Magazine article The Christian Century

A Festive Repentance

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Festive Repentance

Article excerpt

THE STORY of Zacchaeus re minds us that comic rogue and rascals are perched On the branches of the church, family tree. Zacchaeus is a compact mix of familiar ingredients in the odd concoction of sainthood: crooked winsome, dogged, reckless, wildly generous and splendidly unself-conscious. Somewhere in the movement from a tree to a table, in the presence of Jesus, he claims the gospel's twin gifts of grace and justice.

Both of the Hebrew Bible readings paired with this text are concerned with justice. One laments that "justice never prevails" (Hab. 1:4). The other is an ultimatum: "Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice" (Isa. 1:16f.). Zacchaeus becomes an answer to the first cry and an illustration of the second. And he suggests the flavor of justice. It is not the chalky, bitter pill that so much of our preaching on justice imparts, it is savory as a feast, generous as hospitality, joyous as hurrying down a tree to go home with a Friend.

Clearly, Luke wants us to like Zacchaeus, and we do. Initially, we think we're not supposed to like him; he is "rich," and Luke's news about the rich is consistently bleak. They are the ones sent away empty, the doomed, the fools, the heartless, the ones less likely to enter God's dominion than a camel is likely to squeeze through a needle's eye. Though by now we know that tax collectors are welcomed by Jesus, Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, a godfather in the tolltaker mafia, a powerful, filthy-rich parasite. We should recoil, but Luke won't let us. He makes us see Zacchaeus as an individual--gives us his name, shows us that he is short, shows him so eager to see Jesus that he clambers up a tree. Walter Rauschenbusch likened this to a corporate executive shinnying up a telephone pole. As a filmmaker you'd give this part to Danny DeVito. Zacchaeus may not have a camel-through-a-needle's-eye chance of getting past God's door, but it's not for being unlovable. In him we understand what Jesus saw in another rich man (Mark 10:21), one who didn't make it.

Jesus seems playful with Zacchaeus. He stands under the tree, peering up through the leaves yoohooing his name. The "hurry" in "Hurry and come down" is a nice touch, especially from one who is inviting himself over for dinner. It sounds a little like one child saying to another, "Let's go play at your house." So Zacchaeus hurries, tumbles (falls?) out of the tree, "happy to welcome him." And off they go, side by side, the crook and the Christ, walking to a table.

At some point on the way to or during this feast Zacchaeus rises--uncoerced, unadmonished and unprompted--and commits himself to doing justice. …

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