For freedom, Christ has set us free

Sunday 31C19
Gospel Commentary
for smart phones and tablets

3 November 2019


Gospel
Luke 19:1   He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Initial observations

This attractive story—especially appealing to children—is found only in Luke’s Gospel. It is given an important place in the journey narrative, at the point where the road heads upwards towards Jerusalem. The matching first reading from Wisdom profiles the related theme of mercy but there are many more links, which the alert reader will notice.


Kind of writing
This is, apparently, a simple anecdote about Jesus. However, it contains a major surprise (Jesus’ dining in the house of a sinner) and a shift in focus (from Zacchaeus seeking Jesus to God seeking the lost through Jesus). Furthermore, as a plot of action, the story centres on a problem: how might the vertically challenged Zacchaeus get to see Jesus? The strategy succeeds beyond expectations: he not only gets to see Jesus but to welcome him into his home. As a plot of character, we witness a story of conversion (metanoia), going well beyond the Old Testament requirements on restitution (see above). Finally, as a plot of knowledge, the objection raised to Jesus’ welcoming a sinner triggers a clear teaching: Jesus came to seek out and save the lost without distinction, going beyond the limits set in all religions by the conspicuously pious.

The very last verse generalises the teaching and shifts the focus of the story. The continually moving “camera angles” of the story are part of the secret of its rich resonance and a good example of Luke the master storyteller. Above the level of story, the words used serve to gather in significant teachings in this Gospel (see the comment below).

Old Testament background

Restitution
When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft. (Exodus 22:1) …or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realise your guilt. (Leviticus 6:5)

The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged. (Numbers 5:7)

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (2Samuel 12:5–6)

New Testament foreground

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:34–37)

St Paul
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27–29)

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2Corinthians 9:6–9)

Brief commentary

Verse 1 Luke has brought forward the story of the blind man (18:35-43), which in Mark takes place as Jesus is leaving Jericho, in order to give a prominent place the Zacchaeus story.
Verse 2 Chief tax collectors paid the Romans in advance and were regarded as especially rapacious because whatever “extra” came in was theirs for the keeping. However, a kind of ambiguity hangs over the story because, while the rich are regularly lambasted (Luke 6:24; 12:16; 14:12; 16:1, 19, 21–22; 18:23, 25; 19:2; 21:1), tax collectors get a fairly good press in Luke’s story (Luke 3:12; 5:27, 29–30; 7:29, 34; 15:1; 18:10–11, 13). For example, the evangelist has just told the story of the publican and the Pharisees (Luke 18:9-14).
Verse 3 The fact that he was “trying to see” links Zacchaeus with the story of the blind man, just told. The “crowd” is beginning to get in the way and this subtly signals their growing disenchantment with Jesus, leading eventually to their siding with those who want to have Jesus done away with. The word for stature is rare, but see Eph 4:11-13, where it signals growth into Christ.
Verse 4 In this culture, an important figure running is always something of a shock (see Luke 15:20). He surmounts cultural shame by climbing the tree.
Verse 5 An observant Jew would be aware that entering the house of a sinner would incur ritual impurity (one major shock in the story). Today is the present moment of salvation in Luke (Luke 2:11; 4:21; 5:26; 19:5, 9; 23:43).
Verse 6 The tension of the plot of action comes to rest. Joy, happiness in believing, is strongly emphasised in Luke (as a verb: 1:14, 28; 6:23; 10:20; 13:17; 15:5, 32; 19:6, 37; as a noun: Luke 1:14; 2:10; 8:13; 10:17; 15:7, 10; 24:41, 52).
Verse 7 This is the first of three reactions to the story and it leads to an insight into the ministry of Jesus.
The grumbling is significant. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). In our story, it is not just the Pharisees and the scribes who grumble but “all”, that is, the crowd.
Verse 8 “Stood” and “said” remind us of the Pharisee and the publican. Zacchaeus’ conversion is expressed in two ways. First of all, he simply gives away half his possessions. Luke takes up this theme of possessions (Luke 12:15, 33, 44; 14:33; 19:8; Acts 2:45; 4:32) and the poor (Luke 4:18; 6:20; 7:22; 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; 18:22; 19:8; 21:3) “Half” is in tension with another sentence in this Gospel: So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions (Luke 14:33). Secondly, he goes way beyond the legal minimum for restitution (see above).
Verse 9
Note the repetition of “today”. Salvation means a range of experiences in Luke, from physical healing to the gift of eternal life and entry into the Kingdom of God. Here, it means Zacchaeus has joined the community of the saved in spite of the protests of the “devout”. Cf. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Abraham is a more important figure for Luke than for either Matthew or Mark (7-1-15), perhaps revealing a link with the Pauline traditions.
Verse 10 Seeking and finding are found strongly in Luke’s chapter 15:4–6, 8–9, 24, 32. The word for lost shifts considerably in meaning across the Gospel (Luke 4:34; 5:37; 6:9; 8:24; 9:24–25; 11:51; 13:3, 5, 33; 15:4, 6, 8–9, 17, 24, 32; 17:27, 29, 33; 19:10, 47; 20:16; 21:18). Because it can mean both lost and destroyed, Jesus himself eventually joins the destroyed and the lost.


Pointers for prayer

1. Zacchaeus showed himself open to the call of Jesus, to the surprise of his contemporaries who thought there was no good in tax collectors. Sometimes the people who give us lessons in goodness may be people we previously disregarded. Recall when this happened for you.
2. It was the eagerness of Zacchaeus to see what kind of a man Jesus was that opened him up to conversion. When you consider moments of change in your life what were the interests or desires that prepared you for change?
3. The decision of Jesus to eat in the house of Zacchaeus broke the social norms of his day and scandalised those who saw him. When have you found table fellowship a useful way of breaking down artificial boundaries between people?


Prayer

Just and merciful God, true Lord of every house, sure delight of every heart, come into our midst today to speak your word and satisfy our hunger.

Enable us to see you clearly, to welcome you with joy and to give justice and mercy a place in our lives.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Thought for the day

Change is not an option because nothing remains the same. What is optional is how we respond to change. The Christian project—so apparently static and settled—is actually about the most revolutionary change which we call conversion. Conversion does not mean improving this or that in my life but resetting my whole compass. Jesus’ foundational teaching is the invitation to convert and believe the Good News. For each of us, this is possible only because of our encounter with Jesus himself. Only in the light of that personal encounter does discipleship make sense; only in the light of personal relationship is true conversion of heart possible at all.

Prayer

Father, you call us to live and to change. May we hear the call to conversion, so as to live life abundantly.