Zaccheus had a good job. He was one of the few who prospered in the Roman Empire. He's not the kind of guy who usually turned out to hear the radical anti-Empire preacher Jesus.
A bit of background for this section of Luke's gospel (Luke 19): in this earlier time of wealth disparity, the Romans control the wealth. They are the 2% at the top of the Mediterranean world economy who acquire and control 2/3 of the wealth produced by the rural peasants of the region. Jesus, as we know, speaks for the ones at the bottom. And Zaccheus is all ears.
Zaccheus, as a tax collector, would not have been one of those in the top 2%, nor was he in the bottom: Zaccheus was a member of the retainer class, about another 8 % of the Mediterranean population of merchants and soldiers and priest and functionaries who supported the ruling elite.
Zaccheus would not have been one to care about the concerns of the 90 % who served the empire; he was there to benefit from them, collecting their taxes for Rome, padding on a little extra for himself. He had great job security in working for the Empire.
But then he starts listening to this Jesus. Maybe he's been hearing about the new life that Jesus invites his listeners to enter. Maybe he is wondering about that new kingdom he's heard about. Maybe he is beginning to question the kingdom he serves, the empire. Maybe he feels that he's backed into a corner, he's had enough, he's up a tree. We don't know. We just get Luke's story in outline about this short little man who climbs up in a tree so that he can see Jesus enter Jericho.
He makes this one move to see Jesus, and his life turns upside down. Jesus sees him up there in the sycamore, and throws out a radical challenge. Jesus says he will eat with him. He will break all the political and social rules about who could eat with whom, and he will come to dine at the table of a despised collaborator, one who collects the taxes that keeps the boot of Rome on the neck of Israel.
Zaccheus responds in kind; he goes way overboard and promises from this day forward to give away half of his goods to the poor. And furthermore, he offers to make good fourfold on the money he has stolen from his compatriots.
And that kingdom that Zaccheus might have wondered about, that life with God? It's right here, Jesus announces, right now.
"Salvation has come to this house"--this is what the kingdom looks like, this is how it is with God. The lost, the miserable ones, up a tree like little Zaccheus, are welcomed, no matter what they've done, no matter who they are. All gather around the same dining table. The new reign of God says God cares for the least among us, cares with profligate generosity.
With this news, Zaccheus' heart breaks, it breaks right open and a new way of living breaks in. He learns how to love.
Look at crazy Zaccheus-he gets it-giving away half of everything, challenging the very system that's made him rich; who would have predicated it? That looks like salvation, i.e. a life lived in love, a life lived with God.
That's a sign for us, too. We live out our love for God, we answer God's love for us, God's profligate, abundant, crazy love, in our love for one another. And love, in the public realm, is justice.
So what will that love look like this week where you live and vote and bring your faith into the public square?
Echoes from the Edge
By Richard Burden, 2012-13 Beatitudes Fellow - October 28th, 2013
St. James Episcopal Church in Prestonsburg, Kentucky has about a dozen faithful folks who show up on Sunday morning. They have a part-time priest (a former Roman Catholic nun and sister of the Mt. Tabor Dwelling Place Monastery). They have a budget of less than $20,000. By most standards, St. James is not a terribly successful church. Fortunately, we are to be measured by our faithfulness rather than by our success. And blessed are those in Prestonsburg, because these faithful few also have a food pantry, and every week they feed around 150 families in the city of Prestonsburg which sits deep in Appalachia, and in one of the poorest counties in the US.
For the past four years I've lived and worked in the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington which covers the eastern half of the state of Kentucky-we have bluegrass horse country and we have the coalfields of Appalachia. Poverty is not always the easiest thing to measure, but no matter how you count it Kentucky and Appalachia far too often rise to the top of the bottom. Of the 100 counties in the US with the lowest per capita income 16 of them are in Kentucky. Of the 100 counties with the lowest median household income, Kentucky has 29-the most of any state. Twenty of those counties are located in the Diocese of Lexington. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission unemployment is stuck above 10% throughout the region; and in the poorest regions the percentage of people living in poverty is often close to 25%. Yet, Appalachia is out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. Last year, as I took several bishop candidates around the diocese a number of them remarked how much the region reminded them of a third-world country. If you need an opportunity to encounter those Jesus was addressing in the Beatitudes, come on down.
I've been reflecting on this, because the other day a parishioner reminded me that January will mark the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson declaring (in his first State of the Union Address) an "unconditional war on poverty in America." Fifty years later you can find innumerable websites, pundits, and talking heads who will outline the failures of "The War on Poverty." Yes, some things have gotten better; and no, many things have not, and those whom Jesus reminds us over and over again are blessed are still very much with us. Appalachia was a focus for the Johnson Administration, and fifty years on it is one of too many regions of the country where poverty continues to be a grinding, daily issue. Reducing and cutting federal programs that were initiated in the mid 60s will undoubtedly make things worse. Yet I believe it's also true that large federal programs are not the only solution.
Richard is minister-in-charge at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky
Finally, the Poet
By Pedro Arrupe, S.J. - October 28th, 2013
Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the moring, what you will do with your evenings,
how you will spend your weekends,
what you read,
who you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything."