And at the same time, there’s a call to use wealth in some sort of creative and appropriate way.
This is Chapter, Verse, and Season: A Lectionary Podcast from Yale Bible Study. Join us each week as two Yale Divinity School professors look at an upcoming text from the Revised Common Lectionary.
This episode, we have Greg Sterling, the Rev. Henry L. Slack Dean and the Lillian Claus
Professor of New Testament, and Harry Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity.
They’re discussing Luke 19:1-10, which is appointed for the Twenty-First Sunday after
Pentecost, Proper 26, in Year C. Here’s the text.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
So, Greg, good to be with you today talking about Luke 19 and the story of the encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus. So, in this story Jesus has been on pilgrimage as it were, going up to Jerusalem. That’s been happening for several chapters in Luke and we’re getting to the end of that trip, and on the way he has this encounter with a tax collector. A guy of wealth who climbs a tree, he’s apparently short, in order to see who Jesus is. And Jesus invites him down from the tree and invites him into conversation. And Zacchaeus, challenged by Jesus, repents of some of the things he’s done. And they go off and have dinner together apparently. So, what do you make of all of this and how does it fit into the grand scheme of the Luke’s account of Jesus?
It’s a great story, first. It’s a story that I learned as a child when we would learn how to sing. We learned a song about Zacchaeus, who was wee little Zacchaeus in the song from my childhood. But I think the story really does get at the heart of this gospel. The last line is very Luken. That’s a type of a punchline, if I can call it that to use a non-technical term. For the son of man came to seek and to save the lost or what is lost. And that is in many ways, a direct echo of what we had in chapter 15. We had three parables about looking for the lost and I say, I think this represents the heart of the gospel in the sense that this is a story about how God comes looking for humans, rather than the human quest for God.
There certainly can be a human quest for God, but this is about God looking for human beings. And I think it’s evident in the story by the fact that Jesus looks up and sees Zacchaeus and takes the initiative. He doesn’t wait for Zacchaeus to say, “would you like to come have dinner at my house?” Jesus says, “I’m coming to your house for dinner. Let’s go.” So, he actually takes the initiative with Zacchaeus. And the other thing that’s really striking about that is Zacchaeus was not a person who was viewed in great honor or esteem by people in his society. He was a tax collector and he was apparently a well-placed tax collector, which means that he bid to the Roman government on how much revenue he could generate from the area. And that whatever he generated above that, he kept. Which is probably one reason why he’s wealthy. Maybe the principal reason why he’s wealthy, but it’s also the reason why people despised him.
But Jesus went to this person and the crowd knows it. They react when they see Jesus going with Zacchaeus. What’s this guy doing going with this man who’s clearly immoral and rips all of us off? So, it’s a story that personifies this basic message in Luke of God coming, looking for humanity.
Hmm. Yeah, Jesus a reputation for dining with tax collectors and sinners, doesn’t he? It’s not only in Luke’s gospel, although Luke highlights it. So, he seems to have had a taste for fine dining with interesting people.
Ha. Well, he did. There are four famous symposia in Luke, and then if you add the Last Supper there would be a fifth. But his first big meal is with a tax collector, with Levi, in Luke 5. And he also likes to eat with Pharisees apparently in Luke. But some of the crowd at these meals is, let’s just say, unwelcome by all of the host of the meals.
This is a case where he’s eating with Zacchaeus. The other thing about Zacchaeus that’s worth mentioning in a modern context, is his stature. I mean, the song that I learned as a boy, today we would say he was ‘vertically challenged’. But I think that it’s important to remember that Jesus came to welcome the people who were not always welcomed by everybody else. And it wasn’t only for moral reasons, it could be also for physical reasons that they were not always welcomed by everybody else. So, I think that’s worth noting in a day when we have finally begun to pay more attention to disabilities and to those who are challenged in other ways than many of us are.
You know, one thing that’s been on the mind of a lot of Christians these days is wealth inequality, which is a major social issue on the contemporary political scene. And the use of wealth and those who misuse it, that’s an issue that runs throughout a lot of Luke, isn’t it?
It is. And it’s a point that has been discussed at great length in scholarship. So, you have some texts in Luke that appear to renounce wealth. The most famous expression of this is, “blessed are the poor”, not “blessed are the poor in spirit” as in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, but in what we call the Sermon on the Plain of Luke 6, it’s just “blessed are the poor.” And the corresponding woe is, “woe to you who are rich.” So, there’s socioeconomic categories in Luke rather than spiritual categories as you have in Matthew. This text does what you typically find in Luke, which is not calling for a complete renunciation of all property but for the generous sharing of one’s property and for how one uses their wealth. So, Zacchaeus’ statement that he makes as he, we would say repents, that, and it’s a little bit of ambiguity in how to translate this. “I will give,” it doesn’t literally say future, “I will give half of my posssessions.” I’m giving half of my possessions”. But then he promises to make restitution to anyone he’s defrauded and to do so in a fairly extravagant way.
But this is Luke’s point of indicating that people who have wealth should share that wealth and help others. So, in our society, I think, I mean if you wanted to think about this, it’s not only a call for people of resources to be generous philanthropically. It’s also a call for just structures and the recognition that those who have should share that wealth with those who don’t have. We call that [?] in America.
Yeah, I have the sense that Luke is wrestling with this issue generally, you know, what’s the appropriate Christian attitude toward wealth? You have the saying at the end of, a collection of sayings, at the end of the story of the so-called unjust or very clever steward in Luke 16, one of which is make friends with unjust mammon. What is that supposed to mean? On the one side, it’s a recognition that there is injustice that somehow has economic roots or economic connections. And at the same time, there’s a call to use wealth in some sort of creative and appropriate way. So, Luke is walking a fine line here that I think we all kind of walk in trying to deal with some of these issues. And Zacchaeus is an interesting example of someone who’s taking action of which Luke approves.
Yeah, there’s been a lot written on how you address the struggle within Luke. So, are the calls for renunciation calls for particular groups in Luke or are they for all? And you could, you can make the same point when you think of the summaries in Acts where the believers had all things in common as a type[?]. But that’s only set of the Jerusalem community early on. It’s never set of any other community. So, Luke tends not to make it, doesn’t appear to me that he makes it, normative or considers it normative. But he does consider it an ideal. So, I think he sees this both as in idealistic terms that we should share what we have. But there’s not a mandate for the complete renunciation of private property.
Well, this is something we all wrestle with, isn’t it?
Dealing with issues of social and economic justice. And Luke starts the ball rolling.
Thanks for listening. And thank you, Professors Sterling and Attridge, for your insight on Luke.
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