Occasionally, I hear from former parishioners in Tampa; they call, or email, to ask how I’m getting along in the new assignment. One of the things that I still find to be a challenge is the way automobile drivers behave in Pinellas County.
The best explanation that I’ve been able to come up with for my former parishioners who ask, is that Pinellas County drivers seem to take a very Libertarian approach to traffic: they’re not committed to either the Left or the Right; instead, they try both, alternately, and seemingly at random. Ross Perot appears to be their patron saint.
I’ve found myself, on several occasions, hoping that the driver ahead of me would choose a direction, any direction, and stick with it. I had the same experience with Jesus’ behavior in this Sunday’s Gospel reading.
In all of the Gospels Jesus demonstrates deep concern for the poor and the marginalized. Luke’s portrayal of Jesus gives particular emphasis to that aspect of his ministry. In Luke, Jesus not only made a habit of seeking out the poor, and showing compassion toward outcasts, he was very critical of the wealthy. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and the story of the rich official who “became quite sad, for he was very rich” (Luke 18:23), are illustrations of the stern judgments that Jesus made about the rich.
Having read Luke’s Gospel for this entire liturgical year, it comes as no surprise when Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24) The story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, however, is very surprising.
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, a rich man, the sort of person about whom Jesus would say, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25) It’s more than a little surprising that he said, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9) What was going on with Jesus? Why was he suddenly so accommodating toward a wealthy man? Why didn’t he judge Zacchaeus as harshly as he judged the rich official?
The terms “rich” and “poor” did not have the same meaning for Jesus that they have for us. In Jesus’ culture a person was judged to be rich, not because of their net worth or income, but because they did not have to work; the rich derived income from people who worked for them. Zacchaeus was considered “rich” because he employed toll collectors to gather taxes for him.
In contrast, poverty was the temporary condition of someone who had lost their inherited status. The prodigal, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, was considered “poor” after he had squandered his share of the family wealth. The poor were expected to make every effort to restore themselves to their previous state as quickly as possible. The prodigal took this social obligation seriously. He said to himself, “I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers’.” (Luke 15:18-19) He was going to work until he restored what he had lost.
The words “rich” and “poor” were not references to net worth, as such. Rather, they were references to social relationships. The rich had gained wealth by taking it from someone else; the poor had lost wealth to someone else. The poor were distrusted until they restored their lost status, and the rich were distrusted until they demonstrated that they had not defrauded someone for personal gain. Both groups were considered to be “impure” or sinful.
Zacchaeus did exactly what was necessary to demonstrate his personal innocence, the quality that Jesus called “purity of heart.” He told Jesus, “I routinely give to the poor half of my earnings and, if I have defrauded anyone unintentionally, I will repay that person four times over.” (Luke 19:8) Zacchaeus really lived up to his name, “a pure man,” and for this reason Jesus said to him, “today I shall stay at your house.” (Luke 19:5)
Jesus’ seeming vacillation about the issue of wealth wasn’t vacillation at all. He was very consistent in the way that he made judgments about people. He recognized faith in those whose hearts were pure, and lamented the absence of faith in those who were overly concerned with themselves.
Zacchaeus gave alms to the poor, and avoided defrauding his neighbors; he was neither greedy nor dishonest. His neighbors judged him to be a sinner because of his profession, but Jesus judged him to be deserving of salvation because of his purity of heart. Zacchaeus’ life was a stark contrast to the rich official who kept all of the commandments, but was so attached to his wealth that he refused to give alms. (Luke 18:18-25)
Zacchaeus used his wealth in a way that mirrored God’s expenditure of mercy. The first reading this Sunday addresses God, and says, “you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” (Wisdom 11:23) God dispenses mercy in order that sinners might come to repentance, and God does so without being resentful or miserly. Purity of heart, the personal virtue that leads to faith, imitates God’s generosity and compassion.
Zacchaeus is a model for all who struggle with their faith. He overcame the obstacles to faith because of his purity of heart. What is the obstacle that stands between you and God? Is it fear or self-concern as in the case of the rich official? Is it the disapproval of others as in the case of Zacchaeus? Whatever it is that holds you back, or keeps you down, the remedy for it is to cultivate a pure, generous and merciful heart.