Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Conflicting Labels


When I think of the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), I think of the children's song: "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he." It isn't nice to identify someone by his stature, but that's typically what makes Luke's story compelling. Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus, so he climbed a tree to get a better view. That image sticks with us. But there are other labels in this story that are arguably more powerful.

Before we get to any mention of stature, Luke introduces Zacchaeus to us with two labels that spell trouble for the wee man: "he was a chief tax collector and was rich." Tax collectors were traitorous Jews who worked for the evil Roman Empire, collecting (often extorting) revenue from their countrymen. They worked on commission, and anything extra they collected was how they made a living. A "chief tax collector" is bad enough, but to call him rich means that he was good at his job or, in other words, that he was particularly insistent and cruel in his methods. Modern-day debt collectors could learn a lesson from Zacchaeus.

By the end of the gospel lesson, however, Jesus gives Zacchaeus another label that directly contradicts the previous identifications. Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham." If there was any title that a rich chief tax collector did not deserve, it was "son of Abraham." Sure, genetically speaking, Zacchaeus was a descendant of Abraham. All Jews were/are. But his behavior and occupation and the cultural identity that they gave him would have denied him such an affiliation. His treachery would have prohibited his participation in the religious life of his people. In a very real way, his Jewishness was suspended. He lost his place in the community of Abraham's children. But Jesus sees something else: "he, too, is a son of Abraham."

The theological question I puzzle over is when that identity shone through. Right before Jesus pronounces this restored label, Zacchaeus promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and restore anyone he has defrauded four-fold. Jesus' statement seems to be in response to that. Was Zacchaeus' charity and effort at reconciliation required for the "son of Abraham" label to be reapplied to this lost child? Or did it happen earlier? Did Jesus coming to dine with him and the opportunity for hospitality that that visit presented effect the change in Zacchaeus' heart? In other words, were the charitable words a response to Jesus' visit and evidence of a salvation that had already occurred? Perhaps. Or did it happen even earlier? When Zacchaeus could not see Jesus, did he climb the tree because he knew that the opportunity for salvation was drawing near? Was Jesus' offer to dine with him the Lord's way of highlighting a conversion that had already begun?

It's easy for me to get lost in the process. I enjoy dissecting things. I like knowing how things work. But I'm not sure that's helpful here. I feel drawn back to the beginning and the end--to the rich chief tax collector who emerges as a son of Abraham. What happens in the middle happens. Charity and reconciliation and invitation and hospitality and investigation and humility--they are all part of the process, but it isn't necessarily linear. And, while all of the components are important (perhaps essential), to force an "A follows B follows C" model overshadows the real conversion. Jesus came to seek out and save the lost. He even says so. If you're preaching on this passage, don't get lost in the weeds. Remember that Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who was rich, met Jesus, and Jesus gave him back his identity as a beloved son of Abraham. There are too many people in the pews who need to hear that for us to focus on anything else.

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