A Camel Through a Needle: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Twenty-First Week after Pentecost
Twenty-First Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 19:1-10
1) Jesus and his entourage are traveling through Jericho, a town just outside of Jerusalem. By the end of this chapter, he’ll at last arrive in the Holy City - the destination toward which he “set his face” ten chapters ago (Luke 9:51).
2) Located on a major trade route, Jericho was an important customs center - and so it makes sense that the “chief tax collector” would live there (Luke 19:2). The term “chief” indicates that Zacchaeus managed a sizable group of officials, many of whom would collect imperial taxes on trade goods. They’d pay the Empire up front, and then collect taxes in excess of those payments (sometimes in significant excess) to make their living.
3) Understandably, as we saw last week, tax collectors in first-century Palestine had rotten reputations: many Jews considered them corrupt traitors, both helping the Romans and enriching themselves in the process. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, when tax collectors ask John the Baptizer what they should do, he admonishes them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” - implying widespread extortion, or at least the appearance thereof (Luke 3:13). But on the other hand, according to Luke, Jesus frequently eats with tax collectors, recruits one to his inner circle of disciples, and argues that they deserve mercy through some of his most famous parables, including the so-called “Prodigal Son” and last week’s story of two contrasting prayers (Luke 5:27-32; 15; 18:9-14). For Luke, tax collectors are quintessential lost sheep rescued by the Good Shepherd - a theme that culminates in this week’s story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2).
4) But Zacchaeus also represents another group that figures frequently in Luke - and by no means so sympathetically. Zacchaeus, Luke reports, “was rich” (Luke 19:2). From Mary’s Magnificat to Jesus’ “woe to you who are rich” to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Luke repeatedly underscores the dangerous burden of wealth (Luke 1:46-55; 6:24; 16:19-31). Indeed, in the passage between last week’s reading and this week’s, Jesus encounters a “rich ruler” who declines discipleship because he cannot bring himself to sell all he owns and “distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:22). “‘How hard it is,’” Jesus laments, “‘for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God’ (Luke 18:24-27).
5) Finally, another ongoing theme in Luke is the tangible, here-and-now immediacy of salvation, a notion emphatically expressed through the single word, semeron, “today.” In Luke’s Christmas story, for example, the angels sing to the shepherds, “to you is born this day [semeron] in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). At the outset of his public ministry, Jesus declares, “Today [semeron] this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). On the cross, Jesus says to a thief, “Today [semeron] you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). And in this week’s passage, the same word shimmers with its urgent, present power: “Today [semeron] salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
1) As we saw last week, Jesus has just taught his followers that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17). And here, in this week’s story, a rich tax collector - someone we might expect to be rather dour - acts in a way typically associated not with serious adults but rather with playful children. He “runs ahead,” evoking the equally undignified running of the father in the “prodigal” parable (Luke 15:20). And then he scampers up a sycamore tree - all so he can lay eyes on Jesus. Imagine a local authority - a sheriff or a bureaucrat - perched up in a tree, peering out over the roadside crowds. This is no idle curiosity: Zacchaeus is avidly, enthusiastically interested in Jesus.
2) The name, “Zacchaeus,” by the way, means “clean” or “innocent” - foreshadowing what’s to come, perhaps, or signaling that, despite his reputation, he’s a good man at heart. His tree-climbing exuberance suggests the same.
3) Zacchaeus does manage to catch sight of Jesus - and Jesus, in turn, catches sight of him, calls him by name, and invites himself over for tea! The crowds “grumble” to one another: There he goes again, consorting with a sinner - and not just eating with him, mind you; he’s honoring him by letting him play host! Thus Luke paints a picture of Zacchaeus as a pariah in Jericho, a man whose dinner invitation few would accept. And here’s Jesus, not just accepting an invitation, but proposing the visit in the first place!
4) As if in response to this grumbling, Zacchaeus “stands there” and testifies, addressing Jesus and at the same time speaking to everyone in earshot (Luke 19:8). He doesn’t kneel or plead for mercy; this isn’t a statement of contrition or repentance. Rather, he declares his commitment to treating others with generosity and justice: giving half of all he owns to the poor, and paying back anyone he’s defrauded an amount equal to “four times” what he owes them (the fourfold formula evokes an ancient restitution code; compare Exodus 22:1).
5) Is this a brand-new commitment for Zacchaeus? Or, rather, a declaration of one he’s lived by all along? His remarks can be read either way, especially since the key verbs are in the present tense: the Greek is literally, “I give to the poor” and “I give four times as much,” not “I will give to the poor” and “I will give four times as much” (Luke 19:8).
6) In any case, Jesus definitively responds: “Today [semeron] salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). This last phrase poignantly echoes the earlier parable in which a rich man in Hades longs to be, like Lazarus, reclining “in the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:23-24). In effect, then, Zacchaeus’ story declares the good news that there’s hope for the rich yet. Far from condemning the wealthy, Jesus wants to engage, encourage, and celebrate the generosity and justice Zacchaeus now personifies.
1) We tend to picture Jesus, the Good Shepherd, searching out “lost sheep” who are impoverished, underprivileged, and disinherited - and sure enough, this is his signature move. But here, near the conclusion of his public ministry, Jesus also pursues a “lost sheep” who is both rich and purportedly corrupt, and in any case plays a key role in an oppressive system of imperial occupation. Jesus does declare, “Woe to you who are rich” - but in this week’s story, he seeks to restore a notorious rich person to community. Jesus does say, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” - but in this week’s story, he seeks to facilitate exactly that, to bring salvation to this house, to make the impossible a tangible, present possibility.
2) The ambiguity about Zacchaeus’ motivation - is he newly repentant and promising to change (“I will give to the poor”), or rather, declaring what he’s practiced all along (“I give to the poor”)? - makes the good news of this story accessible from at least two directions. From the first angle, the graceful presence of Jesus calls some of us to change our financial and professional lives, to repent, to pivot, to become decidedly more generous and just - and Zacchaeus can serve as an emblem for such inspired, inspiring transformation.
3) And from the second angle, the graceful presence of Jesus calls some of us to change the way we view others (for example, rich bureaucrats!), to check our assumptions, to repent, to pivot, to become decidedly more generous and just - and the crowds in the Zacchaeus story can serve as an emblem for our grumbling prejudice-in-need-of-reform. Like the good Samaritan, or the Samaritan leper, or the tenacious widow, or the little child - here “the chief tax collector” proves yet again that role models arise in unexpected places: so stay alert, abandon judgmentalism, and be willing to learn from one and all.
4) Finally, the salvation Jesus brings to Zacchaeus’ house involves a prospective reunion between him and his neighborhood, either because Zaccheus will now pivot toward generosity and justice, or because his neighbors will (or indeed, a bit of both!). Jesus comes, as he puts it, “to seek out and save the lost,” rich and poor alike, to transform hearts and lives, and ultimately to make the flock whole again (Luke 19:10). If this seems impossible in a world so full of inequality, corruption, and contempt - well, that skepticism is entirely reasonable. But remember what Jesus says about camels and needles. What is impossible for mortals is possible for God - today!