Luke 19 – Zacchaeus Cashes Out

Luke 19 Bible with Green and Blacks Organic Milk Chocolate with Almonds

Today’s Chocolate: Green & Black’s Organic Milk Chocolate with Almonds

Today’s PassageLuke 19

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 as the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree and he said,
Zacchaeus, you come down,
For I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!

So goes the Sunday school song. But if the song were all you knew of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus, you’d be missing all but the barest bones of the story.

To begin with, the song omits that Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman government. Not only that, but he was a high-ranking tax collector, with considerable wealth to his name. His position earned him no favor with his fellow Jews; taxation without representation was the order of the day, and Rome would contract out tax collection in its provinces, allowing hired collectors to line their own pockets or collude with local officials. Jews looked at the tax collectors among their countrymen as sellouts, making a profit by extracting cash from God’s chosen people and sending it to the corrupt pagan Empire. If the crowd tried to actively obstruct Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus, I wouldn’t be surprised.

And by his own admission, Zacchaeus has earned the ire of his Jewish compatriots. He cops to having earned his wealth unjustly, and offers to make reparations: “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (8). He repents! He willingly embraces generosity with his wealth! And his actions find favor with Jesus, who says, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (9-10). As if illustrating Jesus’ teaching about the camel and the needle’s eye and providing a contrasting case for the rich young ruler, here we have a rich man entering the kingdom of God.

Jesus then tells a parable about ten slaves taking care of their master’s fortunes in his absence, which is as good a time as any to bring up the point I alluded to in Monday’s post. In his sermon this past Sunday, the pastor at my church noted that first-century slavery in the Roman Empire wasn’t the same as the dehumanizing, racially-based slavery forming a blight on America’s past, but neither was it analogous to a modern employment arrangement. It occupied a space somewhere in between.

And we see this borne out in Jesus’ parable. The master’s slaves are given considerable responsibility over his estate and ample latitude in managing it; they clearly know how to keep accounts and do business. They function as quasi-employees, and at the end of the parable they have their performance evaluated. And that’s not to paint over the master’s harshness or to suggest that the relationship is necessarily fair–I’m sure the slave who makes no return on the money entrusted to him would have opinions on that point–but the slaves who turn a profit for the master get something out of it. Sometimes men in the ancient world would willingly sell themselves into slavery for a period of time to settle their debts. It may not have been an ideal arrangement, but it certainly beat being thrown into prison, where one couldn’t even earn the money to pay back what one owed.

But back to Luke 19. The chapter ends with Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem, which I was surprised to see coming at us so soon. I guess that’s what I get for spending so much time away from Luke and then resuming in the middle of it. But as Jesus enters the holy city to much acclaim, cleans house in the temple, and draws new levels of rage from the religious leaders, we know this is the beginning of the end.

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