Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
“Repair” – Luke 19:1-10
November 21, 2021
Prayer for Illumination
Over the past months, we have been exploring various biblical practices, practices which lead to faithful living before God and faithful living alongside our neighbors.
Today’s theme relates to a critical aspect in the cycle of confession, which is “repair” – confess, repent, repair. “Repair” or “reparations” refers to the next step after first confessing one’s misdeeds and then repenting of those misdeeds. The next, critical step is the effort to make things right, the effort to repair any damage that has been done.
If your automobile has ever been hit by someone else’s automobile, and it was not your fault, you fully expect that person, along with their insurance company, to make reparations, to repair your vehicle, to make it “whole” again.
Reparations has deep biblical roots. Exodus 22 lists an assortment of “laws of restitution.” People who have violated a law are required to not only confess the wrong, but also repair the damage. Exodus 22:4 “When (a stolen) ox or donkey or sheep is found alive in the thief’s possession, the thief shall pay double for the stolen animal.”
When an ox or sheep has already been slaughtered or sold, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. (22:1) Today’s narrative in the gospel of Luke provides a window into the question of reparations. As the story goes, a rich man climbs a tree to see Jesus, then receives Jesus’ self-invitation to dinner, and then makes significant promises to repair the harm he has done in his community.
Before we read our text for today, it will be help to remember the role of the tax collector in first century Palestine. Tax collectors were charged by the Roman government to collect taxes from their neighboring villagers by whatever means they deemed necessary. The Romans did not care how much the tax collectors received so long as Rome received its designated share.
Historians tell us that tax collectors would often collect far more than was due and keep the extra for themselves. They not only were seen as traitors in the eyes of their people; they also enriched themselves greatly off the backs of the poor. Zaccheus, the chief tax collector of the vital economy of Jericho, would most likely have been despised and rejected by his community.
But also note that just prior to this text, in chapter 18 of the gospel of Luke, we have a bit of foreshadowing perhaps. In chapter 18, Jesus tells a parable about a repentant tax collector. In the parable, there are two men praying in the temple. The one who went home justified before God, Jesus told them, was not the prideful Pharisee who boasted of his fasting and tithing. The one who went home justified before God was the repentant the tax-collector, the man who stood far off, who would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast, crying out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus went on to say; “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’” (Luke 18:14) In the chapter just prior to the Zaccheus story, a repentant tax collector serves as a model of prayer while a prideful Pharisee is scorned.
Hear the Word of God from Luke 19:1-10.
(Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.”
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.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The story of Zaccheus is a wonderful Vacation Bible School story. Children can often relate well to being shorter than adults and not being able to see when a parade of people are passing by. And many children love to climb trees and can relate to Zaccheus wanting to climb to a place where he could see over the heads of all the adults.
What we might miss, if we do not dig a little deeper, is the utter shock! to a Middle Eastern audience. In our context, it may be humorous to think of a grown man climbing a tree, but Middle Easterners in the first century would have found this behavior outrageous, embarrassing, and absurd.
Grown men, in particular men of any means, did not climb trees! Luke was perhaps glad to shock his readers in order to prepare them for the even greater shock to come. Zaccheaus, as a chief tax collector, was likely wealthy, powerful, and despised. The name Zaccheus is often a baby name in Hebrew, sort of like the name “Chicharito”, which some of you will recognize. “Zaccheus” means “clean” or “pure”.
Perhaps Zaccheus longed for an earlier time in his life, when as a child he climbed trees, and lived a more clean and pure existence, and felt closer to God and more welcomed by others. Perhaps in Zaccheus’ younger days, when he had fewer resources, he may have also had more friends.
In the previous chapter of Luke, Jesus reprimanded his disciples: Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)
In one sense, little Zaccheus humbles himself as a child in order to see Jesus. Any Middle Eastern man climbing a tree was be seen as an act of humility before God and others, perhaps a precursor to his repentance and transformation. As the story goes, when Jesus invited himself to dinner, transformation came to the household of Zaccheus. Luke reports that Zacchaeus and all of his household were “saved” by the grace of Jesus. And this was more than some inner conversion of the soul.
Zaccheus’ encounter with Jesus changed not only his inner life and the condition of his household, but had an immediate impact upon the entire community. Because Zaccheus was saved, the poor would have food to eat and the defrauded would know justice. Zaccheus seemed joyful, even grateful, as he decided to part with half of his possessions. He discovered that it was not necessary and even damaging to hold tightly to everything he had hoarded. He seemed to discover the joy of giving and providing for others, of letting go of what he did not need and investing in the coming kingdom of heaven.
Certainly, there is an element of the stewardship of resources in this story. A wealthy person gives a half of his possessions to the poor, without any incentive of a tax break. Many you have read about the The Giving Pledge campaign. Warren Buffett and many other billionaires have made the promise in their wills to give a full half of their estate, a full 50% or more, to charity, for the sake of the needs of the world, And Buffett has personally visited a number of other wealthy people of the world to encourage them do the same, to contribute their wealth to philanthropic causes, either during their lifetime or upon their death. (Wikipedia)
There is also a strong element of social justice in this narrative. An unjust person decides to repay fourfold those whom he has defrauded. He decides to do so of his own volition, without a court of law requiring him to do so. An attempt is made to repair the damage that has been done in the community.
Reparations is a difficult and complicated topic, especially as we begin to relate reparations to the scourge of slavery or the history of racism. How a society endeavors to repair wrongs done to countless persons over centuries is beyond simple theories or solutions.
For those involved in twelve-step programs, repairing broken relationships on a personal level is a familiar practice. Recovering addicts admit the harm they have caused others; they seek forgiveness; and they attempt to make amends, if at all possible. Reparations on a corporate or societal level is far more controversial and complicated. Some of you will remember an attempt at reparations made in recent history. In 1988, the United States Congress issued a formal apology to Japanese American citizens who had been interned in camps during World War II. After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Japanese Americans were rounded up and taken to live in internment camps. Their homes and places of businesses were taken over by others. A bill, signed in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan, provided for payments to those Japanese families whose homes and businesses had been confiscated.
Can you imagine returning home after several years in an interment camp only to find someone else living in your house and someone else working in your former places of business?
More recently, a piece of beach property near Los Angeles, at Manhattan Beach, was returned to the family of those from whom it had been taken. An African-American family owned a popular beach house, lodge and restaurant in the early 20th century. The popularity of the site made the local residents uncomfortable, so the city of Manhattan Beach took over the property from the family. Over 100 years later, the property was returned to surviving family members with apology.
Zaccheus, who was likely despised, hated, and feared, was known for misusing his power and taking advantage of the poor. As the chief tax collector, Zaccheus had not been a welcome part of the social fabric of Jericho. Zaccheus had not been invited to other people’s homes, unless they wanted something from him. After Jesus invites himself into his home, and Zaccheus makes a grand transformation, there arise an important element of restoration to community for Zacchaeus.
By the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ, people are transformed. Salvation was brought to the home of Zaccheus. Zaccheus’ whole life and the life of his family was transformed. Jericho was made new, and Zacchaeus’ relationship to his neighbors was forever changed. Yes, it was utterly shocking that a grown man would climb a tree to see a rabbi passing by. But it was even more shocking that this wealthy man promised to make reparations to his community, to offer tangible repair to those whom he had defrauded.
When Jesus, the Living Word of God, invites himself into our dinner conversations, the conversation changes. What was deemed unacceptable becomes possible. What was deemed foolish or extraordinary becomes reasonable and even expected. If Jesus invites himself into the conversations at Thanksgiving dinner this year, will we respond with gratitude as did Zacchaeus?
Will we be willing to examine our own households and our communities, and even our nation? Will we be willing to consider repairing that which has not pleasing to God? Zaccheus was lost, but then was found; he was blind but then could see. Zaccheus was claimed by Jesus as a child of Abraham, as a beloved child of God… as we all may be as well.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like Zaccheus, and that can save you and me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church