Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A nasty man

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C                                                                          
Luke 19:1-10

People who have been bullied over the years may become bullies and abusers themselves.  The Gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector”.  Luke is here describing a nasty man in nasty employment.  “Tax farming” was standard practice in Jesus’ time and the job of collecting taxes was outsourced to men who were thugs or who at least had thugs in their retinue.   Of course they added a percentage for themselves.  They were opportunists and bullies in the pay of oppressive powers (the Romans in Judea or the Herodians in the Galilee).  

It might come as no surprise then, given my opening statement, that St Luke further describes Zacchaeus as being “short in stature” - “a wee little man” as the children’s song goes.  One could editorialize the whole episode and see a lifetime’s worth of  payback against his own community - the slow working out of a well-developed grudge.  He remains an outsider but now a powerful and dangerous outsider.  



The story hinges around Jesus’ shouted command to Zaccheus up a Sycamore tree, where he listens to the sermon from a safe but privileged vantage point.  “Zacchaeus!”, Jesus shouts.  “Come down!”.  The community’s (and perhaps the reader’s) expectation is that Jesus will now confront and damn the unloveable traitor and exploiter of the people.  Charismatic leaders do that with bullies - they confront them.  Win or lose they will not leave them unchallenged.  


Jumping to the end of the story, one finds the onlookers robbed of a bloody confrontation and a satisfying denouement.  Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a form of confrontation but one which leaves the hated man unbloodied.  There has been no fatal blow.   The “righteous” expectations of the community are unsatisfied.  


What does it mean to be confronted by love, convicted by kindness, bowled over by opportunity or bashed over the head by a second chance?    Any other response on Jesus’ part would merely have confirmed Zacchaeus in his distance from God.  Jesus appears to be interested in change more than he is in damnation.  This interest in the “lot of sinners” is the tax collector’s only hope.   It is the only hope of the gathered onlookers in this story.   It is also the only hope of the contemporary readers of my imperfect retelling of this story.  Our interest in the perfect justice of God might be ideological or even theological.  Our interest in his blessed mercy is intensely personal.