About Zacchaeus and About a Greedy, Vengeful King

Preachers: Amy Marie Epp and Stuart Scadron-Wattles

Scripture: Luke 19:1-28

About Zacchaeus

What do we know about Zacchaeus?  That was the first question I asked the Jr Youth when we talked about this story.  And there are some obvious things – they said these first.  They are the things that the story tells us outright: he was short, he was a tax collector – the chief tax collector, he is rich, he wants to see Jesus.  We are given, in fact, many more details about Zacchaeus that the gospels often give us about people who Jesus encounters, which makes him very vibrant and gives him a fullness of characterization that is unusual.  But what do these things say about Zacchaeus?  After we had talked for awhile the youth noted, ‘You can’t really tell if Zacchaeus was good or bad.’  That is a reflection that is both astute (props to Nate, Becky and David) and it is critical to the telling of the story.

On the one hand, Zacchaeus is a tax collector.  Tax collectors have faired pretty well by Jesusin Luke’s Gospel.  You may recall the first story from this series: the story of Levi, in which Jesus calls and commends Levi, in which Levi becomes his follower.  Levi makes a dramatic change and leaves his toll collection agency to become Jesus’ disciple.  Who knows, perhaps Levi was among the crowd there, looking up the tree. 

Tax collectors have also been compared positively to Pharisees in their practices of prayer.  In just the chapter before Jesus tells this parable:
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)   
The tax collector, of course comes out looking pretty good.

And finally in his favor, there is the way that Zacchaeus acts. 

Zacchaeus monologue – Stuart Scadron-Wattles

Nathaniel! Nathaniel!
Quick! We have to get ready, he’ll be here any minute.
What’s fresh in the market? Have you even been to the market today? Whatever’s fresh, get it.
The Rebbe’s coming to dinner and— Yes, here! Don’t look so astonished.
He’s probably bringing that group with him. We’ll need to have dinner for- I don’t know—fourteen? Sixteen? Go, don’t stand there gaping, get to the market.

No, no, set the table first- put out some olives, or something before you go.
And tell Leah to get a move on— Ask her what to get in the market, what’s good, what she can cook in a hurry—

Oh, hello. Welcome. It’s good to see you all-
Yes- just as you said, you’re here.
Well.
While we’re getting ready, I just wanted to say—
Nathaniel—some water for the Rebbe’s feet, he’s been all day on the road.

Rebbe—
I just wanted to say- I don’t know what you’ve heard, but-
Well. I’m not a bad man. Levi, there, should know. This, you know, levy collection, I mean, someone is going to do it, aren’t they, and it can be done bad, or it can be done righteously, and I try to do it right-

I mean, if I could afford to quit, like Levi there—oh, it’s Matthew, now? Matthew, then. If I could afford to quit, you know, I would, but I’ve got a wife, I’ve got kids, I can’t just—besides, they’d only replace me and the shumuck who’s after my job, well, he’s a shepherd with a wolf’s appetite, if you get my meaning.

Look- I have too much, it’s true. Half of it—I give to the poor, right now.
And if any of you can show that I have cheated you—me, or any of the people who report to me—you’ll get four times that amount back.
Rebbe, come, come, you are welcome to whatever they’ve put on my table.
Nathaniel! Nathaniel! Ready or not, we’re coming in to dinner….  and I hope it’s rea…..dy.

In spite of his prominent position, Zacchaeus is willing to make a kind of spectacle of himself.  He runs, which would have been unheard of in someone of his social stature, and he climbs a tree.  I’m pretty sure this would have elicited some laughter among Luke’s audience at picturing this prestigious, even if not well liked, person heaving himself into a tree.  Laughter can evoke sympathy.  And of course Zacchaeus make a promise about his wealth.  A promise that goes well beyond the regulations set forth for voluntary restitution in the religious law.  Luke 19:8 says: “8 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.’”  In a similar situation Leviticus 6 asks only twenty percent above the defrauded amount.

So, on one hand he is a tax collector.  On the other hand, he is a tax collector.  And not only a tax collector, but the chief tax collector.  He is rich, the story tells us that much, and those two details do not serve him well.  For one this, his role and the chief tax collector meant that his position was one of power and he had underlings collecting on his contract with the Roman government.  You may remember from the story of Levi that tax collectors bought the right from Rome to collect taxes in the provinces – all the prescribed tolls and tariffs and customs fees.  This was, of course, very open to abuse.  The chief collected from his employees. 

And Luke, in stating that he was rich (although this should have been clear from his position) identifies him with the other rich folks in the Gospel, which have not, in fact, been very positive.  I think most of you remember the saying about the camel and the eye of the needle with relation to the rich.  In Luke 18:24 and following, “24 Jesus looked at him [the rich young ruler] and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.””

So in the beginning of this story, we are unsure what Jesus’ attitude toward Zacchaeus will be.  The reason that the ambiguous nature of the character is important, is that it keeps people interested and guessing.  And it makes clear that it really is possible for Jesus to call and invite all nature of people into the Kingdom of God.  This is important to the readers, it is also important for the crowd and Jesus’ entourage.

Besides Jesus, the crowd is the other major character in this story – the bystanders who grumble and whose attitude is shaped by Jesus response.  This crowd is the blocking force twice in the story of Zacchaeus.  First when the prevent him from reaching Jesus, who he is eager to see, and second when they call him out as a sinner and unworthy for the attention of Jesus.  They are the foil.  The way they block the relationship between Jesus and Zacchaeus from unfolding and the way Luke sets Zacchaeus up as both a despicable type and sympathetic character make Jesus’ bold pronouncement stand out all the better:  “9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.””

In his last encounter of healing and reinstatement to society, Jesus healed a poor blind man.  In this story Jesus is saying that the rich actually can be a part of his kingdom.  Jesus’ pronouncement is clear.  Zacchaeus is re-instated.  If the crowd would exclude him, both his restitution action and his being named ‘son of Abraham’ by Jesus makes him again one of the community. 

If all of this becomes clear to the listening audience, it may have felt a little more ambiguous to Zacchaeus.  At his home, Jesus goes on to tell a story about a king and his slaves and his subjects.

About a Greedy and Vengeful King

Now, what do we know about the king?  I think it might be helpful to hear some of the highlights again. This parable very similar to the story of the talents that we hear in Matthew and Mark, but it carries some key differences.  First, the man in this story is very specifically a nobleman seeking kingship.  He is powerful and wanting more power. 

Second, the amount with which he entrusts his servants is quite modest – a pound or mina is worth a fraction of a talent.  It may have felt like a lot to a slave but to a man such as this it would have been little. 

And third, we also hear a chorus of opposition to this man.  We hear that some group of opponents went to speak against his receiving kingship.  Upon the new king’s return, as he hears the reports from his slaves, when they that the one pound will be given to the slave with ten pounds, a group of bystanders exclaim in astonishment at the injustice.  Two instances of opposition.  And the final distinguishing detail, the harsh death sentence again his opponents by the king.

All of these details in this parable create what’s called a ‘culture type story’.  This is a parable in which the hearers, both of Jesus and later Luke’s audience, would have identified the king with an individual or individuals who actually did the things described by the story teller.  For example, if I was to begin a story that went, “The leader of a certain country decided to go to war against a Middle Eastern nation, under the pretext  that this nation harbored weapons of mass destruction.”  There would be little doubt as to whom I was speaking.

The son of Herod, Archeleus did, in fact, during the life of Jesus go to Rome seeking the throne and was made Tetrarch of Judea and Idumea.  There was a delegation sent to oppose him.  He was known as a greed and acquisitive and harsh ruler.  He did ruthlessly kill his opponents.  The Jewish historian Josephus said about him that he “had indeed reduced the entire nation to helpless poverty after taking it over in as flourishing a condition as few ever know, and he was wont to kill members of the nobility upon absurd pretexts and then take their property for himself.” 

It is tempting to identify Jesus with the king.  It is, in fact traditional.  But I believe that Jesus is actually the anti king.  What this story does is identify all the ways in which worldly kingdoms are completely unlike the Kingdom of God which Jesus has come as God-with-us to proclaim.  In earthly kingdoms the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Or, as the king so aptly says it, “’I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’”  In the Kingdom of God, the humble are exalted and the rich turned away empty. 

I see this story like a negative.  There may be some in this congregation who will not remember the film negative, that transparent strip of photos that when exposed to the right paper for the right amount of time with the right chemicals made photographs.  In the negative, of course, every color is it’s opposite or in black and white film, the black is white and the white is black.  I developed a lot of them in high school.

The story is like that, illuminating the kingdom values of the world, and how bizarre that picture looks when we know the true picture.  Luke is inviting dissonance and the discomfort in the audience, having us and them think of Jesus as king, when Jesus is nothing like the Herods or Achileuses (or the certain leaders of a certain countries) of the world. 

This passage ends with the sentence, “After he had said this, he went on into Jerusalem.”  And how does he enter Jerusalem?  We will celebrate with Palms in six weeks.  Jesus rides in a procession that recalls the messianic prophecies of scripture, people shouting in celebratory welcome.  A king indeed, but a king who will throw the money changers out of the temple and who will fall out of favor from the crowd.  A king who will be arrested by the religious authorities, tried before Pilate and ultimately die for the kind of kingdom he proclaimed.

Zachaeus monologue – Stuart Scadron-Wattles

I mean, I’m not surprised. He was headed for Jerusalem, they said. And he was on a roll. People were calling him the Messiah; that’s bound to make trouble.

So, when I hear he’s been arrested, I’m not surprised.
It’s not going to end well for him. It never does. I mean, when you think what Herod did to his cousin John…..

You know, I keep thinking back to that story he told. Well, not so much the story, as the silence afterwards. And everybody looking at him. Peter, end of the table, grinning like he didn’t get the point.

Well, Jesus had to have known. His story kind of proves that. Jerusalem: it’s where the prophets go to die.
And I might add, that’s long before Caesar came along. You don’t play politics with these people: they play for keeps.

Still, good man. Good man.

Just not a king for this world.

Not a king for this world.  The king of a world inverted, upside-down and viewed in relief.  Yet, still a king with expectations of his followers.  The rich are as welcome into the Kingdom of God as the poor, the blind, the weak.  And rich are equally accountable to the inverted kingdom rules.  Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector has shown the fruits of his repentance.  Zacchaeus chooses relationship with Jesus and restoration into the family of faith because of his promise to give back.  Jesus’ listeners surely will be identifying with the opposition delegation, the protesting bystanders and the fearful slave and not the rich and vengeful king, but Jesus is also implying that there may be consequences for choosing the kingdoms of the world.  The song we will sing together in response tells us that the call is the same ‘to merchant, worker, [and] king’ to do justice and walk humbly with God.   May we seek to do it.

More thoughts on the “greedy king” at Amy’s blog.