Also Children of God

The readings for Sunday, October 30, 2016, Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Wisdom 11:22—12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11—2:2; and Luke 19:1-10.

The longest section of Luke’s Gospel, called “The Journey to Jerusalem,” is almost ended. The journey began at Luke 9:51, where Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The journey became a framework for Luke’s catechesis — including difficult material for his Christian Community to absorb. The route to Jerusalem led through Jericho. Luke continues his catechesis with a story found in no other gospel — Zacchaeus, a high official of the Internal Revenue Service.

Jericho, the City of Palms, was not a goal of pilgrims from Galilee. Luke writes, “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.” He introduces the man who becomes the heart of the story. “There was a man named Zacchaeus.” He was a man with two distinctions — chief tax collector and rich. Then a distinctive feature — short in stature. Shortness of stature did not seem to have hindered Zacchaeus from high office and wealth. Being resourceful, he climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus passing by as part of the Passover pilgrimage crowd from Galilee. To his surprise, Jesus saw him, and addressed him, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come on down. I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus immediately complied with the command of his self-invited guest, “and received him joyfully.”

There is a bit of humanity involved here. Zacchaeus was not only a despised tax collecting agent of an oppressive Roman occupying authority. He was the chief of these agents in that area. If a tax collector was so despised and treated as an outcast by his fellow Jews, one can imagine how unloved the chief agent was. It is no wonder that when befriended by someone, in fact by someone now quite famous, Zacchaeus jumped out of his tree and joyfully welcomed Jesus to his home. Jesus’ usual gaggle of critics was on hand. They grumbled, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” In last Sunday’s Gospel we saw a tax collector put into a class with extortioners and the unrighteous. Yet it was the tax collector who approached God in humble prayer and “went home righteous.” Luke and the Lucan Jesus love the outcast — even the worst of them in the eyes of their contemporaries.

Luke probably intends his description of Zacchaeus’ generous response to a generous Jesus not as a statement of what he had already been doing, but as a moment of conversion. The new man now states his bold resolutions for the future. “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I am giving to the poor. If I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it quadruple.” There is that word “extortion” again in relation to tax collecting, and the evidence indicates it did happen. The determination to quadruple any restitution for extortion is not a free will number grabbed out of the air. It is based on the Torah, a law attributed to Moses in Exodus 22:1, 4, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.” It gets more interesting, “If he cannot make restitution he shall be sold for his theft.  Zacchaeus has become a law-abiding Jew because one merciful Jew cared enough about him to show love for this rich outcast.

Luke wraps up the story of Zacchaeus with a saying attributed to Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The words “salvation has come to this house” indicate that Luke intends this story to be a story of conversion of a man of great wealth who may have done wrong in acquiring some of that wealth. Thus Zacchaeus says, “If I have extorted….” The Lucan Jesus affirms that despite his status as a social outcast, Zacchaeus is a member of the family,”since he too is a son of Abraham.” He is as much entitled as any other Israelite to the blessings promised to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 and repeated throughout Genesis.

Let’s consider some of the negative statements about wealth and wealthy people Luke included in his Gospel “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” 1:53. In contrast to Matthew’s nine Beatitudes, Luke has only four. Corresponding to each of his four he crafts a Woe — a kind of curse. His first Beatitude, “Blessed are you poor….” The corresponding curse, “Woe to you rich, for you have received your consolation.” These negative statements reveal how momentous was Luke’s decision to proclaim through the Lazarus story that wealthy people through proper use of their wealth are also children of God.