If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Salvation has come to the house: Reconsidering the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 9:1-10)

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. If we remember anything about Zacchaeus, it is probably the fact that he was a “wee little man,” a shorty, a shrimp, a squirt. And we know how “wee little people” get the “short end” of the stick. With tongue in cheek Randy Newman reminded us of the prejudice against short people, when he sang:

They got little hands
and little eyes
and they walk around
tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
and tiny little feet
They wear platform shoes
on their nasty little feet

Short People got nobody
to love

Zacchaeus, whose name means “just, pure, innocent” is not remembered as one who lived up to his name. He was a despised, rich tax collector, who had dinner with Jesus and practiced a radical form of economic redistribution. And yet, after 2000 years we remember him as a “wee little man.” Randy Newman may be right. Short people got nobody to love.

Zacchaeus was not just a short person. He was chief tax collector. A chief tax collector would have had to make a bid to the Roman administration to collect local taxes through other tax collectors that he employed. So, right off the bat Zacchaeus would have been seen by the people as a collaborator with the Roman empire, their oppressor. And in the process he would have needed to collect enough in taxes to make a profit. Roman taxation was an extreme burden upon the people in this peasant society. The tax system was easily abused through cheating and extortion. Some chief tax collectors got rich off their economic abuse of others. It’s no wonder that tax collectors and sinners were grouped together as being among the society’s most despised and marginalized persons.

As the story goes, Jesus was passing through Jericho. A crowd had gathered to catch a glimpse of this wonder-worker, this prophet among the peasants. Zacchaeus wanted see this itinerant celebrity as much as everyone else. But being the little person that he was, Zacchaeus had a hard time seeing over the heads of the taller people. So, ran over to a Sycamore tree and shimmied up the trunk and sat on a branch to get a good view. Well, Jesus noticed this small person perched on a limb like some hungry crow and called him down…by name “Zacchaeus, come down…”

I wonder how Jesus knew his name. Had they met before? Jesus was a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” If so, why would Zacchaeus be climbing up in a tree to see him? Had Zacchaeus’ reputation preceded him? Gossip travelled fast and far in those days. Who knows. Anyway, Jesus didn’t wait for an invitation from Zacchaeus. He invited himself to Zacchaeus house for dinner. Zacchaeus scooted down the tree trunk and was delighted to host Jesus for dinner.

This did not set well with the crowd. They grumbled, not because Jesus was eating qiwi with a pee wee, but for having dinner with sinner. The dinner table was a microcosm of who was in and who was out in society. Remember the Jim Crow years in the South, who you ate with was defined by race. Blacks were forbidden to eat in the same dining rooms or drinking from the same fountains as whites. Whites might be contaminated, become unclean. It almost sounds like Old Testament purity codes, but there it was. The dinner table reflected the social system.

In Jesus day eating with outcasts, the marginalized, tax collectors, and sinners was taboo.By intentionally inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, Jesus was transgressing a major social code of his day. His dinner with a sinner wasn’t just about being a nice person or a private preference for making people feel welcome. It was a public social statement about should be included and treated with respect within the wider society. It would be like a white person publicly sitting down to eat with a black person in Nashville, Tennessee in the 50’s and 60’s. Dinner becomes politics.

Jesus was going to eat with a person the crowd stereotyped Zachaeus as a “sinner.” Was Zacchaeus a “sinner” because he was tax collector or because he was “a greedy little man”? A lot of us have not only stereotyped Zacchaeus as a short person, but as a greedy person, because he was chief tax collector and he was wealthy. Like those in Jesus’ day, we may believe that because he was wealthy, he must have been cheating people out of their money. Wasn’t Zacchaeus spiritually and economically converted in his encounter with Jesus?

It all depends….on the translation of the Greek tense of two words in Luke’s text. Their translation means the difference between Zacchaeus repenting and providing reparation for his evil deeds in the presence of Jesus or publicly stating his radical economic practices. The two words of Zacchaeus are most often translated as future tense. Thus Zacchaeus says, “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.” Actually the two key words are in the present tense in Greek, which connotes present, continuing action. I am giving to the poor. I am paying back four times as much. The verb tenses of these two words change the whole character of Zacchaeus and the end of the story.

Assume with me that the two words should be translated according to their tense in Greek. Then, we have Zacchaeus proclaiming the character of his name “just,” “innocent.” And against those who would stereotype Zacchaeus as a “sinner,” Jesus proclaims that salvation, wholeness, shalom, has come to the house of Zacchaeus. He is not a sinner. He is a beloved child of Abraham, a welcome and equal member among God’s people. His faith is manifest in his practices of economic justice.

According to this interpretation Zacchaeus was a tax collector who practiced a radical form of economics. He gave away half of his possessions to the poor and paid back anyone he cheated 400% of what he overcharged them. Now, that’s amazing! And even if we take the traditional interpretation that Zacchaeus was converted in his encounter with Jesus and changed his economic practices, what he proposed to do is still amazing! Either way, Zacchaeus practiced a radical form of economic justice.

It’s rather curious that this story is found in Luke, which stresses care for the poor, welcoming the marginalized and outsiders, and economic justice. In the book of Acts, also written by Luke, we find the story of the early church’s radical economic practice of communal property. Acts 2 says that the early church sold their property and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. It was redistributed to the community. No one had any need.

This makes me think of the Anabaptists and their practice of mutual aid or the Hutterites and their practice of the community of goods. These were radical forms of economic justice. Some might call it “communism.” Other might call it “socialism.” Most of us living in a capitalist economy would call it “nuts.”

That’s what most people thought of St. Francis of Assissi, a nut case, a man for the birds. He not only gave up his military career. He gave away all of his possessions to the poor, another form of radical economic redistribution. Such economic actions are viewed as “cultish” or for the lunatic fringe of the church.

St. Francis makes me think of Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Millard was a self-made millionaire at the age of 29. Ill health and a rocky marriage caused Millard to renew his Christian commitment and to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Millard and his wife, met Clarence Jordan, the leader of Koinonia Farms, an inter-racial, Christian community in the ‘50s that practiced communal sharing of goods. They decided to move to the farm in Americus, Georgia. Clarence was working on building homes on a non-profit, no-interest basis. His influence on Millard caused him to expand on Clarence’s idea and create Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes around the world for those who could not afford to own them otherwise. Former President Jimmy Carter, an avid carpenter and longtime Habitat supporter, says "Millard Fuller is an inspiration to all of us who have joined him as volunteers and his faith and perseverance have made continual progress possible." Millard called his philosophy of providing housing without profit or interest “the economics of Jesus.”

Zacchaeus, the early church, the Anabaptists, Hutterites, Francis, Clarence and Koinonia Farms, Millard, and others have practiced different, and yet, radical forms of economic justice. Don’t worry I’m not going to call on you this morning to give away half, let alone all of your possessions, and give the money to the poor or pay back 400% on any bad checks or to join a commune or practice community of goods like the Hutterites. That would be too radical.

I don’t think most Christians who live in a consumerist, captitalist, free market economy are even near the point of thinking about economics in radical ways. Just remember back when Clinton was president and Hillary opened a public discussion on socialized medicine. From the public reaction, which included Christians, you would have thought she was trying to resuscitate the dead corpse of communism. Providing health care for everyone, irregardless of their economic class, flew over like a led balloon. Radical economics? Why, just try practicing a more just economics and see what reactions you get.

Look at how slow, long, and hard the work has been for Jubilee 2000 and subsequently by Jubilee USA and other similar national reorganizations. Jubilee 2000 was a coalition of over 40 countries seeking the cancellation of unpayable debts incurred by so-called Third World countries to wealthier nations, like the U.S. The hope was to break the perpetual cycle of indebtedness and poverty. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. The work, which still continues, was modeled after the year of Jubilee, a Sabbath year, found in Leviticus 25, a time when every 50 years slaves were freed, land was restored to its original owners, and debts were forgiven. Another form of radical economics.

Bringing together the Sabbath and economics reminds of an organization my friend, Ched Myers, helped found. Ched is author of a seminal book on a political reading of Mark’s gospel entitled Binding the Strong Man, and director of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Ojai, California, near my hometown. The organization he helped start is the Sabbath Economics Collaborative. It is a faith-based organization committed to economic justice. It seeks to be a resource for engaging in the struggle for sustainable economics and poverty reduction. Sabbath economics points toward radical economic conversion.

So, what do we do with this jagged story of Zacchaeus and his radical economics. Its like a cactus. It has stickers on it and is hard to hold. Most of us aren’t ready for any radical changes in our economic practices. So, maybe we simply need to start with working at more just economics practices, avoiding consumerist consumption, living more simply, sharing our worldly goods, buying fair trade products, educating ourselves about the relationship between wealth and poverty, economics and spirituality, globalization and multinational corporations, and examining what we buy, how it was made, and where it came from, or by advocating for more just economic policies. We need salvation, economic conversion, to come to the House…and the Senate. Just doing some of these kinds of things may seem to us to be as radical as what Zacchaeus did as a tax collector.

Remember Zacchaeus? Not the “wee little man” who climbed up in a Sycamore tree. Not just the man with whom Jesus ate dinner. But Zacchaeus, the just man, who practiced a radical form of economics, possibly even before he met Jesus; Zacchaeus, to whom Jesus said, “Today salvation, wholeness, shalom, has come to this house.”

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