Last week, we worked our way through the stories in Luke chapter 18. In every story we saw a pattern: the person of high status (whom you’d expect to be the “winner,” according to first century culture) ended up being the “loser” in the story, at the expense of the person of low status. The score ended up being 5-0 in favour of the underdog, powerfully illustrating a central theme of God’s kingdom: that the rich and powerful will miss out, but the poor and powerless will enter.
Except that’s not the full story.
If we didn’t have today’s story, we could be forgiven for thinking that entry into God’s kingdom is very simplistic: if you’re rich and powerful, you’re automatically out; if you’re poor and oppressed, you’re automatically in. A kind of “liberation theology” for the poor. Marxism a couple of millennia ahead of its time.
But then we meet Zacchaeus:19:1-3 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.
So based on the last chapter’s form guide, does he win or does he lose?
It’s a confusing picture, isn’t it? He’s got some kind of status and power, as he’s a chief tax collector, and has lots of money. On that basis, it doesn’t look good for him in the kingdom of the underdog.
But he’s also a tax collector – remember from last week how they were viewed! And he was short – there was a similar cultural bias toward tall people, just as we see today. Like me, he probably had to hold the sign in every class photo until year 10. So maybe he’s in with a chance. How’s it going to play out?19:4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
Persistent. I like that. Reminds me of some widow I read about. And a blind beggar who kept shouting. Does he “get” who Jesus is, too?19:5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
Must you? “Yes, I must,” says Jesus. Sounds a little Jane Austen, but it’s translating a little Greek word dei, which means “it is necessary.” Every other time Luke has Jesus using this word, it’s in a significant statement about God’s plan for salvation. Here are just a few examples from Luke’s Gospel:4:43 But he said, “It is necessary for me proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
5:38 No, it is necessary for new wine to be poured into new wineskins.
9:22 And he said, “It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
24:44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: it is necessary for everything to be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
So when Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “it is necessary for me to stay at your house today” – we get the hint that something important is about to go down. Something of salvific significance.19:6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
He “welcomed” him. A hospitality word, showing his positive attitude toward Jesus. One used about “welcoming” the kingdom, and little children, back in chapter 18. So far so good.19:7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Typical people. Worried about appearances. Writing Zacchaeus off as an outcast. A sinner.19:8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Actually, that’s not the best translation. It’s all in the present tense, and there’s no “here and now” in the Greek. It more literally reads: “Look, Lord! Half my possessions I give to the poor, and if I have cheated someone of something, I pay back four times.” Which gives two possible interpretations:
- The traditional one, where Zacchaeus at this point repents, and demonstrates his repentance by decisive action, making amends for his sin. (The NIV translates it in such a way that this is the only possible interpretation.)
- An alternative, where Zacchaeus points out to Jesus that this is his custom: I give away half to the poor, not some mere tithe. And if it’s pointed out to me that I’ve wronged someone, I give them four times as much back. See, I’ve embraced the upside-down values of this kingdom we’re waiting for; I’m hungering and thirsting for righteousness!
I still think the traditional view has a lot going for it, but we can’t rule out the other: that this man (like some of the other underdogs in chapter 18) was acting faithfully towards God as best he could, waiting for the Messiah and the coming kingdom. At any rate, Jesus affirms him:19:9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Either Jesus is affirming his repentance “today” (view 1) – or “today” his desire to see God’s kingdom has been met, and has been vindicated in the eyes of the people (view 2).
Jesus concludes:19:10 “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
In the first view, this is a statement that Zacchaeus’ repentance illustrates Jesus’ mission – to save that which is lost. In the second, it’s a rebuke to the crowd – even if he were a “sinner” as you say, that’s who I came to rescue!
Now don’t get overly distracted by the two views. (I mention them because I find the second interesting and plausible, but not fully persuasive.) What we learn from the Zacchaeus story that’s not as obvious in the previous stories is the importance of repentance; of living in tune with kingdom values.
In chapter 18, the underdogs were almost automatic “winners” – although we see the tax collector asking for mercy, the disciples leaving their possessions behind for the sake of Jesus, and the blind man acknowledging him as the “Son of David.” But still – it was always the underdog who won, and the powerful person who lost.
But in the Zacchaeus story we find someone where it could go either way: by some measure he had high status, but by another he had low status. What made the difference was what he did: he sought out Jesus. He repented (or was already living a God honouring life). And he acted in a way consistent with repentance.
The gospel is for everyone, not just the poor and the marginalised. Yes, a lot of the time the poor and marginalised will embrace the gospel message, because they know how much they need rescue. And a lot of the time the rich and powerful will reject it, because they’re used to being self sufficient and don’t want to give up their wealth and power. But when it comes down to it, it’s not simply about our socio-economic status. It’s about whether we seek out God’s help, repent of sin, and accept the upside-down values of God’s kingdom.