I’m reading from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament. The story of Zacchaeus.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. 2 There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. 3 He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way.
5 When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”
6 Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. 7 But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled.
8 Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!”
9 Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”
When I was a child, we used to sing this little chorus:
Zacchaeus was a very little man,
and a very little man was he.
He climbed up into a sycamore tree,
for the Saviour he wanted to see.
And when the Saviour passed that way,
he looked up in the tree,
[Spoken] and said, ‘Now Zacchaeus, you come down,
for I’m coming to your house for tea.’
I’m coming to your house for tea.’
Zacchaeus worked for the occupying power – Rome. He was a Jew who taxed his fellow Jews on behalf of Rome. It was a system ripe for corruption, and Zachaeus had got rich on the proceeds. Zacchaeus represents the powers. Power that keeps people in poverty, as they are unfairly treated by the taxation system. The poor have had what was righfully theirs taken away from them in a system that has extorted an unfair burden of taxation.
In this situation, the Gospel – which means ‘Good news,’ – has an immediate economic outcome for the good of the poor that have been exploited by Zacchaeus. He turns the system that has built in economic inequality on its head as he promises to pay back those he has cheated.
Jesus’ comment is that not only has salvation come to the house of Zacchaeus, but that Zacchaeus must be considered once more as a true ‘Son of Abraham.’ In defrauding his fellow Jews, he had ‘forgotten who he was and given up his true identity for the sake of gain.’ * The transformation that resulted from his encounter with Jesus has not only benefitted the poor whom he had exploited, but has also given him back his true indentity.
As I read this passage today, it took me back to singing that chorus in my childhood, and a realisation that the heart of the story is missing from the chorus! Once again, we see that overturning injustice is at the heart of the Gospel.
When we become embroiled in systems that are intrinsically unjust, do we also lose some of our true self, and accept an identity that is less than our calling as children of God ? May we discover more of our true selves as those in the company of Jesus.
* Walter Brueggemann in ‘Gift and Task’ page 375.