Five years ago, I preached a message on the power of the gospel from Luke 19:1-10. It’s the story of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. As the chief tax collector, he aided in the subjugation and oppression of Israel by the Roman Empire. The fact that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus shows just how despised he was…people refused to let him through the crowds to get a good look at the Messiah passing by.
It was a good message, but I missed something critical in this story.
I missed how socially significant Zacchaeus subsequent actions were after his experience with Jesus…I missed how God was trying to show us in this particular passage that the gospel should not be reduced to just having personal encounter with God, but how that encounter should produce a desire to make things right with our fellow man.
A personal experience with God produces a radical public witness where like Zacchaues we seek to make things right on earth and lift up those on the margins, stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and care for the vulnerable.
In this passage, Zacchaeus is not oblivious to the anger of his people toward him. He was aware that he had done wrong and participated in the oppression of his people. He says… “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!”
This was lavish. This was extravagant giving…what’s interesting is that he offers to give up to four times above what was necessary. The Old Testament law for restitution required returning the amount plus one-fifth (see Leviticus 5:16, Number 5:7). Zacchaeus went FAR beyond the law’s requirements in righting wrongs he had done.
He repaired the breach by providing restitution to heal his impaired public witness. It wasn’t enough for him to have a personal experience with God. That experience compelled him to radically embark on journey to make things right in his community. He showed his repentance to God, by directly repenting to the people that he wronged.
When I first preached about this passage, I focused on his experience with God because I read this text and all of scripture with this individualistic interpretive lens. I was trained in ministry and even in seminary to primarily see the Bible in the light of what it means to the individual.
I didn’t read this passage with a sociological imagination; an imagination that encompasses all the different structures around us that influences us as individuals. Sociological imagination helps us to see where we are socially located. What social frameworks, belief systems, economic and racial histories, and theological legacies we’re a part of, and how all of these things affect us and the larger society.
The story of Zacchaeus is significant because we often think that when we receive grace that just means that we’re all good. I’m forgiven. I’m going to heaven. But the forgiveness of sin, the receiving of God’s grace, the fact that you’ve been set free should compel you to make things right in the world around you. Remember, Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Erna Kim Hackett writes, “When we read Scripture like Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you.” The you is plural and addressed to an entire community of people that has been displaced and are in exile.”
We have to make sure that we don’t read all of scripture through an interpretive lens that reduces everything to individual interactions between God and a person. When that happens, it takes away the impetus and urgency to make things right in our society because most of our bandwidth is used cultivating our own spirituality…more on this later.
I’m Harold Dorrell Briscoe. Thanks for reading.