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.” Luke 19:1-10 NRSV
This Gospel passage about Zacchaeus seems like a cute little story, nothing really earth-shattering, which is strange considering that it comes at an incredibly pivotal moment in Jesus’ life. This is the very last event before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (which Christians observe on Palm Sunday) and all the events of his suffering and crucifixion which follow, so this scene represents the last moment of Jesus’ semi-normal life of teaching and healing before entering Jerusalem to confront the religious and political authorities there, leading to his death. In fact, because of this story’s important placement in Luke’s Gospel, many Orthodox churches read this passage every year on the last Sunday before Lent, which they call Zacchaeus Sunday. So why would Luke give such an odd story pride of place in the arc of Jesus’ life? And Luke is the only one who tells this story, so really why put it in there at all? What’s so important about Zacchaeus?
Zacchaeus was a rich man and got that way by legal yet unsavory methods. In the Roman Empire, cities and surrounding areas were divided up and auctioned off to publicani (tax collectors) like Zacchaeus, so he paid Rome a fee for the right to collect taxes in his city, which was Jericho. He then had to shake people down for their so-called taxes to make sure he got his money back–plus quite a bit extra as profit. It was totally unregulated–whatever tax collectors could grab, they kept. And the people in power didn’t care how fairly the people at the bottom were treated as long as there was no unrest or uprising in the streets. So although the system was different than ours, that part certainly sounds familiar. So Zacchaeus looked at this unjust system and said, “Okay, I’ll play along. I’m not gonna worry about what I’m taking from others, that’s their problem, I’ve got mine, and they should take care of themselves.” Some would say, that makes him a successful businessman. That makes him smart.
However, that’s not how his neighbors saw him. They called him a “sinner,” which is how all tax collectors were thought of. They collaborated with Rome, the occupying power, against their fellow citizens to make a buck for themselves, and so they were shunned and rejected. So this system is working really well for Zacchaeus until he looks around and realizes he doesn’t have any friends. And he knows the reason for this, no one has to spell it out for him. He knows that he has sold out his brothers and sisters for the sake of money, that his love of wealth has completely isolated him.
But he hears stories about this rabbi, Jesus, making his way towards Jerusalem. How just before entering Jericho, he healed a blind man, giving him back his sight. How right before that, Jesus told a rich young man to give away everything that he owned, that that was the one thing he was lacking. Zacchaeus puts those things together and wonders if maybe he can be healed, if maybe he, also a rich man, can receive the one thing he’s lacking. Zacchaeus is looking for an intervention. He needs someone to give him permission to stop pursuing wealth and be united with his brothers and sisters again instead of taking what he can from them. So he rushes ahead to climb a tree and get a look at Jesus. Someone who is the opposite of him. Someone who, rather than turning his back on his people and profiting off them, has devoted himself to teaching and healing them. Someone who, rather than pursuing wealth and a nice home with lots of possessions, has chosen to live poor–no roof over his head and not even sandals on his feet. But someone who, instead of being lonely and reviled, has a crowd of friends following him. So Zacchaeus makes a choice. The moment of Zacchaeus’ salvation doesn’t come when Jesus pronounces it, it doesn’t come when he says he’ll give half his possessions away. It doesn’t come when he welcomes Jesus into his home. The moment of salvation comes when Zacchaeus runs towards that sycamore tree.
When Jesus talks about salvation coming to Zacchaeus’ house, that’s not a far off theological idea about getting into heaven. This is earthbound salvation that Zacchaeus gets to experience right away. It’s not so much that he’s been forgiven his sin as much as been freed from it–freed from his addiction to wealth and restored to his community. And just like that, he has a new life. Just like a blind man being suddenly able to see again.
So back to why this story is so important at this point in Jesus’ life: Jesus is at the threshold of Jerusalem and knows he won’t be with us much longer, so he’s transitioning out of his role as a teacher and rabbi and moving into his priestly role, absolving Zacchaeus of guilt and blessing him. Zacchaeus’ story is a lesson in how Jesus’ followers are to get along without him. Zacchaeus doesn’t need Jesus to tell him what to do, to show him where he’s wrong. He just needs to be absolved and blessed, which we all need when we start on a new path, and which we all need to be doing for each other.
But don’t mistake this for a story of personal healing. Zacchaeus’ sin was not violence or betrayal, or any other personal wrong, it was economic injustice to his community. We haven’t all defrauded others as Zacchaeus did. But many of us do benefit from an unjust system, where, for example, food is brought to us by people making minimum wage, who often can’t afford themselves to buy the food that they’re giving us. Where our socks and t-shirts and Christmas toys are shipped to us from places like China and Bangladesh made by people who get nothing close to minimum wage and don’t even have safe work conditions, just so we get to pay $5 for a bag of ten socks and feel psyched that we scored such a bargain.
The way an unjust economic system thrives is not the people at the top manipulating high finance. It depends on the people at the bottom grabbing what they can from the people around them, because if they’re doing just a little bit better than the next guy, they keep their mouths shut and don’t worry about what the people at the top are doing. This is how all corrupt economic systems work. It’s how drug dealers work. It’s how the executives at Wells Fargo and other Wall Street banks work. And it’s how Zacchaeus worked until he got woke.
Like Zacchaeus, we don’t need someone to tell us right from wrong–we know what’s right. We don’t need someone to tell us that making exorbitant profits off the backs of your brothers and sisters is wrong. We don’t need someone to tell us we’re living in an unjust system, we know it, and some of us know we’re benefitting from it, and some of us know our addiction to those benefits. You don’t need to wait for Jesus to walk down your street to run and claim your healing and your freedom from that unjust system. Be healed of the compulsion to get everything you can for yourself, forgetting about the next guy. Let salvation come to your house. Not the kind you have to wait till you get to heaven for. But the kind that frees you in this life to walk beside your brothers and sisters as equals and in freedom, like Zacchaeus, a sinner no more.