The Rich Young Ruler walked away unhappy that Jesus wasn’t offering eternal life on his terms. Jesus told him what he had to give up to follow him and he wasn’t up for it. He preferred his demon-imbued idol named Mammon to following the Son of God.
Now let’s contrast that incident with the story of another rich guy and whose interaction with Jesus ended quite differently. Since Luke recorded these two scenarios in back to back chapters (Luke 18 & 19) it doesn’t seem an overreach to assume that he intended us to see a contrast between them.
Zacchaeus, was a very different kind of rich guy. As a collaborator with an occupying colonial power, his Mammon came from extorting extra taxes from his own countrymen. In fact, as a “chief tax collector” he oversaw other shakedown artists like himself from whom he took a cut, which made him even richer and even more contemptible to his fellow Jews.
Zacchaeus and other moral degenerates of the profession were so money hungry that they made a killing off the most vulnerable of their own people. They were greedy and merciless sell-outs. They had their own neighbors by the throat. If they refused to pay they would have to answer to big brother Rome. As much as the Jews hated Romans they detested their sell out brothers more. It’s no wonder that the words “tax collectors” and notrorious “sinners” often appear in the New Testament in juxtaposition.
But something shifted the day he heard Jesus was coming to town. You know the story. He couldn’t wait to get a glimpse of the One who unapologetically befriended thugs and all-other-manner of bad people. But since he was too short to see over the crowd he jumped up in a tree. For a guy of his station, climbing a tree so he could see the parade would’ve been beneath him (pun intended)! But he wanted to see Jesus more than he cared about keeping up appearances.
In contrast to the ruler in the previous story, on his own initiative Zacchaeus declared that he would give away half of all his portfolio to the poor, and those he had ripped off he would repay four times the amount he had taken, which was way more than the Law required (Leviticus 6:1-5). The Law said that if you defraud someone you have to pay him back the money you stole plus 20%. Instead of the required 120% he offered 400%.
Both men had a measure of spiritual hunger. One climbed a tree and the other flung himself at Jesus’ feet. The hunger of the ruler had a limit. He’d mistakenly assumed that he could relate to Jesus on his own terms, at minimal cost. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, called Jesus’ raise and pushed all his chips to the middle of the table.
He gave away half of what he owned and from the other half he paid his victims four times what he stole from them. Who knows, he might have ended up a poor man after all! But he didn’t seem to care. He was so enamored with his brief brush with Jesus that, in contrast with most of us who are trying to squeak by in a half-a** discipleship way, he went above and beyond the call of duty. That’s what I call gettin’ saved!
I noticed that Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus to quit his tax collecting business. Neither did John the Baptist, who told the taxmen to collect only the amount required. I suppose they didn’t object to working for the empire as long as they could do it without victimizing the less fortunate. Keep in mind that to do so would be to take a severe cut in income. They might have to forgo trips to the Riviera, sell the yacht, and put a stop to digging the Olympic-size pool in the backyard. Sounds rough!
We have no indication that Jesus asked him to do what he did. It’s possible that Zacchaeus came up with these percentages between him and the Spirit. He knew the Law and what it required, but he wanted to go an extra mile out of his appreciation for salvation that came to his house that day. He doesn’t seem to have waited for Jesus to tell him what to do; he just went ahead and did it.
But to Jesus, it’s more about the pilgrimage than the percentage. We usually want to know God’s baseline demands, his bottom-line, but he invites us into an adventure where a risky life of faith and devotion makes more sense than the dollars and cents. Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see what he could see and when he got an eye-full he jumped out of the tree into the faithful arms of Jesus!
In both cases (Zacchaeus and the rich ruler), the money was given–or should’ve been given–to the poor. Jesus didn’t ask them to set fire to their cash, but to give it to those who needed it. As I said in Part 1, Jesus kills two birds with one stone by requiring us to share our wealth with the poor. He frees us from Mammon and feeds the hungry at the same time!
Zacchaeus planned to find all the people he’d cheated and do an AA-type restitution step. But I call his a “Restitution Plus,” not just because he gave them four times as much as he’d stolen from them, but also because he was giving money to people who really needed it. He was on a quest to help the very same people he had hurt, which would be the socioeconomically disadvantaged. It’s the people who can’t fight back that are targeted by men like him, people he could intimidate and cheat. He, and people like him, are Robin Hoods in reverse. They stole from the poor to make themselves rich, thus making the poor even poorer.
Zacchaeus wasn’t just doing the right thing by paying back his old victims. He had a sudden infusion of compassion for the poor. He went from greedy to generous in one fell swoop!
I wonder how many of us would be able to claim a radical transformation from avarice to liberality as a salvation sign. How did our conversion affect our relationship to the god, Mammon? Is it enough that we don’t cheat on our taxes and pay our tithes, or is that just a good beginning of a new life of generosity? I entitled this two-part post, “What Does Jesus Want From Me?” to help us begin thinking about these very questions. “What does he want from me?” is a very different question than “What am I willing to give him?”
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Too harsh or legalistic or too … ?