Height-challenged Zacchaeus gets high marks from Jesus, not just for climbing that sycamore tree, and not just for taking up the itinerant rabbi’s wish to dine and stay at his house, but most of all for agreeing to give half of his possessions to the poor and repaying four times the amount he had defrauded anyone as the chief tax collector.
Seems commendable enough, on Jesus’ part, since the contribution to the poor exceeds the tithe five times over and voluntary restitution for fraud required only a payment of 20 percent over the amount in question. (See Leviticus 6:5 and Numbers 5:7.)
These benevolent actions, seemingly, were more than enough to convince Jesus that Zacchaeus’ conversion was genuine and more than sufficient to restore the diminutive chief tax collector to “in-good-standing” status as a “son of Abraham.”
But we still need to ask: did the morally compromised Zacchaeus manage, as usual, to shortchange Jesus and all those others in Jericho, who were descendants of Sarah and Abraham?
Sure, he made some generous gestures to signal his personal conversion. But did Zacchaeus do anything at all to change the evil economic system of which he was a crucial part? Nothing in this story from the 19th chapter of Luke suggests that he went anywhere near that far.
Zacchaeus, after all, wasn’t just a chump collector of taxes for the Roman empire; he was the employer of those lower-level, on-the-ground chumps who were in the risky business of putting a strong arm on people of little means to pay their many-times unfair tax assessments. Holding the title of chief tax collector, Zacchaeus had friends in high places, even if he was rightly despised by his fellow Jews in Jericho.
Would it have been too much to expect that a truly converted Zacchaeus do something – actually perform something – to make the political-economic system he was so much a part of more just? Would it have been too much to expect that a truly converted Zacchaeus do something – actually perform something – to ease the pressure on his lower-level employees and the burden of the tax load on his fellow residents of Jericho?
I at least want to entertain the idea that Jesus let Zacchaeus off too easily, certainly not for his short stature nor his shortness of generosity, but for his shortness of performance in the use of power to achieve greater justice.
OK, I grant that I’m applying 21st century standards to first century situations. And, yes, that’s unfair on my part to both Jesus and Zacchaeus. Neither actually had the means to reform a political and economic system so full of injustice.
But is the reverse unfair?
Is it fair and appropriate to apply first century biblical standards of justice to our 21st century economic and political situations? Wouldn’t it be entirely legitimate, that is, to expect of us who, unlike Jesus and Zacchaeus, have the means through our democracy to bring about political and economic change to advocate for a just tax system as part of being followers of that itinerant rabbi?
That would mean advocating for a tax system that, according to biblical standards, doesn’t favor the rich and disfavor the non-rich and poor, and a tax system that supports government services that promote the flourishing of everyone.
As the midterm elections approach, I’m not hearing much of that kind of public witness from Christians for a just tax policy in our nation.
Instead, there seems to be a roar of approval for reductions in taxes, however unequally those reductions would actually apply and without concern for those who would be hurt by the curtailing of government services.
Instead, the very corporations and financial institutions that were recently rescued by taxpayer bailouts are now funding candidates who would reverse the regulatory policies that would reduce the chances of a recurrence of the nation’s financial collapse.
Instead, with the protection of a Supreme Court ruling that permits corporate interests to give unlimited amounts of money to their preferred candidates without disclosure, massive sums of money are being funneled to candidates who will protect those corporate interests.
And then there is an administration that, given the choice, elected to shore up the existing banking and financial industries of the nation and the world rather than undertake fundamental economic reforms, rather than tackle huge infrastructure problems of the nation, and rather than work immediately for full employment of the nation’s people.
It might be unfair, given their circumstances, to take Zacchaeus and Jesus to task for not going far enough in terms of what is at stake, performance-wise, in God’s salvation of our lives.
But whatever our own physical stature or philanthropic standing, we are without excuse if we, as followers of Jesus, come up short in our own justice-seeking performance.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.