Readings Hab 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Luke 19:1-10
It is always interesting to wonder what passages of scripture shaped the lives of those we meet in the Bible. For instance, I wonder how many of those who had lived under Zacchaeus’ exploitative tax collection had connected with the prophetic utterances of Habbabkuk? How many – hearing the words in their synagogue – would have said
‘O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
How long, they might have asked, must we suffer such injustice, such unfairness as is currently being delivered upon us by this collaborator with Rome?
And then I wonder, how many did as Habakkuk did?
How many agreed to stand at their watch-post and wait for God to answer their complaint? And how many, I wonder, gave up waiting… how many stepped down from the watch-post believing God had forgotten their suffering, turned away from their cries?
With this in mind, we enter the scene of our gospels with two groups… those still waiting in hope that God will indeed keep the vision of the appointed time and bring justice to the proud… and those who have ceased waiting and become accustomed to the triumph of the wicked in this world… members from both these groups make up the crowd pressing in on Jesus as he enters Jericho. And members of both these groups are present when Jesus spots Zacchaeus - the man behind so much grief and waiting and frustration – and says ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’
This must be gut wrenching for the first group. Instead of the appointed time of God’s justice, Jesus chooses to break bread with the man who broke hearts; bestowing upon Zacchaeus the honour of table fellowship.
The other group, undoubtedly also disappointed (for who does not long for justice in their heart of hearts) might have a moment of bitter confirmation, of course, they mutter, God was never for us. We were right to cease our watch.
And yet, surprise twist! The story is not one of betrayal of the people or endorsement of Zacchaeus… this is a story of salvation… but one which reveals that salvation doesn’t always look like we expect, and doesn’t always break into our lives in the same way.
Let’s start with Zacchaeus. For Zacchaeus, the moment of salvation comes when Jesus’s presence, drawing near to him, interrupts his selfishness and isolation from his community and liberates him from his love of money and cycle of exploitation (x2). Jesus sets Zacchaeus free from sin by opening his eyes and his heart to the pain he has caused. Jesus reminds him that as a child of Abraham, Zacchaeus is both an inheritor of God’s covenant love and the Torah (which forbids economic exploitation and commands reparations in order to restore right relations). Salvation comes to the house of Zacchaeus because Jesus has come to seek and save the lost. Zacchaeus becomes found in the promise and responsibility that belongs to a child of Abraham. Which means being found requires he lose his ill-begotten wealth.
Salvation comes for the people, those who have waited and ceased to wait, in the return of what they had lost – in the return of the wealth stolen from them. It also comes in the reminder that even Zacchaeus – collaborator with Rome – remains a child of Abraham. For even a lost son is a son. The choices of those held in God’s covenant, who have been elected in God’s love and redeemed by God’s power, those choices cannot cancel out the choice of God to elect, the freedom of God to covenant, the power of God to redeem. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus because he too is a child of Abraham – in this reminder, and in the restoration of relationship following Zacchaeus’ reparations, salvation too comes to the crowd.
Salvation occurs in this story when the presence of Jesus Christ draws near. In his presence, power, and promise he delivers people from cycles of sin (perpetrators and victims). Such deliverance transforms behaviour, redistributes what was taken, and reconciles one to another. Salvation might look and impact differently depending on where one is in the story, but it comes to all, and leaves none unchanged.
The overturning of current inequalities and hierarchies lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God. From the song sung by Mary over him in her womb, to his reading of the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown, to his parables about banquets, through his late teaching on the sheep and the goats, Jesus’ ministry is marked by a series of reversals and upturning. Some are cast down from thrones, some of no esteem will be brought into the feast, some give away their wealth, some are returned what was stolen.
And yet despite the different ways it breaks through and reshapes a life, these moments of salvation, the long-awaited arrival of justice, is aimed at the same ends… the creating of a reconciled humanity, freed from coveting, able to share room around the table, and live well together before God.
But the story of Zacchaeus (matched with the prophetic cries of Habakkuk) reminds us that we cannot skip to the ends, without attending to means. You can’t have reconciliation without some reversals – wrongs must be made right, what was stolen must be returned (as best as is possible this side of the eschaton). That order is important. Through it we recognise in Jesus’ coming to the house of Zacchaeus the pattern of Christ coming to live amongst us. This story exemplifies the crux of the Gospel: that in Christ, God drew near, interrupting our sinfulness, exposing false hierarchies, deviant powers, and the corrupting lure of wealth. Christ drew near to reconcile all things to God, which in turn makes possible the kind of radical repentance and repair that might foster reconciled relations amongst creation. Christ drew near and draws near still in order that we who were estranged might receive a spirit of adoption and be made co-heirs with Christ and children of Abraham. Christ drew near to draw us into the life of God through which we are freed to live together in a new way.
Image: Jesus and Zacchaeus, Soichi Watanabe - Oil on canvas - 61cm x 73cm Saitama, Japan
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