his new ‘financial management plan’. This is a fitting climax to Jesus’ public ministry - at least Luke must have thought so. Did he, too, have many Christians in mind who saw salvation as a ticket to heaven or as a recipe for inner tranquillity with little or no thought for social justice, for distribution of resources, and especially for the poor?

It is also possible that some had used the story who were rich and claimed the story assured them that there was also a place for them in the kingdom. Luke would not disagree, provided their attitudes and actions had now been converted towards a passion for social justice. Just a few verses back Jesus had been warning of the deceitfulness of wealth and depressing a would-be follower who apparently got everything right except this (18:18-23)!

We do an injustice to the story if we reduce it to the cheap category of a wonder-conversion and fail to bring out that conversion here means transformation which includes the budget. It is not about a soul being saved, as one popular translation puts it, but about revolution with revolutionary implications. While they were fast becoming respectable by Luke’s time, these are anecdotes preserved by people who cried out for justice. They are heavily biased towards compassion and change. The issues have not gone away in today’s world and we reap the whirlwind from our inattention to these cries. We are the Zacchaeuses and our eucharistic feast is the model and food of transformation. It will be against the grain of prevailing values in our own society that we need to retell the story. Our hope, however, is that people still do climb trees!

Epistle: Pentecost 24: 3 November  2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12