Text Study for Palm/Passion Sunday 2022 (Part Three)

Malina and Rohrbaugh spend a fair bit of time on Zacchaeus, the Parable of the Pounds, and the Triumphal entry in the Lukan account. We can use their work to continue building our understanding of that entry and the events that follow, at least according to the Lukan author.

“How one understands this difficult parable depends on the point of view adopted,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Westerners have long seen here a kind of homespun capitalism on the lips of Jesus. Yet if the parable is taken as a description of the way the kingdom of God functions,” they continue, “it is bitter news indeed for peasant hearers” (page 389).

To peasant ears, the parable would be very bad news. It would conform with all their experiences of rich people. The rich were those who extracted wealth from the peasants on a daily basis. They used members of the peasant class and the enslaved to do their dirty work for small rewards or continued survival.

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“The story of the pounds comes at the end of a long section of the Gospel in which Luke has interpreted discipleship as the sharing of possessions,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest. “However, the parable indicates that nothing fundamental has yet changed, and there is still a long way to go,” they continue, “Conflict over exactly these issues is precisely what is about to erupt as Luke’s story continues” (page 389). As we have noted previously, the parable foreshadows the things that are to come in the story and warns the readers that the journey is not nearly over.

Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us that our modern, Western, late capitalist reading of the parable has little to do with how it would have been heard in first-century peasant ears. Honorable people, in that setting, should be satisfied with what they had. Seeking more was an act of thievery. Thus, we have the ancient proverb that a rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief. “The peasant expectation,” they write, “was to maintain honorably what one had, seeking nothing in addition” (page 390).

With this in mind, we read a somewhat different parable. The two servants who increased the nobleman’s portfolio participated in this organized thievery. Thus, they receive the nobleman’s rewards and participate in his dishonor. Maintaining the financial status quo was the honorable thing to do, and it is the third servant who does precisely that. “From the peasant point of view, then, it was the final servant who acted honorably, especially since he refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the king” (page 390).

The punishment the third servant received is precisely what peasant listeners would expect at the hands of such a powerful thief. One of the punchlines of this parable is that no good deed goes unpunished. That’s a theme to keep in mind, of course, as we read the Triumphal entry text and the verses that follow it.

“If having heard the interaction of Jesus and Zacchaeus, and having been startled at the uncharacteristic behavior of a rich man,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “Jesus’ listeners naively jumped to the conclusion that the rich had had a change of heart and that the kingdom of God was about to appear” (page 390). One of the themes of the Journey to Jerusalem in the Lukan account has been the sharing of possessions, Malina and Rohrbaugh note. Of course, this will be one of the hallmarks of the disciple community when we get into the Book of Acts as well.

The parable makes clear that, despite the exemplary conduct of Zacchaeus, nothing systemic has really changed yet. Jesus’ reception in Jerusalem affirms and amplifies that point. “As the story of the pounds makes clear,” Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “the city indeed does not yet know the things that make for peace…Thus, the ‘king’ who comes in the name of the Lord can only weep’” (page 392).

The description of the Jerusalem Temple, then, as a “haven for thieves” makes perfect narrative and rhetorical sense. “Turning the Temple into a den of robbers, that is, into an institution seeking gain (always construed as extortion and greed),” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “is further evidence that the city does not yet understand the things that make for peace or the nature of the ‘king’ who is coming in the name of the Lord” (page 393). The story of the pounds, they argue “exists in the Temple itself.”

The narrative and rhetorical arc of Luke 19 helps us to make sense out of what might at first seem to be disparate and disconnected pericopes. “It is no wonder that the elite (v. 47), from whose point of view the king in the story of the pounds would have been a hero, opposed Jesus and sought to destroy him,” Malina and Rohrbaugh conclude. “It is also no wonder that the people, from whose point of view the king in the story of the pounds would have been a thief, hung on Jesus’ words” (page 393).

Nor is it any wonder that Jesus is crucified between two “social bandits.” They are often described as “thieves,” but the Greek term – in the Markan account — doesn’t support that translation. They were more likely revolutionary terrorists, bent on overthrowing both the Roman colonial rule and the Jerusalem elites who benefitted from and thus supported that rule. In Luke 22:52, Jesus declares that he is not such a “social bandit.” The Lukan author doesn’t use the same term as the Markan composer in describing the two “thieves,” perhaps to make sure that the title of “thief” remains with the elites and is not attached to peasants.

I’ve noted in previous posts that the Lukan author doesn’t condemn rich people out of hand. The primary demonstration of this reticence is the story of Zacchaeus. This chief tax collector engages in practices that are consistent with Old Testament regulations for reparations and restoration in the case of theft or fraud. Zacchaeus asserts that he lives in compliance with those regulations, and Jesus takes him at his word.

Zacchaeus may be viewed by the local populace as a rich thief. He “vindicates Jesus’ judgment about him,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “by pointing out that he already gives half of what he owns to the poor and (already) repays fourfold anyone he discovers has been cheated (cf. Exod. 22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6)” (page 387). The Greek grammar indicates that Zacchaeus is currently enacting restoration and making reparations when the situation calls for it. The problem is not that Zacchaeus needs to repent. The problem is that the peasant crowd doesn’t believe him.

But Jesus does. “Salvation, in the form of a restoration of this chief toll collector to his rightful place in Israel, has thus been effected by Jesus’ belief in him,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. “In other words, this is a healing story: the restoration of abnormal or broken community relationships (caused by the stereotyping of Zacchaeus on the part of the community) has been effected by the power of Jesus” (page 387).

If Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost, as we read in Luke 19:10, then the lost are perhaps those who have been alienated from the faith community (rightly or wrongly) by how they use and/or abuse their wealth. Zacchaeus is restored to the community when Jesus ratifies that his behavior is righteous and within the parameters of compliance. The wealthy nobleman in the parable destroys community in order to expand his wealth at the expense of others. He slaughters any and all who stand in his way.

What, then, are the things that make for peace, in this narrative and rhetorical context? One of the things that makes for peace is the responsible use of wealth for the good of the community. Zacchaeus is narrated as an example of this responsible use. The community flourishes, and salvation lives at his house. The nobleman is rapacious, greedy, and power-hungry. As a result, people suffer and die.

Jerusalem elites, which example will you follow? The response seems clear to Jesus. They will follow the nobleman, as they have for the previous hundred years. As a result, people will suffer and die. Jesus is the first to go, in the Lukan account. But he won’t be the last. From the cross, Jesus declares to the weeping daughters of Jerusalem (!), “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31, NRSV).

That is, if this is what happens to one Jew – and a nonviolent one at that – what’s going to happen when a bunch of Jews fed up with the system engage in violent resistance? The Lukan author, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem, knows the answer to that question.

One of the challenges to many readers of the Passion accounts in the gospels is the “turn” from the joyous crowds of Palm Sunday to the raging crowds of Good Friday. How, readers wonder, could such a change take place? The temptation is to “blame the Jews” either overtly or subtly. The Lukan account encourages a far more nuanced account of the situation. The threat to Jesus was always there. It wasn’t a matter of theology but rather of political self-interest. And it wasn’t the Jerusalem elites who called the shots but rather their Roman puppeteers.

Priming people for Holy Week in this way is a lot to ask of what will likely be a somewhat abbreviated sermon in many congregations this Sunday. But this is one of the tasks of the Sunday, if we are to hear the story faithfully during the week.

Resources and References

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Kinman, Brent. “Parousia, Jesus’ ‘A-Triumphal’ Entry, and the Fate of Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-44).” Journal of Biblical Literature 118, no. 2 (1999): 279–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/3268007.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

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