How shall I preach on a text that I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten “wrong” for the past four decades? And, as far I can tell, I’m not alone in getting that text “wrong.” The consensus view of the Zacchaeus story, as represented by the NRSV translation of those verbs in question, has steered largely in the wrong direction. I’d love to explain that to folks in a Bible text study like this. But I’ll be doing a sermon on Sunday, not a Bible study.
Oh, well, it’s still early in the week. I’m sure the Spirit will work out something useful for me to say.
The Lukan connection between the Zacchaeus story and the Parable of the Pounds is rhetorically rock solid. “But while they were hearing these things [that the Son of Man came to seek out and to rescue the perishing], he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was close to Jerusalem and it seemed to them that the Kingdom of God was about to appear immediately” (Luke 19:11, my translation).
Some commentators suggest that the location and timing of the telling of the parable is in some doubt. I’m not sure how they get that. The text itself couldn’t make the connection any clearer. Jesus tells this parable, at least in the Lukan account, at dinner in the house of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. Jesus tells this parable in response to the events and pronouncements at that dinner. The parable connects the events in Jericho to the coming Palm Sunday protest parade in Jerusalem.
“Jesus sets the Parable of the Pounds in the context of the chief tax collector’s affirmation of his actions,” Levine and Witherington write. “Luke presents Zacchaeus as using his resources honestly and generously,” they continue, “and thus as an appropriate steward” (page 513). Jesus’ followers (and therefore, the Lukan audience) expect the end of the age to arrive shortly – perhaps on the following day! But they are mistaken.
Even though the Kingdom of God is among them, as Jesus has previously said, it is not yet coming in its fullness. The resistance by (or conversion of) a ruler among the tax collectors – the worst sort of collaborator — is very good evidence of the presence of that Kingdom. But it is not a sign that the Kingdom is ready to come in its fullness right here and right now.
Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house on that day, but it has not yet come to all of Creation. “For Luke,” Levine and Witherington write, “the eschaton is far off, coming only after the world has been evangelized. The disciples are the stewards who must do what Zacchaeus does,” they argue, “use their talents wisely in growing the mission” (page 513).
I think that Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus as a resistor rather than a collaborator. The village sees him as a hated traitor who uses his position both to fund the Roman imperial machine and to line his pockets in the process. His actual practice, however – whether it is current or prospective – is to use his ill-gotten gains in order to give to the poor and make reparations when his actions end up defrauding others.
I think Zacchaeus, at least as a Lukan character, is working the system against itself in order to do justice. He’s a concrete example of one who has made friends with unrighteous Mammon. He is using that friendship to subvert the system in the ways he can. As Holmer Szesnat argues in his study, the Parable of the Pounds is about “refusing to participate in practices of exploitation” (page 21). The solid connection between the Zacchaeus story and the Parable shows that these texts should be used to interpret one another.
The Parable of the Pounds never shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary. We get the Parable of the Talents in Year A, and we allow the Matthean version to dictate how we remember the Lukan version (if we remember it at all). The parables may or may not have the same origin, a common source, or at least arise from the same stream of memory. But as they exist in their respective accounts now, they are not the same parable.
One feature of the Lukan parable is the use of the Rule of Three. We know from previous study that when we get a Rule of Three, we should expect the third character to be different from the first two. In the Lukan account, the third character tends to be the one in the story who gets it right. The parade example of this literary practice, of course, is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. It is the third character who is neighbor to the man left in the ditch to die.
Thus, the third character in the Parable of the Pounds is the one who gives us the guidance we should take from the parable. The first two slaves do business with the aristocrat’s wealth and produce unimaginable profit margins – one thousand percent in one case and five hundred percent in the other. Szesnat notes that a thirty percent margin would have been an exceptionally good annual return in a reputable business. The huge returns on investment create “the first point in this story where the first-century listeners are given a signal that something unusual is going on here” (page 23).
No “legal” business produces that sort of return. The slaves are loan sharks of some kind. They get promoted as a reward for their actions. The third slave won’t play the game. As a result, the rich man punishes the slave who has done the “right” thing. He takes what the third slave has and gives it to the one who has the ten pounds. That’s what happens in a corrupt and abusive system when the resistors are exposed.
That resistance is not limited to the third slave (who sounds a lot like Zacchaeus). There’s that delegation from the home country that protests to the high king that this rich guy should not have any more power. That protest falls on deaf ears, and the opposition is liquidated. “The king cleans up in more than one way,” Szesnat writes, “he has confirmed which of his slaves are going to make more money for him in the future, in whatever ruthless and brutal way they can, and he has taken care of his political enemies” (page 25).
Numerous commentators have noted that this parable sounds a lot like the behavior of one or more of the Herods in first-century Palestine. Herod the Great made such a trip to Rome to get his reign over Judah, Samaria, and Galilee. Herod Archelaus made a similar trip to get himself declared a king like his father. He had to settle for being an ethnarch and was exiled just a few years later. But the stories would have rung all sorts of historical and political bells for both Jesus’ listeners and the Lukan audience.
So, what’s the point of the story in Luke, Szesnat asks. How we answer that question can make a great deal of difference in our interpretation of the Zacchaeus story. This section of the Lukan account says a lot about rulers and being ruled. A rich ruler wants to know how to have “eternal life.” Jesus says that for him what’s necessary is to resign from the system altogether. But he’s just too deeply entangled. Because of that, the rich ruler goes away grieving. He can’t give it up.
When we meet the blind man on the Jericho road, the political stakes get higher. The blind man addresses Jesus as “son of David.” That may be a lovely honorific, but it’s also a political title. The only Kingdom of God that people have really known so far, at least in their ideology, is the Kingdom of David. “In other words,” Szesnat writes, “it is the poor, the marginalized, who see who Jesus is, and they are received in God’s kingdom” (page 26). Who Jesus is, in this story, is described in explicitly political terms.
Then we get Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus should be like the first two slaves in the Parable of the Pounds. He should be the ruler of the loan sharks, the regional mob boss for the Roman imperial machine. Instead, he is either a current resistor (my view) or he is converted to resistance when Jesus comes to his house (Szesnat’s view). In either case, this is an astonishing revelation. The Kingdom of God is present, at least in part, in the everyday acts of resistance taken by Jesus’ followers.
“The story of entrusted money is a story of what happens when we act the way God wants us to,” Szesnat concludes. “The point of the story is simply this,” he argues, “Be warned – if you refuse to participate in systems of oppression and exploitation, which is what the righteous are supposed to be doing, you should still expect to be persecuted. The reign of God has not fully broken into the world yet. The wicked will still punish and sometimes kill the righteous, just as they get rid of any other enemy” (page 27).
If Zacchaeus is covertly resisting already (as I think is the case) he is outed by the end of his story. If he repents and makes a public declaration of his intentions, he is no less at risk. There’s no going back for Zacchaeus at this point. There’s no eschatological escape hatch opening up for him in the next day or two.
That fullness of God’s reign will arrive in the end, but first comes the cross. “Telling the truth to the powerful, refusing to do what they want us to do: all that can and probably will get us into serious trouble,” Szesnat writes, “in some contexts, it can even get us killed. But it must be done” (page 27).
References and Resources
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).