In his wonderful novel, Handling Sin, Michael Malone portrays Raleigh Whittier Hayes, a rather proper lawyer in a small Southern town, whose life begins to fall apart when his eccentric father (a defrocked Episcopal priest) flees from a hospital bed with a young prostitute. Hayes did believe in God, but, frankly he didn’t trust him, and saw no reason in the world why he should. If God’s idea of salvation was Jesus Christ, God was too eccentric to rely on. Hayes had read the New Testament, but in his personal opinion Christ’s advice sounded like civic sabotage, moral lunacy, social anarchy, and business disaster. Hayes had been a serious young man; and he still believed in virtue, which he suspected Christ of ridiculing by gleefully making up stories in which decent people were cheated by wastrels and the deserving blithely passed over in favor of bums. Among the passages that disturbed Hayes must have been today’s Gospel.
In Luke the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (roughly equivalent to a district director of the I.R.S.), comes near the conclusion of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he teaches his disciples the virtues and values they are to have when they later move outward from Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). It follows closely the story of the rich ruler whose wealth keeps him from following Jesus. Here salvation comes to a wealthy man.
Luke’s narrative contains both pathos and humor. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but his position and wealth apparently carried little clout, because the crowd would not even clear away to give him a look. He was also a victim of sizeism. Breaking all cultural taboos, he runs ahead of the crowd and scampers up a sycamore treemost likely accompanied by hoots and jeersand positions himself where he can see Jesus. Neither wealth nor social status kept Zacchaeus from being scorned as an outsider by the religiously proper.
Before he utters a word, Jesus looks up and simply says, Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house. Zacchaeus jumps out of the tree, goes home and happily receives Jesus. The language here reflects the frequent Lukan themes of the joy that Jesus will bringremember Mary’s words, My spirit rejoices in God my savior (Lk 1:47), and the message of great joy to the shepherds (Lk. 2:10)as well as the importance of hospitality. Not everyone shares the joy. The crowd begins to grumble, the same term and the same complaint voiced by the scribes and Pharisees when Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners and tells parables of losing and finding (Lk. 15:1).
In contrast to the crowd’s description of his house as that of a sinner, Zacchaeus proclaims his fidelity to God’s law and shows that his wealth is not an obstacle to salvation. He gives half of his possessions to the poor. Such generosity reflects Tob. 4:10-11: Almsgiving frees one from death...and alms are a worthy offering in the sight of the Most High. If he has extorted money (which tax collectors were wont to do), he restores it fourfold. Fourfold restitution is demanded in Ex. 21:37 and was also known in Roman law.
Jesus then pronounces that salvation has come to this house today, and calls Zacchaeus a son of Abraham. Though classed as a sinner and socially marginal, he is really one who follows the Jewish laws on almsgiving and restitution. In ironic remembrance of the rich man who cries out from Hades to Abraham as father, only to have his prayer rejected because his wealth blinded him to the needs of the poor, Zacchaeus is a true child of Abraham by using his wealth in the service of justice and charity.
This short narrative is a treasure-trove of Lukan themes. Though Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, it is Jesus who first sees him and calls him as he summons disciples throughout the Gospel. In seeking to find Jesus, we are often found by him. Jesus’ self-identity is as one who came to seek and save the lost, those bums and wastrels that so annoyed Raleigh Whittier Hayes. The lost Zacchaeus is found because he rises above the crowd and risks ridicule.
Christians must reflect on the price of rote conformity and unwillingness to buck current wisdom and values. Yet, as in the parables of Luke 15, finding is celebrated. Jesus becomes a guest and brings joy to the house. Zacchaeus is praised not for practicing any particular Christian virtue (he never affirms faith in Jesus), but because of his fidelity to the covenant with Abraham and his fidelity to the Jewish laws. The Jewish faith and its Scriptures remain a covenant never revoked for Christians today. This story also offers good news to the wealthy today. If they welcome Jesus to their house with joy and do works of justice and charity, that salvation will come to their houses.