Ancient Answers

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The Difference is in the Joy!


What is the difference between Zacchaeus and the rich ruler who turned away from Jesus? The rich man came with an agenda. Zacchaeus had no agenda except to see Jesus. And that, dear friends, is often the thing that makes all the difference.

Do you know what’s wrong with people who think they’re saved? Or who come up to you and ask you if you’re saved? They have an agenda. And their agenda is more important than seeing Jesus.

The rich ruler went to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus dialogued with him, but when Jesus gave him the answer he did not want to hear, he turned away disappointed. And Jesus spoke those memorable words: “It is easier for a camel to go through the hole of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are startled. After all, rich people were held in awe, just as they are today. Then who can be saved? they ask him. What is impossible with men is possible with God, Jesus replies. Both Zacchaeus and the rich ruler were wealthy, but something else, not their riches, was the deciding factor.

The encounter with Zacchaeus is precisely an example of what is possible with God! Zacchaeus does not go to Jesus with any question about eternal life; he had no agenda. He only wants to see Jesus, and he climbs a tree to get a clear view. He doesn’t call Jesus; Jesus calls him down from the tree and tells him he’s going to be a guest at his house. The initiative is completely Jesus’. And what is Zacchaeus’ reaction? He hurries down and receives Jesus joyfully. That is the key word – joyfully. He received Jesus into his home joyfully.

The transformation in his heart and spirit began right away: He gives half of his goods to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone – that’s what tax collectors did in those days – he gave it back four times!

Do you see this as an image of salvation? His immediate response to Jesus entering his home was not to say, I’m going to build a church in your honor, a big beautiful church. Jesus touched his heart and he in turn touched Jesus’ heart by his decision to give to the poor.

That, dear friends, is what salvation is all about – a meeting of hearts, our hearts with Jesus’ heart. Don’t go to Jesus in order to be saved. Go to Jesus because you’re drawn to him, you love the sound of his words and his voice in the Gospels. Don’t go for miracles, go to him with a curious mind and heart. You want to know him and the Father who sent him. Go to him as a child. He said it: Unless we become as children we cannot enter the kingdom of God. That sounds just as serious as the saying about rich men. Am I going to be 5 years old again in order to enter eternal life? No, but I should go to him like a child, curious, wide-eyed, expecting a joyful experience.

“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” He seeks, he looks for us, he calls us. All he asks of us is an open mind and an eager curiosity like Zacchaeus. And then to respond to his presence, with joy and open hearts. And note what he said: He also is a son of Abraham. She also is a daughter of Abraham. How many of Abraham’s children today do we close the door to? Aren’t Muslims also sons and daughters of Abraham? They certainly consider Abraham their father in faith. Why do we hate them? And why do many of them hate us? What would Jesus say? I don’t have the answer; I’m just posing the question. It’s part of my curiosity coming to Jesus and hearing his voice.

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The Dialogue of Salvation


The Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) brings us face to face with Jesus’ message of inclusion. But it also reminds us how important dialogue was in the ministry of Jesus. Dialogue is everywhere in all four Gospels. Matthew 15:21-28 is my favorite example. It reveals practically everything you need to know about the Hebrew conception of God.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

It’s all here: Encounter, pleading, exclusion/inclusion, confrontation, challenge, insult even, counter-argument, reconciliation, healing, shalom. Salvation in dialogue! This is Jesus at his Jewish best. And this is also Yahweh God in the Hebrew Scriptures. (I try to avoid saying Old Testament. There is nothing old about the “Old Testament.” It’s as new as your daily headlines.)

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(Click to enlarge)

Controversy and challenging questions dodged Jesus throughout. Jesus was always in dialogue, especially with his opponents. Dialogue is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. This is a unique characteristic of the Hebrew religious tradition so far as I can tell. The Hebrew Bible is a thousand pages of constant dialogue between God and man. I haven’t studied the Quran but a quick scan showed me that the Quran has very little dialogue; it’s mostly a monologue of God issuing commandments to Mohammed.

Jesus was a Jew, and very often he engaged in dialogue concerning the Law of Moses and its application to human life. When he transgressed the boundaries of the Jewish Law, Jesus revealed his mission – to humanize the Law. This is my own phrase, but I was partly inspired by the writings of a friend in Scotland.

Jesus humanized the Law, he brought it down to earth, to the lives of real people. The religious class felt threatened and constantly challenged him. They were offended at his openness to Zacchaeus. For 2,000 years people have continued to be offended by Jesus’ openness! The church that followed in his name quickly began specializing in exclusion rather than inclusion. The church took over from the Pharisees and the Jewish religious class. Anyone who disagreed with church laws was declared a heretic or a sinner and was locked out, excommunicated. I wonder what Jesus would say to the many that the church called heretics and sinners. Maybe “they also are children of my father”? Would Jesus reject anyone? The only evidence we have by which to speculate is what’s written about him in the four Gospels – and based on that evidence it does not appear that Jesus would exclude many of the souls that the church has excluded.


Come to Jesus. Climb up a tree if you think you’ll get a better view of him – but make sure you come down. Go out into the mountains and rivers and lakes if you can hear his voice more clearly there – but don’t become a loner. Receive his body and blood in your mouth if you are here today. See him in the hungry and the outcasts – for he is certainly there! Seek him in the wisdom and experience of our precious elders who have walked the talk of faith.

There are many ways to come to Jesus. He loves variety; and he reveals himself in a diversity of ways. You can’t miss him. He is right next to you.

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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.”