From Now on Just Tax Collecting

A Defining Moment:
From Now On Just Tax Collecting
Luke 19:1-10

And entering Jericho, he went on his way through the town. And here lived a man named Zacchaeus, an extremely wealthy tax-collector. He was part of the crowd [that had gathered] and was wanting to get a look at Jesus [to find out more about him], but was unable to do so because the crowd was so great and he was only a little person. So, running on ahead to the front of the procession he shimmied up a sycamore tree in order to get a better view of him as he passed along that way. And then, when he came to the spot, Jesus looking up into the tree said, “Zacchaeus, come down right away. This is the day when it is [necessary] for me to stay at your house.” And he quickly got down [out of the tree] and welcomed him with much [fanfare and] celebration. And so [once again] the muttering [surfaced] of those witnessing this: “He has gone into stay [the night] with a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood up [taking a stand] saying to the Lord: “Here then is half of all that is rightfully mine which I am giving to the poor. And any I have defrauded I will repay four times over.” Then Jesus said to him, “This day salvation has come to this house, since this fellow is also a son of Abraham and the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the ones who are lost.”

Luke makes a lot of the role of taxation in shaping the conditions within which his story has to be told. Jesus’ birth is framed by the taxation decree (Luke 2:1). The calling of Levi occurred early on when he left his tax booth to follow Jesus, held a banquet in his honour and, as strong tradition has it, become one of the twelve – Matthew (5:27). The paying of taxes and tax-collecting constitutes an important characteristic of the social context in which Luke’s story, as well as the stories of the tax collectors, has to be told. And so, as the Gospel records Jesus’ journeying up to Jerusalem, we come to this significant event in Jericho.

At this point, Theophilus will have sensed that with Zacchaeus’ public conversion – confirmed also by the strange and violent parable that follows – that this “going up to Jerusalem” intensified a movement having decisive significance for tax-collectors. Luke writes his Gospel to one who is clearly being encouraged to take note of the details, the careful documentation of events. This is no “off the cuff” record.

Levi, other un-named tax-collectors, and now Zacchaeus, greeted Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. The repentance of tax collectors and their baptism was initially confirmed and encouraged by John who instructed them to “collect no more than the amount that has been issued for you to collect” (Luke 3:12). But then such repentant Israelite tax collectors, having heeded the call to seek God’s Kingdom above all else, were not just passive in their public service. They might have been collecting taxes in the employ of the authorities, but they were answerable to Israel’s Lord.

The fact that John had said “collect no more” meant that there was rotting going on, that complicit in a corrupt tax-collecting and political system required repentance, just as other sins in other occupations. No longer could one of God’s citizens, in His kingdom, collect taxes that included a “bit on the side”. So where were these pious and repentant fellows to find guidance? They needed to reckon with the setting of just levels of tax, and they no doubt were adept at sending “message up the line” to whomever had executive authority. But now, with the coming of Jesus, they also had to come to terms with the injustice, the “ripping off culture” which had enabled them to live so luxuriously and to do so by creaming off the fat of the land.

We will come to the parable Jesus told concurrently with Zacchaeus’s public announcement shortly but the statement put into the mouth of the negligent servant comes to mind here:

… you take possession of that which is not yours and you harvest what you did not first sow.

This then is a judgement not just on the authoritarian rulers “at the top”; we are given this account with its accompanying parable to understand that Jesus is walking in a way that defies the way of “mammon”, the way he described that has enslaved the peoples of the world.

What’s it going to be? Service in God’s Kingdom or servitude, slavery? You cannot serve God and mammon! (see 16:10-13).

And for that teaching Jesus had to wear the public ridicule of the Pharisees who, Luke tells us, “were lovers of money” (16:14)

But as a guest of Zacchaeus’s hospitality, Jesus receives of one who was a sinner and tax collector in the full knowledge of the comprehensive tension, the religious, social, political and cultural confrontation that he, and those of his profession, will henceforth have to negotiate in their everyday life – to repeat it: even in their employment as tax collectors.

So what was then then current “policy” of Zacchaeus – and of his fellowship of repentant tax collectors – when Zacchaeus, like Levi before him (Luke 5:27-32) threw a lavish celebratory banquet for Israel’s Messiah open to all?

In passing, we should note that Luke must have enjoyed collecting these accounts of Jesus’ travel. We can imagine him smiling as he hears about the recurrent mumbling and grumbling (5:30 and 19:7) of the Pharisees and the scribes, of the crowd under their bitter sway. And here we here that Zacchaeus took a stand and publicly repudiated the rip-off system of tax-gathering from which he had benefited so handsomely. But there is absolutely no sense given – by Luke – that this was an “anti-taxation” movement. Not at all. This was a genuine effort of an initial group of Jesus’ disciples to get their lives, as tax-collectors, back in line with the Law of God. We can just imagine that the nay-sayers to Jesus Messianic teaching stood aghast, jaws dropping.

Lord, half of what I have gained from my work as a tax-collector I now make available for the poor and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay back four times.

This, as Alan Storkey says in his book Jesus and Politics (2005), is an implicit appeal to the law of God as found in Exodus 22:1-5. It should be noted that this is in a section devoted to the manner in which convicted criminals would make restitution. We can imagine that this public act by one who had previously accommodated their own accommodation to the occupying power, simply spurred Jesus’ enemies to maintain their rage. And this Luke tells they did – they tried to trap Jesus with the now famous question about paying taxes to Caesar.

So, even today we have wiseacre theologians or politicians trying to sequester Christian faith from political responsibility by referring to Jesus’ statement that Luke records later on:

… so hand back the things of Caesar to Caesar and to God the things of God … (20:25).

Before they do so, they (and we) might first deepen their appreciation of Jesus’ confrontation with the powers, and their own political responsibility within that, by considering Zacchaeus’ banquet speech.

Here is a man, one of many, viewed as a quisling, in an occupation well known among the people for its corruption, making a public profession of his conversion, his embrace of Israel’s Messiah. He will henceforth be known as the “little person” who made a break with “the system”, renounced the lucrative “side benefits” that came with his employment, the dodgy deals with its weaseling art. The corrupt tax-system confirmed Roman control over the land. But at the same time the inability of those who claimed to be God’s special possession to live by His law confirmed the rule of mammon over their hearts. And here is Zacchaeus the tax collector, appealing to Moses, to the Torah, to the tenets to which the elite Pharisees, lawyers and scribes said they adhered. It is relatively easy to say that the Law provides us with the rule of life. How does one demonstrate it? Is repentance fomented by mumbling and grumbling about a repentant tax-collector hosting another of those “come one, come all” banquets?

By contrast, of course, Zacchaeus’ repentance could indeed be said to be all talk, except that would also mean consigning Jesus’ recorded comment to the rubbish bin. Jesus’ commendation bore eloquent testimony to a Divine economy, the rule of the Kingdom of God in its unpriceable mercy, promulgated in the face of the cynical, sceptical whispering gallery. The opponents of Jesus, those who now saw Zacchaeus as an enemy, did not understand how even a brief word involves an intense spiritual battle. (Today they might be trying to maintain their rage by tweets on a twitter account to maintain their hold on power!)

But here a tax collector was confronting his tax-collecting with the demands of God’s law – God’s judgement and God’s mercy. And Jesus affirmed him, and in doing so, affirmed Zacchaeus’ vocation:

This day salvation has come to this household, since this person is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.

And when we consider how John the Baptist’s ministry is referred to in Luke’s later account of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem, both before and after his resurrection, as well as the plans of Jesus’ enemies to trap him by tricky taxation questions (20:1-2), not to forget the trumped up accusation they set forth concerning his alleged proscription of paying taxes to Caesar (23:1-5), we realise we are reading about a highly charged context in which tax-collecting is played as a trump card (with no pun intended even if reflection upon the proposed tax-cuts by the recently elected US president is quite appropriate at this juncture).

Luke believed Jesus to be Prince of all Princes and his account for us is a description of One who knew full well what he was confronting. And we see that in stark relief when we consider the parable immediately after Zacchaeus’ public affirmation (19:11-27). He presented this to the crowds joining him on his way up to Jerusalem so that they should be in no two minds about what it was Zacchaeus and they would be confronting from then on.

January 22nd, 2017

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