The Gospel of Luke gives us accounts of two meals which bring out the differences that our attitudes can make. One is in Luke, Chapter 7 (Jesus in the Home of Simon the Pharisee) and one is in Luke 19 (The story of Zacchaeus, the Tax Collector).
In the second of these, which we have in the Gospel for today, Jesus invites himself to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Being a tax collector in Judaea in Jesus’ day was nothing like being an employee of the ATO today. To understand why the point is made that Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector (architelones) and a wealthy man, you have to understand the historical context. Firstly, tax collectors were regarded by the Jews as traitors. They were in league with the occupying power, the Romans. Secondly, they were very likely to collect more money than was strictly required, due to the structural features of the Roman tax system. The practice was for the government to sub-contract out the collection of taxes in a particular area to ‘tax farmers’ or telonai. The tax collector would make an advance payment to the state of the “working capital” that he had been contracted to collect. It then became the job of the tax collector to raise this amount from the people, plus sufficient funds to cover his overheads. Except that the tax collectors didn’t usually just cover their overheads. Any excess funds were retained by the tax collectors as profit. Tax collectors were therefore not only wealthy ab initio (because they had the capital to invest in the Roman tax enterprise), but there was a constant temptation to add to their wealth by collecting more than they strictly required. How much is too much, after all? If you want to know how the ordinary people felt about tax collectors in Jesus’ day, consider John Bergsma’s remarks:
[Zacchaeus] was a wealthy tax collector, a social oppressor and collaborator with an oppressive and dictatorial foreign government. How do we feel about drug dealers riding by in black Lexuses and pulling out rolls of $50 bills? How do we feel about former Enron executives now comfortably retired in Aspen? How do we feel about shady political campaign operatives taking millions in donations from foreign governments while manipulating a domestic election? [Gosh, I wonder who he could mean!] The emotions would be similar for the Jews with respect to Zacchaeus.
But what Zacchaeus has in his favour is an interest in Jesus. He feels drawn to him to the point where he is prepared to climb a tree in order to ‘catch a glimpse’ of Jesus as he passes through Jericho. And this tiny movement of Zacchaeus’s heart is enough to set in motion a flow of grace, as Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house.
[Jesus] is thereby requesting the conventional hospitality owed to traveling strangers but without showing the least concern for Zacchaeus’s perpetual ritual impurity due to his immoral and traitorous lifestyle. Perhaps for that very reason, Zacchaeus is so humbled that, when the entourage has reached his home, he announces that he is giving half of his goods to the poor and restoring fourfold to those whom he has defrauded—good signs of genuine repentance (v. 8; cf. John the Baptist’s charge to tax collectors in 3:13, unpacking his call to repentance in 3:2). Jesus’ holiness, not Zacchaeus’s past immorality, has rubbed off on his counterpart. (Craig Blomberg, Jesus, Sinners and Table Fellowship)
I recently heard a homily that implied that when Zacchaeus says ‘if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount’, he didn’t really mean that he had actually cheated anybody, it was just a hypothetical statement. He knew he was really innocent, and it was the bad will of those who would prejudge him that was the real problem in this scenario.
But such an interpretation makes no sense of Jesus’s statement, “Today salvation has come to this house.” And if you look at the Greek, you find that the sentence is in the form of a First Class Condition (i.e. that the premise or protasis is true). [For more on Greek conditional sentences, go here.] As Craig Blomberg says,
If Luke wanted to portray Zacchaeus as promising to restore fourfold anything he has defrauded without believing that he had in fact defrauded anyone, or if he meant to imply “whenever” defrauding of this sort occurs, Luke would have used a third-class (hypothetical) condition.
The other character in our comparison is Simon the Pharisee, who invites Jesus to his house for a meal. For the Pharisees, strict observance of the Mosaic Law and ‘the traditions of the elders’ (Matt 15:1-20) was paramount. The Pharisees are one of the groups for whom Jesus most frequently has harsh words – not because they are legalistic, but because they are legalistic and morbidly self-righteous without the love of God. He says in Luke 11:42 “But alas for you Pharisees, because you pay your tithe of mint and rue and all sorts of garden herbs and neglect justice and the love of God! These you should have practised, without neglecting the others.” So when Jesus has taken his place at table, a woman with a bad reputation enters and in an extravagant display, falls weeping at his feet, kissing them and anointing them with ointment. Simon is horrified that Jesus permits such attention, saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is and what sort of person it is who is touching him and what a bad name she has.’ But Jesus rebukes him, pointing out the several ways in which the woman has shown love and the Pharisee has neglected to show either love or customary good manners.
So what are the essential differences in attitude between the two protagonists, Zacchaeus and Simon, and the events that take place in their houses?
- In both cases, elements of the crowd are shocked. The people complain when they see Jesus wanting to eat with, wait … a tax-collector! Simon complains when Jesus shows no hesitation in receiving the attention of a woman of ill-repute. People are wondering whether Jesus’ keeping company with the unrespectable means that Jesus approves of their behaviour.
- Zacchaeus is open to discovering more about Jesus and readily receives Jesus at his house. Simon, although he has taken the initiative of inviting Jesus, only invites him so that he can point out what he thinks are Jesus’s faults.
- The tables are turned on Simon when it is Jesus who shows Simon where he is failing to perform the social conventions. Zacchaeus , on the other hand, doesn’t need his faults pointed out – he himself calls attention to his greed and extortion.
- Salvation comes to Zacchaeus precisely because of his willingness to recognise and abandon his sin. Simon, on the other hand, is sidelined while the unnamed woman, the woman who has the humility to acknowledge her sinfulness, has her sins forgiven.
Examination of conscience:
- Do I enjoy finding fault with others? Have I asked God to reveal to me the faults I have in myself that I may not be aware of?
- Do I reach out to people with the love of Christ – people who are outside my circle of comfort?
- How interested am I in the person of Jesus? Do I have a living relationship with him?
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