Proper 26

November 4, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Reading 2: 
Psalm 119:137-144
Reading 3: 
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Reading 4: 
Luke 19:1-10
By Russell Pregeant

The story of Zachhaeus in the Gospel of Luke is certainly one of the best-loved passages in the New Testament. It is also a virtual goldmine of central Lucan themes: repentance for the forgiveness of sins (together with the hard-heartedness of those who sit in judgment of others), inclusion of outcasts, concern for the poor, and the presence of salvation in the here and now (despite the emphasis in other parts of Luke-Acts on God’s Rule as future).

Zacchaeus has enormous force as a character in the story because his “conversion” is so radical. As a chief tax collector, he clearly occupies a position of great power and privilege. The notation that he was rich is unnecessary and therefore emphatic: the narrator clearly wants the reader to focus on the fact that this man is high on the rung in the hierarchy of those who collaborate with the occupying forces of Rome. He is thus a doubly repugnant figure in the eyes of most Jews and particularly of the common people. As a rich man in a society sharply divided between affluent elites and poverty-stricken non-elites, he would be seen as a robber even if we did not have v. 8 to suggest that he had actually defrauded many. And as a lackey of Rome, he would have been seen as a traitor to the nation and to the faith, a person whose very presence would defile any house he entered. As early as v. 3, however, the narrator sets up a counterpoint to the negative description in v. 2. Zacchaeus is trying mightily to see Jesus, and his shortness of stature, contrasting with his position in the Roman power structure, evokes a note of sympathy. And Jesus’ immediate response to his efforts sets up a new contrast between Jesus’ own acceptance of the outcast and the grumbling of the hard-hearted who object to his inviting the hated toady to dinner. Suddenly it is not the traitor who is cast in a negative light but those who would refuse him the opportunity of turning his life around. And then, when the turnaround comes—as a response to Jesus’ gracious act of inclusion—it is overwhelming in its completeness. He gives half of his wealth to the poor and offers a quadruple restoration to those he defrauded. But it is not just the amount of Zacchaeus’s gift that is impressive: of equal importance is the fact that it goes precisely where it is needed—to the poor and to those this chief tax collector has cheated. The act is therefore a repudiation of his former life and a sign of solidarity with those who suffer under the economic system imposed by Rome and the elite who collaborate with the empire. It is no less a political act than one of piety—or, better said, it is an act that illustrates the inseparability of these two aspects of human life in the world.

As Robert Tannehill notes, this story “provides an answer to the question of whether and how a rich [person] can be saved (see 18:24-27).” (The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. I, p. 107). The image of the camel and the eye of the needle in this last passage is clearly a hyperbole, but the story of Zacchaeus cuts off any attempt to soften it into a mere plea for petty charity. Zacchaeus’s act is radical, and it implies a radical answer to the question: the terms of salvation for the rich is precisely an unqualified solidarity with the poor, a solidarity that repudiates the system that creates the wealth-poverty dichotomy in the first place.

There are at least two ways in which a process perspective dovetails with the thrust of this story. First, as a vision of universal relatedness, it provides a theological construct that grounds human solidarity in the very nature of the universe itself. Our kinship with one another is neither fictive nor merely sociological; nor is it something secondarily imposed by our inclusion in a religious community. To the contrary, the religious theme of inclusion “works” for us precisely because it doesn’t impose something foreign upon our natural being-in-the-world but rather recovers something that is essential to it—something obscured precisely by the corrupt character of existing social, economic, and political systems. In declaring his solidarity with the poor, Zacchaeus rediscovers his true humanity—which, after all, is what true repentance is all about.

The second way in which process thought coheres with the thrust of this story is that it recognizes the possibility of transformation. And this is precisely what the grumblers in the story do not recognize. To them, a person’s standing before God is apparently established only once in life and then forever frozen. The role of Jesus in the story, however, is precisely to signify the incarnation of God’s universal willingness to forgive the past, to open up new and unexpected futures, and to empower dramatic transformations.

The texts from Psalms and Habakkuk provide interesting and fruitful complements to the Zacchaeus story. Here we find bold reminders of the sharp distinctions between good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness, that characterize much of the Jewish-Christian scriptures. The wrongdoing, destruction, and violence of which Habakkuk writes are no strangers to our own world; and we can relate all too well to the zeal that consumes the psalmist in the face of those who forget God’s words. Because we live in a world whose systems are ruled by unrepentant chief tax collectors, we should beware of sentimentalizing the story of Zacchaeus by forgetting the radical character of the dimensions of his repentance or the terms of his salvation.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).