Sermon: Zacchaeus, Redistribution and Salvation

By Joanna Shenk

This is the fifth sermon in a Lenten series called Capitalism: A Bible Study.

Luke 19:1-10

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Clarence Jordan Symposium in Americus, Ga. The symposium marked 75 years since the founding of Koinonia Farm, which was the first interracial community in the South. Clarence Jordan was one of the founders of Koinonia and he was a friend Dr. Vincent Harding.

Those who joined the community committed to four principles of community life:

1. Treat all human beings with dignity and justice
2. Choose love over violence
3. Share all possessions and live simply
4. Be stewards of the land and its natural resources

When the community was founded in the 1940s it was unlawful for black people and white people to sit down together in Georgia. They could be standing next to each other, but they couldn’t sit down to share a meal or conversation or anything. In the 1950s the community got a lot of threats, their produce stand was dynamited and they experienced the terror of drive-by shootings at the hands of white neighbors.

The symposium was held at the First Baptist Church and the First Methodist Church in Americus, which was a moving experience. In 1965, deacons at First Baptist removed a mixed-race group of Koinonia members from a Christmas service. In the fall of 1968, congregants at First Methodist blocked the church doors to prevent African Americans, Clarence Jordan and others from entering.

Earlier that year (in 1968) Clarence Jordan partnered with a Millard Fuller (a millionaire who had divested his wealth), to create what would later become Habitat for Humanity.

Originally it was called “The Fund for Humanity,” and was to be money held collectively, that would birth partnership industries, partnership farming and partnership housing. “What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but coworkers,” Clarence said. “And what the rich need is a wise, honorable, and just way of divesting themselves of their over-abundance.”

This quote from Clarence Jordan was shared a few different times during the conference and it made me think of the study we’ve been doing during Lent. He and others who started the Fund for Humanity recognized that overabundance was related to poverty. To solve the realities of poverty we need to look at the systems that allow for vast amounts of wealth to be generated.

In his book, “Religion, Theology and Class,” Joerg Rieger makes the observation that class realities are not fixed, but rather relational and dynamic. This means that a dominant class requires a subordinate class. You can’t have one without the other.

And contrary to the messaging that exists in this country about poor people being parasites and draining resources (through welfare programs, etc.), Rieger makes the argument that it’s actually the capitalist system itself that is parasitic, draining the life from humanity, creatures and the earth. It is a resource extraction economy. Extraction of human resources and the earth’s resources to make as much money as possible.

With this backdrop let’s turn to the scripture text for today, where we encounter a rich man, Zacchaeus. I’m guessing some of you know the children’s song (so let’s get it out of the way), “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he… he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And when the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree, And said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today! For I’m going to your house today!’ ”

But as you heard alluded to in the children’s story, that might not be the most accurate translation. According to biblical scholar, Ched Myers, it could actually mean that Zach was young. In every other instance that this Greek work is used in the New Testament it is translated as young, not short.

As we’ve been learning during the Lent series the biblical text has an explicit class analysis. We’re not reading that into text. The fact that Zach was young and wealthy, would be communicating that he probably inherited some of his wealth. Jesus and the people in his movement would have known this about Zacchaeus. They would have recognized that in addition to inheritance, he was also wealthy due to his unjust extraction of taxes from the poor. But there was nothing they could do about it, other than despise him. Zacchaeus had the muscle of Rome to back him up.

Zacchaeus would have been aware of this loathing and nonetheless he was interested in Jesus’ movement. And much to the chagrin of the people in his movement, Jesus is also interested in Zach.

According to Myers, Zacchaeus’ elevated position in the tree was again not about his height but about his social location. So asking Zacchaeus to come down out of the tree was alluding to the powerful coming down from their thrones, as Mary sang about in the Magnificat. And then Jesus goes a step further and says, “I want to hang out with you.”

I would imagine this was confusing to Jesus’ friends because just before in Luke’s narrative he was talking with another rich man who realized he wasn’t able to join the movement. We talked about that story a few weeks ago.

Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes Jesus to come to his house and by extension invites all the movement people that Jesus has with him. This was a courageous step for Zach seeing as he knew this group was skeptical of him, to say the least. Myers reflects that “for those trapped in the insular bubble of Affluenza, encounter with the poor is the first step to liberation.”

And then Zacchaeus makes an even bolder statement. He says “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay them back four times as much.”

“He has correctly perceived,” Myers writes, “that Jesus is interested in more than hospitality, and more than a personal change of heart. This response stands in stark and stunning contrast to Luke’s previous [story about the rich man.] Luke shared the widespread assumption in antiquity that the rich become so by stealing from the poor ”

Whereas the rich man wanted to enter the kingdom of God based on his piety and personal following of the commandments, Jesus points out to him that it’s about giving up the means of exploitation and therefore a redistribution of wealth back to those from whom it was stolen.

Zacchaeus gets this and Jesus accepts him immediately. Jesus declares that salvation has come to his house, that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham and that he, Jesus, has come to seek and save the lost. Salvation is not associated with a personal belief in Jesus, but rather in a redistribution of wealth.

This is theme throughout Luke’s gospel… that Jesus stands with the poor because they are treated as less than human, and challenges the rich because they are inhumane, blinded by privilege and power.

“True compassion,” Dr. King says, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, “True conversion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

I also appreciate this point that Eric made as he was preparing for Adult Education this week. He wrote, “I think we have a beautiful case for Jesus’ revolutionary love. What this teaches us is that there is always hope and that Jesus models this openness to people whom the movement will understand objectively as traitors. Jesus reaffirms the existential character of the kingdom order; that all humans are welcome, that change is always possible.”

Also, did anyone notice that Zacchaeus did not give up being a tax collector? This points to the possibility that he could continue to be a tax collector in a way that did not exploit others. I think this also offers us a lot of hope. Indeed we are people also living in a system that is extractive and exploitative and we’re seeking to embody something different.

Jesus’ movement was inclusive in this way… challenging the assumptions of the movement people about who was welcome and recognizing that Zacchaeus, as a tax collector, could be in solidarity.

In what ways in our professional and vocational work are we challenging extraction and exploitation, and modeling a different way? Some of us may be called to do this from within institutions of power while others of us are called to organize with and as those who are dispossessed. In either case it is about building the power of people collectively to create the world we need.

This is what made the early Anabaptist so subversive… they had collective power to challenge unjust, and they would have said “sinful,” hierarchies. They believed that the bible and the land and wealth should all be held in common, similar to the people at Koinonia Farm. 

This collective power is also what made Dr. King a threat and the Poor People’s Campaign he was creating. The platform of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 called for three things:

  • a $30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty
  • Congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation [a guaranteed annual wage]
  • Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eliminated

In the case of the Anabaptists and the case of the Poor People’s Campaign, the subordinate class was saying, “we’re not going to play by the rules of the dominant class anymore.”

In 1967 Dr. King talked about the power of this new and unsettling force. He said, “The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty…There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…”

May we continue to discern together what it means for us to be a part of this unsettling force. May we not be surprised by the opposition we encounter. May we practice the revolutionary and inclusive love of Jesus. And may we do so joyfully, following the example of our brother Zacchaeus.

Amen and may it be so.