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Going for broke

Did Jesus have serious concerns about wealth and the wealthy? Clearly yes. But let’s not forget that Jesus had many wealthy people among his followers: Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, several wealthy women that supported him and his disciples financially and materially… and in his parables he often used images of rich people to represent God and the kingdom of heaven: the man who loaned out the talents, the man who gave a banquet, etc.

Zacchaeus_callingBut Jesus also had several negative images of rich people in his parables and in his encounters. As a matter of fact, our Gospel reading today comes in the middle of a series of parables and incidents in Luke’s Gospel that are very instructive.

Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector  Undoubtedly the tax collector was much richer than the Pharisee, but he comes out positively. In a sense, the tax collector in the parable prepares us for the encounter with Zacchaeus today.

Encounter with the rich ruler  Peter is shocked by Jesus’ comment that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. But Jesus leaves the door open: with God all things are possible… meaning a camel can go through the eye of a needle and a rich man can enter heaven! There is hope.

Zacchaeus incident (our Gospel reading today)  Zacchaeus does what the rich ruler in the previous chapter could not do. Zacchaeus is proof that God can touch the heart of the most unlikely candidates.

Parable of the ten pounds (ten minas)  Despite the brutality of the rich man, his actions nevertheless are used as an image of the kingdom of God!

We don’t need to look any further. In these two chapters we see enough variety in the attitudes Jesus held about wealth and the wealthy.

What I find most interesting in today’s reading is the commitments Zacchaeus made. He would pay back everyone he cheated four times over! And he would give half of his possessions (ὑπαρχόντων) to the poor. I have news for Zacchaeus, by the time he did all this he would be totally poor. He’d have nothing left!


But here is something even more interesting. Jewish law demanded only a 20% penalty when paying back someone you cheated (Leviticus 6:1-5). Zacchaeus pledged to paying back four times what he took! That’s much more than what Jewish law demanded. Now Roman law demanded a double restitution, and perhaps even fourfold. So Zacchaeus used the standards of Roman law in paying back his fellow Jews that he had defrauded. There’s poetic justice here. Since he worked for the Romans, he judged himself according to Roman law. I find that fascinating, and it helps lift this incident above the everyday.

It’s not just about money. It’s about going outside the prescriptions of religion. It’s about being honest with oneself, even if that honesty breaks your bank account. His response was maximal rather than minimal. The normal human way is to get away with as little as we can. Zacchaeus could have gotten away with paying people back with the added one-fifth prescribed by Leviticus. But he didn’t, and there’s a lesson for us in that.

Jewish law likewise prescribed giving 10% of one’s income to the poor. This is the concept of tzedakah (charity) in Jewish tradition. Zacchaeus committed to giving half – again, way beyond the expectations of his religious upbringing; and half not only of his income, but of all his possessions! As I said already, this commitment would break him.

One reliable website of Jewish teaching, describes levels of tzedakah (charity), from the least meritorious to the most meritorious, are:
  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

And you wonder why Jews are always at the forefront of charitable giving and philanthropy? It’s in their blood, in their religious genes and upbringing.

But Zacchaeus went beyond tradition, beyond upbringing, beyond religious law. He did not settle for the least he could get away with. He went for broke – and he most likely ended up broke after this. Did he continue working for the Romans? Perhaps, perhaps not – but he was a changed man. He was now a true “son of Abraham.” It’s the spirit that makes one a member of God’s family, rather than what’s written on one’s birth certificate or one’s baptism certificate.

And notice something else: In the middle of these two chapters in Luke, right before he enters Jericho and meets Zacchaeus, Jesus heals a blind man who calls out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Yet, when addressing Zacchaeus and people around him, Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man” – or perhaps we might choose as a translation that would be closer to the Hebrew that Jesus spoke, “Son of Adam.” Remember that whereas Matthew started his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham, but Luke carried the genealogy of Jesus not to David or Abraham, but all the way back to Adam!

holy-father-st-gregory-nazianzen-1-aidan-hartJesus preferred “Son of Man (Adam)” to “Son of David.” Zacchaeus went beyond all human and religious laws. The teaching of Jesus illumines the human conscience to surpass all ethnic, religious and socio-economic boundaries. This is the message that comes through loud and clear in the story of Zacchaeus. And it’s also the message of this beautiful quote from St. Gregory of Nazianzus, whose feast day is celebrated by the Orthodox Church today:

“Human beings have accumulated in their coffers gold and silver, clothes more sumptuous than useful, diamonds and other objects that are evidence of war and tyranny; then a foolish arrogance hardens their hearts; for their brothers in distress, they have no pity. What utter blindness! . . . Attend not to the law of the strong but to the law of the Creator. Help nature to the best of your ability, honor the freedom of creation, protect your species from dishonor, come to its aids in sickness, rescue it from poverty ….   Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.”

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There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom

Lazarus-and-the-Rich-ManToday’s Gospel reading, Luke 16:19-31, is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The parable is one of many that Jesus spoke about money and how God sees rich and poor people. Indeed, the context here is worth looking at. Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel begins with another parable about money and Jesus concludes that parable with the familiar words we all know or have heard: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). Jesus is very clear, either you serve God or you serve money – you cannot serve both. The Pharisees who hear him say this start mocking Jesus and Luke calls them “lovers of money” (verse 14). And this confrontation with the Pharisees is what prompts the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

But this parable is not only about money. Consider first of all that the poor man in the parable is given a name, Lazarus. This is very unique in the parables that Jesus spoke, where the characters are otherwise always anonymous. And, indeed, the rich man here is anonymous. This is the exact opposite of what happens in society, where the rich and famous have the names that everyone knows while the poor are for the most part anonymous. Reversal of fortunes is one of the characteristics of God’s Kingdom. The first will be last and the last will be first, in Jesus’ own words (Matthew 20:16, Luke 13:30, and elsewhere).

Lazarus would have been satisfied with the scraps from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21); the Canaanite woman answered Jesus’ provocation by accepting the crumbs that fall from the masters’ tables (Matthew 15:27); the prodigal son fell into hard times and would have been satisfied to eat the scraps on which the swine fed (Luke 15:16). In contrast to all these images of crumbs and scraps, Jesus paints visions of God’s kingdom as a banquet, a rich feast (Matthew 22:1-10 and elsewhere). There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom!

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

We pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” In the ancient world, daily bread was offered to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple, weekly bread was brought into the presence of God YHWH. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that bread is not for the gods or even for the One God; bread is for humans. We all need our daily bread. But “man shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus said (Matthew 4:4). God promises a feast.

Life in this world is separated by gates. The rich man lived inside a gated compound. Lazarus was outside the gate. A chasm separated them. A chasm also separated them after death! The rich man never apologized for how he treated – or didn’t treat – Lazarus, and even after death he only looked to Lazarus to serve him! He cared for his brothers and wanted to warn them – but even here, his compassion is gated compassion; it’s limited to his own.

Abraham answers the rich man’s concern for his brothers: His brothers will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead and warn them. But we answer: Someone has risen from the dead – the one telling the parable. Abraham’s punch line is a warning not to harden one’s heart. We need to take advantage of every situation that helps us to soften our hearts. The rich man’s heart was hardened, which is why he was indifferent to Lazarus even after death.

Icon of the "Hospitality of Abraham" at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine

Icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham” at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge)

Abraham’s presence in the parable also reminds us that Abraham was known for offering hospitality. Hebrews 13:2 refers to Abraham and the encounter with the three persons who appeared to him and Sara at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). This is precisely the scene in the icon that greets people entering our church, an icon appropriately called “The Hospitality of Abraham.” Paul tells us in Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.”

As I conclude these thoughts, it becomes clear that above and beyond the concern with money, the parable is about those qualities that make community real. Hospitality is the key requirement for community life. We have an icon at our entrance that reminds us of that every time we enter! Community means an open gate to the world; it’s never a gated community. And community means fullness; never crumbs. In church community we find the fullness of God’s presence and we receive the fullness of Christ in the communion of Bread and Wine.

Hospitality – Openness – Fullness: Qualities that require active involvement from all of us in building community that is real and lasting. God invites us to the banquet of life.