From A Tree To A Throne: The Story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
By Johnny Ramirez-Johnson
How would you feel today if you discovered that the credit card and bank account with all the fees involved you have been paying for some time, after all, was not opened by your spouse, it was a fraud committed by employees of Wells Fargo Bank? Experiencing being taken advantage of is not fun, it's a bummer! In every neighborhood of Palestine they had their local abuser in situ. They were called Tax Collectors. Appointed and exercising the power of the oppressors-of the Roman Empire. Still they knew all neighbors because they were "one of us", we grew together. There was no hiding the income earned from one who knew us from the inside-such was Zacchaeus.
The passage highlighted informs us of the fact that Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name and was addressing him personally and this story has many surprising aspects. I will focus on three of them. As a pastor and professor I have a hard time learning names. So many people call me by my name and then I cannot recall theirs. More often than not I resort to indirect means to address them-"Oh yes we met at the church of..." but their name is missing from my memory, how embarrassing. Jesus knew Zacchaeus more deeply than only recalling and using his name though, he knew of Zacchaeus' personal quest and desires and that is why he invited himself to his house for dinner.
A second aspect of this surprising encounter of fascination to me is the fact that Jesus invited himself for dinner. I have never done such a thing. "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today " (Luke 19:5, NRSV). Staying at his house meant a lot for Zacchaeus, his admired Rabbi Jesus accepted him as a host, he was noticed. Being noticed and accepted are key human needs. Jesus began his work with Zacchaeus at that level.
Would you invite home the Wells Fargo Bank employee who defrauded your spouse? Would you be willing to grant face time with a smile to such an abuser? I can testify to you-I would have many reasons to avoid such an invitation. I would not go to their house and I would not invite them to mine. Someone else can have mercy and show them the Gospel, not me! If you are Jesus, all people have done evil to you, the whole world is in rebellion against the Godhead, including you and me-
"There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one" (Romans 3:10-13, NRSV).
How can Jesus be offering salvation to anyone, to you, or me to Zacchaeus or the bank officer of Wells Fargo today?
The third point of the story that captures my imagination are the concluding words of the story-"Then Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost'" (Luke 19:9-10, NRSV). Zacchaeus indeed felt he was lost, he was an outsider, and he was a sinner, an outcast that had betrayed his own family. Jesus was bold enough to publicly uplift him into membership as a follower, as a son of Abraham, as an equal to his other followers and an equal to any other Israelite.
But Zacchaeus was not an equal to them all. Zacchaeus was a traitor who loved money more than his own soul and relationship with God. Yes, he had done that, but still he was seen by Jesus by his true definition, not what he was but who God made him to be, declared him to be even before any restorative actions had taken place. I am amazed at Jesus restorative powers, he brought Zacchaeus to the family of God with a luncheon and a few words the transformation of the sinner outcast into son of Abraham took place. From a tree to the throne, we all have to travel from a far to gather with Jesus.
For Zacchaeus the road to the throne of mercy where he could be seated with Jesus (Ephesians 2: 6, NRSV "and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus") took him up a sycamore tree planted by the side of a dusty street of his home town to his own home and a banquet in honor of his Rabbi who honored him with his presence and blessing of his company, he had arrived unto the throne.
Arriving like Zacchaeus is the hardest part, prejudice and stigma separate us from one another. When you are John G. Stumpf and the year is 2005, you have just become president of Wells Fargo, it is a good thing for your career. But when the year is 2016 and you have to present in front of Congress to defend your bank-that is a bummer! As American news consumers there are to traits to love about Mr. Stumpf, he represents all we middle class dislike and find gruesome of Wall Street greed. Stumpf's bank created false accounts in order to charge fees to unaware people, these people, for the most part, paid the unjust fees, who were no other than being robbed.
Zacchaeus would have coveted John G. Stumpf bank's strategies. Stealing money indirectly and on an ongoing basis, superb! Zacchaeus could only steal his money face to face and one time at a time. He had to wait for the Roman citizens of Judea and of his particular town to go through the street where he was located, then charge more taxes than were required in order to skim the difference for himself.
What motivated Zacchaeus and transformed him from a neighbor to a financial predator? Greed fed Zacchaeus, greed fed people who are represented by Mr. Stumpf, the head and representative of the Wells Fargo Bank. When back in 2005 Julie Tishkoff, administrative assistant at Wells Fargo Bank, sent letters admonishing the bank's human resources department warning "about what she had seen: employees opening sham accounts, forging customer signatures and sending out unsolicited credit cards" (Stacy Cowley, 10/11/2016, "At Wells Fargo, Complaints About Fraudulent Accounts Since 2005", New York Times, page 1) she was ignored by the bank. Why is it we get carried away with greed?
Greed is burnished in beautiful shines and glitter. It is a way to sustain my family, securing the financial future of my children, after all I am expected to do all I can to be a good provider, am I not? The glitter of pride covers the ugliness of greed, Zacchaeus was able to exploit the people of his town, those he grew up with, because he had motives, he had needs. Don't we all?
What are your needs? As we focus on Zacchaeus and John G. Stumpf we can easily forget our own character deficiencies and rationale for doing what we do. Pushing the limits just a bit, forging a signature, plagiarizing a paper, lying on an application, submitting false recommendation forms... In how many ways we reshape reality to fit our needs?
It is never about doing evil. It is always about the good that will come out of it. The vacations I can pay for my hard working mother who has never been out of Maine, the car I can afford now for my daughter to drive a safe vehicle as she goes to college across the state. The one thousand and one reasons, even the offering I can now give at church. So there we go one more credit card sent out, one more bank account open for the unsuspected client, one more fee to accumulate in benefit of my bonuses and financial perks.
From the greed to the changed experienced by Zacchaeus he always had doubts about what he was doing-but only seeing the face of Jesus and been seated at his home table with him transformed his reality of geed to giving. Zacchaeus said-"Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much" (Luke 19:8, NRSV). Had Zacchaeus defrauded any? We can only assume that he had defrauded many, that was the nature of the work of a tax collector, the reason they were despised by all. He wanted to give back to the poor and make whole those he stole from. When in Congress and responding to the fraud his bank had committed against the unsuspecting American public John G. Stumpf said-"I am sorry." Excuses were presented to burnish the bank's image. Excuses are now apparently disproved by the media research and reporting (as the article of the NYT and other are showing). Why is it that humans have such a hard time acknowledging their faults and shortcomings?
We may think it is about avoiding jail and losing face with peers. We may think it is about maintaining status and keeping our perks in place. The evil of sin corrodes the inner workings of the soul. I have a hard time admitting to my wife when I am wrong and she is right. I have a hard time accepting when I have said something out of place-how about you? I am seeking today the face of Jesus, only he can give liberation to my soul, the power to admit my guilt and embrace his grace and blood as the only way to stand before another human being.
Zacchaeus taught me today, again and again, climb the tree and seek the master's attention and accept his smiling face inviting you to your own home, confess before your peers and restore the wrongs done to others. Lord help me listen and be submissive to your Spirit's leadings, just for today.
Bible Study Questions:
- Would you invite home the Wells Fargo Bank employee who defrauded your spouse? Would you be willing to grant face time with a smile to such an abuser? How does this concept of radical welcome challenge you?
- What are your needs? As we focus on Zacchaeus and John G. Stumpf we can easily forget our own character deficiencies and rationale for doing what we do. Pushing the limits just a bit, forging a signature, plagiarizing a paper, lying on an application, submitting false recommendation forms... In how many ways we reshape reality to fit our needs? What are the little corners you cut and how do they shape you?
- How can Jesus be offering salvation to anyone, to you, or me to Zacchaeus or the bank officer of Wells Fargo today? What does this grace mean and how does it show up in your life?
For Further Reading:
Ramírez-Johnson J. A Way up the Ladder, Motivation Achievement Via Religious Ideology: An Ethnography of A Seventh-day Adventist Puerto Rican Church. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press
Ramírez-Johnson, J.; Hernández, E. I. (2003). AVANCE: A vision for a new Mañana, Foreword by Justo González. Loma Linda, California: Loma Linda University Press.
Johnny Ramírez-Johnson's wide-ranging education began in Puerto Rico with a bachelor's in theology, a minor in biblical languages, and a master's in Hebrew Scriptures and archaeology from Andrews University (Michigan), later complemented with a year's fellowship at the Semitic Museum at Harvard University. This formative study equips him to bring the culture of biblical times into an understanding of Scripture as the basis for Christian mission relevant in a multicultural context. At Harvard he earned a master's and a doctorate, in which he examined how society's discrimination of a historically disadvantaged group of Latinos (Puerto Ricans) was ameliorated and overcome by faith via the social support of the church and the ideology of the gospel. His training in human development and cultural psychology provide theoretical vehicles for reading the Bible from a practical theology perspective that facilitates the gospel's work among the unreached from American inner cities to remote areas of the world.
Two books by Ramírez-Johnson apply the multicultural, intergenerational, and multi-language realities for North American churches in promoting not only love for Jesus but also healthy and holy lifestyles: A Way Up the Ladder, Motivation Achievement Via Religious Ideology: An Ethnography of a Seventh-day Adventist Puerto Rican Church (Edwin Mellen, 2008) and AVANCE: A Vision for a New Mañana (foreword by Justo González; Loma Linda University Press, 2003). In addition, many of his articles deal with the role of culture in church affairs.
Ramírez-Johnson describes himself as a practical theologian working at the intersection of the social sciences (i.e., ethnography as a primary research tool) and theology. Since 1979 he has taught religion/theology full time at two colleges and one university, most recently as professor of religion, psychology, and culture at Loma Linda University (LLU). He has also taught at the Seminario Latinoamericano in San José, Costa Rica.
Regarding his personal faith and resulting service, he says, "I am a convert to Jesus Christ and the truth of the Word of God who followed Jesus under duress; my father persecuted and tried to kill me as I fled home to follow Jesus." He has been involved in planting churches around the world, including Middle America, North America, and Lebanon, and has preached around the world for revivals, evangelism, and church growth.
Ramírez-Johnson holds leadership committee roles at the General Conference for Hispanic Ministries, Chaplaincy and Education, serves as a volunteer chaplain at Saint Bernadine Medical Center, mentors at a local Hispanic church in Loma Linda, and conducts Bible studies and does pastoral care counseling for LLU students and the community. Even prior to joining the faculty, his service has included Fuller Theological Seminary (2002-2006) as a member of the Seminary's Hispanic Advisory Committee.
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