St. Augustine said, “There is no saint without a past and no sinner without a future.”
Last Sunday we encountered a sinful tax collector who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus deemed that sinner “justified” before God because he had humbled himself. Today we meet another tax collector—the CHIEF tax collector no less—and perhaps the chief sinner, a man made rich by ruthlessly, perhaps violently, extorting money from the poor. Jesus invited himself to be a guest in this man’s home, which gave great honor to this pariah of the people. His concern for tax collectors must have puzzled Jesus’ followers, who had most often seen him championing the poor—yet in these instances they had witnessed Jesus honoring those who’d preyed upon the poor.
The “wee little man” Zacchaeus was certainly no saint by any measure of rectitude and kindness. But his one encounter with Jesus transformed the reviled tax collector. At least that’s how the story is usually told.
But it is also possible that Zacchaeus was already undergoing some kind of transformation before Jesus spotted him up in that sycamore tree. After all, why would a wealthy but despised man join the crowd of the sick and the sensation-seekers to glimpse the traveling rabbi? Why would Zacchaeus make the undignified attempt to see Jesus from the branch of a tree if he were not already trying to set aside his status that wealth had bought him. And why would he become thrilled when the controversial rabbi invited himself to dinner? Something was drawing the despised tax collector to Jesus, something like his need for acceptance from his community and from God. Had Zacchaeus heard the story about Jesus’s compassion toward another repentant tax collector? Was it simply that Zacchaeus finally realized that money was a burden when it separated one from community? Was Zacchaeus no longer willing to pay the price . . . of being rich?
Something salvific was at work in his heart. “Zacchaeus” means “pure” or “innocent” in Hebrew. Zacchaeus was born “innocent,” then became notorious, but was eventually saved by Jesus and thus restored to the “house of Abraham.” This pericope concludes with Jesus’s assertion that the “Son of Man ha[d] come to seek out and save the lost.” It may have seemed that Zacchaeus sought out Jesus. But Jesus himself had been looking/was always looking for those sinners who knew they were sinners and therefore were hoping to be “saved.” Shimmying up that tree revealed something about Zacchaes to Jesus. If WE are willing to lose our personal dignity and security, we, too, can be found and saved by Jesus.
A challenge for progressives who don’t toss out the words “sin” and “salvation” very much is that we don’t get “converted” from much, don’t face our own sins very directly, don’t know the release from an honest encounter with self, and don’t feel the healing force of forgiveness. We don’t FEEL “saved” from the minor goofs and the major harms we’ve committed. In last week’s Gospel text, we heard the prayer of a nameless tax collector, and in this week’s lection a chief tax collector named “Innocent” is likewise ready to give up greed, reconnect with his community, and, in Zacchaeus’s case, make restitution.
Zacchaeus’s desire to make restitution makes me think it’s insufficient for descendants of slaveowners just to feel bad about the legacy slavery had on descendants of enslaved people—to name just one current call for restitution. As a descendant from at least one ancestor who bought human beings, I, as an individual, may not be saved from the sin of slavery and its long legacy—-and we as a nation built upon the back of enslaved persons may not find healing–until we can do what Zacchaeus did: stand before the Lord and say, “I will pay back what I took.” Or in our case, “We will in some way make restitution for what our ancestors took from enslaved people and their descendants.” Maybe only then will God say, “Salvation has come to this house”–the same “house” that Abraham Lincoln, quoting scripture, said was “divided” over slavery.
Does it sound peculiar to talk about God’s salvation in these pragmatic, contemporary terms? If so, it’s because we’re conditioned to think of salvation, about which the Bible speaks variously, as a process whereby God uses the shed blood of Jesus on the cross to admit us into an eternity in heaven rather than in hell. And simply believing that Jesus died for your sins is the means of activating that process of salvation and ensuring that “if you were to die tonight, you’d go to heaven.” But friends, in story after Gospel story, Jesus is saving people from disconnection and disease, blindness and rejection, isolation and illness and meaninglessness—in the here and now.
When Jesus “saves” people, he obviously is not “saving” them by presenting the “plan of salvation” and to which they assent in order to reserve a room in heaven. Zacchaeus was not “saved” by being baptized or believing that Jesus died to save him. Jesus’s crucifixion was imminent but had not happened yet. And although we might infer that Zacchaeus had had a change of heart, the story does not suggest he was “saved” because of a shift in his beliefs; instead, he had a change in his behavior (which of course began as a change of heart). But it is when his actions changed that Zacchaeus became a new man and was restored to his right name and his right place in his tribe. In Jesus’s culture, returning to the group was salvation. One had no identity and purpose outside one’s group.
Like the tax collectors, we are both innocent and guilty: innocent in that much of the harm we do is part of the cultural, social, and economic practices we have inherited. Environmental injustice, for instance, is something we are all guilty of because we all participate, sometimes against our will or unwittingly, in harmful actions. We use energy sources that are non-renewable. We pay taxes that fund governmental policies that harm the planet. There is both individual and collective responsibility and guilt, and we pray there is a collective way toward the saving/salvation of this planet.
What happened after Zacchaeus encountered Jesus? After he divested himself of ill-gotten gain? And lost his livelihood and Rome’s patronage? Did the Roman Empire fall?
Of course not. Roman imperialism could not have been reformed or overthrown by a couple of tax collectors quitting the system. In a few decades some Jews would try armed rebellion and sixty years after that another rebellion erupted. Neither of those revolts succeeded. We don’t know the rest of Zacchaeus’s story, but the brutal imperialism of Rome, like climate change today, seemed an intractable predicament.
What will happen to Zacchaeus after he walks away from tax collecting? And what will happen to the people he harmed but later repented of harming? What’s to become of those trapped in this trajectory?
What will happen to those in our time and place who repent of our ancestors’ enslavement of people—-or who repent of our own participation in the degradation of the environment? We may choose to follow Jesus, restoring people to community, resisting the system, and doing what we can to mitigate the harm we’ve done to God’s creation.
St. Augustine said there’s “no sinner without a future.” As a sinner, I want to believe that there is a future not only for me, but for my daughter, not only for my daughter, but for her daughter. I have sinned against this good earth. My group has sinned against God’s good earth. My salvation may be found when I, like Zacchaeus, discover a way to exit a destructive system that demeans those God loves and plunders the earth’s wealth for an elite minority while giving no thought for those on the margins. My salvation is tied up with and is not apart from or against the interconnected community where I live and work and try to contribute.
Zacchaeus was a cog in the big, exploitative Roman Empire. His “retirement” from tax collecting was not going to end the evil empire. Another hungry soul was surely ready to step in to collect the taxes. But eventually that system broke down as the empire overextended its reach and its rulers ignored problems. It would take nearly five hundred more years for Rome to fall completely, and Zacchaeus had nothing to do with its collapse. But for a time Jesus followers and Christian martyrs and an underground movement collectively DID resist the Empire before it morphed into a new form of Empire. At best we see Jesus moments only now and then on any large scale. And often those moments feature the saints making “their lives a light” by exposing the emptiness of the Empire du jour.
If we sum up Zacchaeus’s road to salvation, it looks something like this:
1. First Zacchaeus was willing to leave security and wealth behind.
2. Then he happily welcomed Jesus into his home, into his daily life.
3. Next Zacchaeus ignored the grumblers/critics/those who doubted his motives and any who derided and disparaged him. He changed his life even if others never acknowledged he’d changed.
4. Zacchaeus also gave generously to others and made amends.
5. Finally, he heard Jesus renaming him “son of Abraham,” in effect restoring him to the family of faith.
And the result? Was Zacchaeus reintegrated into the community?
Luke’s Gospel doesn’t say. Maybe it’s up to us to try this saving way of Jesus to find out what is possible.
PRAYER Jesus, even if we can’t hear you inviting yourself into our lives, we can participate in that invitation you extended to Zacchaeus and let your ways in this world save us. Amen