This week’s reading is a Sunday school children’s favorite — the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus.
It is also a biblical text that upended my understanding of gratitude.
In today’s musing, there’s an excerpt from Gratefulabout Zacchaeus. At the very bottom of this post, there’s a 22-minute lecture I presented for TheoEd about Zaccheaus and radical gratitude.
Read, listen, or both — and embrace a grown-up version of the Zacchaeus story.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
This selection adapted from Grateful comes from chapter 8, “Circles of Gratitude.”
* * * * *
One of the first Bible stories I remember hearing in Sunday school was the story of Zacchaeus, a short man who climbed up in a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus passing by. It is a popular story for children, especially since it was turned into a song that captures the tale in a few catchy lines:
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 and said, Zacchaeus,
You come down,
For I’m going to your house today!
While the charming song focuses on Zacchaeus’ stature, the actual story in the Gospel of Luke emphasizes something else.
Zacchaeus, a Jew, was also a chief tax collector and a very rich man. He earned that position by collaborating with Roman authorities and was a traitor to his own people. His neighbors hated him.
This is a deeply political story, one of the most trenchant social critiques of Roman patronage quid pro quo — a system of economic exchange and obligatory gratitude —in the New Testament. Indeed, in his encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus reveals a conflict between the Roman understanding of gratitude and an alternative vision of thanksgiving. It is a confrontation between Jesus and Caesar, as represented by Zacchaeus.
Since Zacchaeus was a Jew, there was only one way for him to become wealthy. In lands that the Romans conquered, they offered some political positions at auction to local inhabitants. The tax collectors were the main agents of the patronagesystem. It was a good job. While governors ensured that peace and order flowed down from the Emperor, tax collectors made sure that cash came up from the provinces to pay the military and enrich the noble classes in the imperial city. Tax collectors guaranteed the Empire worked and that its benefits reached those at the top.
As a subjugated person, you could essentially buy your way into higher status in the Roman system by being a tax collector, the most despised (and most necessary) of imperial middlemen. You would get rich because you were allowed to take your skim of the profit as the money headed to Rome.
However, those beneath you in social standing – who paid onerous amounts of tribute monies – hated you. Those above you who worried you might be taking more than your fair share distrusted you. For tax collectors, being unpopular was as certain as wealth. But you had the security of Caesar.
That is how Zacchaeus got rich. He knew how to play the game. He was – quite literally – a climber. He had made it. He was not a “wee little man.” Zacchaeus a big man: Chief Tax Collector, Jericho.
It should be no surprise that when Jesus came to town Zacchaeus would want to see him and try to figure this fellow out. Was Jesus the promised Messiah who would send the Romans packing? That would have been bad for business. Maybe he worried that Jesus would inspire rebellion.
The crowds were huge on the day Jesus entered Jericho, and Zacchaeus (who was a short man) could not see. He needed to be aware of anything that could threaten his position. So, he did what he always did – he got in front of everyone else by climbing up above them.
This is not a charming children’s story. This is a story about the guy who cuts in line, cheats on tests, and stuffs the ballot box in order to become class president.
When Jesus passed the tree, he looked up and saw Zacchaeus. Able to read the hearts of people, Jesus did not see a jolly fellow tangled in sycamore branches. He saw Zacchaeus, an agent of the Roman overlords.
And what did he say?
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down!” Get out of that tree! Come down now! Then, he added, “For I must stay at your house today.” Jesus called him down, ordering him to stand as equals on the ground, and then invited himself to dinner.
A shocked Zacchaeus “hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” But the crowds watching this encounter were angry. Jesus was a lower status person, and a good Jew. Lower status people never invited their superiors to a meal. The whole structure of society was based upon elites doing favors for those beneath them to secure loyalty. In normal circumstances, Zacchaeus should have invited Jesus to his home. If Jesus accepted Zacchaeus’ hospitality (which was unlikely), then Jesus owed Zacchaeus a debt of gratitude, an obligation to repay what had been extended him. That, however, would have undermined Jesus’ spiritual authority with the crowds who followed him. They didn’t want a rabbi to have anything to do with this collaborator.
But Jesus undermined this whole tit-for-tat business by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus offered the gift of his presence to one who did not deserve it. This made Zacchaeus not a benefactor, but a beneficiary of a gift. According to Roman practice, Zacchaeus owed Jesus something. Out of his sense of gratitude, Zacchaeus promised to give away half of his wealth to the poor and pay back all those whom he defrauded four times as much as he skimmed. Ultimately, it would have been impossible to give back this much money. Zacchaeus promised to bankrupt himself.
In effect, he resigned his position. There is no way Zacchaeus could have remained a tax collector. He got out of the tree – extricating himself from the pyramid structure of debt-and-duty. In response, Jesus proclaimed: “Today salvation – healing and wholeness – have come to this house!”