5 min. to read.
Today is the 18th day of Lent. I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus this year. For my own practice, I’m journaling on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.
Today we find ourselves reading Luke 19:1-10, the famous children’s story about Zacchaeus, the wee little man. But is it a children’s story?
Religious people love it when a leader affirms what they already believe and find comfortable—honestly, all humans do. We love hearing folks with authority or expertise agree with us.
The opposite is also true. We don’t much like when a leader or expert disagrees with us. Instead of causing us to investigate our beliefs, it merely confirms for us that they are idiots. In the case of religion, it’s even worse. The pastor or leader who disagrees with what we already believe is, at best, misled and may even be a heretic, intent on destroying the faith.
By the middle of Luke’s gospel, Jesus began to experience this. Yes, he was a charismatic teacher who could draw enormous crowds and somehow even provide food and heal the sick, but that couldn’t make up for the way he violated some essential community standards and beliefs. One of those? “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) Table hospitality was a significant marker of blessing and respect in the Ancient Near East. Some folks were uncomfortable, even indignant, that Jesus extended hospitality to those the community had decided were unfit and unwelcome.
The story of Zacchaeus brings this to life. Here was a great sinner in the eyes of the community. He worked closely with the ritually unclean Romans, which made him unclean. He served their imperial purposes, which made him a collaborator with the enemy. He was a tax collector who very likely used his position to enrich himself at his neighbors’ expense. Zacchaeus wasn’t getting invitations to dinner. He wasn’t welcome in the synagogue. He was experiencing the full weight of religious shunning.
Then Jesus came to town. Not only did Jesus see Zacchaeus and take him seriously, but he also said, “I must stay at your house tonight.” I must! Surely there were inns or homes Jesus could stay in that weren’t so controversial? Jesus didn’t start with confrontation. “I’d very much like to stay with you tonight, but before we do that, you need to repent!” Even stranger (at least for a religious leader), he didn’t seem concerned about his reputation or his ministry’s success.
Even so, in the course of his interaction with Jesus, Zacchaeus did repent. Not only did he commit to stop doing what he had been doing, but without prompting, he committed to make reparations! He understood that by taking that money, he had also taken away the opportunity to use that money to make more money. So he paid back what he stole with 400% interest!
The end of the story is fascinating from a modern Christian perspective. Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this household!” Had the gospel of Luke been written by a modern American Evangelical Christian, that sentence could not have been written. There’s no record that Zacchaeus went through some process where he “accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior,” or “invited Jesus into his heart” after confessing his sins and asking for Jesus’ forgiveness. We don’t know the content of Jesus’ and Zacchaeus’ conversation, but we do know that the author of Luke’s gospel felt there was only one thing necessary to show us: a changed life.
What does the text focus us on? Zacchaeus’ commitment to living differently and desire to correct the injury he had caused. Zahnd put it like this: “Salvation didn’t come to Zacchaeus by inviting Jesus into his heart in some abstract way, but by actually inviting Jesus into his real life as it was, and suddenly discovering that because of Jesus he wanted to change his life. Salvation is not a mere change in our status, but a real transformation of our lives.”
If Lent is an invitation to let go of those things that get in the way of an encounter with Jesus, what do I hear? I am both a religious person and a spiritual leader. If I look for myself in this story, where do I see myself?
I could easily be among the indignant crowd, wondering why Jesus is bothering with this self-absorbed hateful man who has robbed so many of their dignity and livelihood. He’s already proven who he is!
I could also be one of the religious leaders concerned that Jesus would throw away his budding reputation and ministry by crossing this boundary. I might wonder if perhaps Jesus was doing the idealistic thing, but knowing how reactive church people can be, I’d be hesitant to say so.
Then after seeing the impact of Jesus’ interaction, the way he treated Zacchaeus with dignity and love, I might be left to wonder. Did this turnaround happen because of something unique to Jesus? Or is it possible that Zacchaeus was this close to changing his life all along if only we had extended a hand of welcome to him?
Lent invites us to stop categorizing people as unable to grow or change. This way is life.