‘Zacchaeus stopped there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
salvation\the movement of God in the context of friendship
Zacchaeus responded quickly to Jesus’ proclamation of belonging and despite the protest of the holy grumble Jesus came as a guest and friend to the table of Zacchaeus. There is some space here in the story. We do not know what the decision of the grumblers was. Did they stay outside in the holy huddle even though Jesus would be leaving them behind, did they stomach becoming a guest of Zacchaeus’ too, or maybe they even realized what was going on and stayed in the company of Jesus by participating in the friendship of the God Movement. While we do not know what happened with that particular crowd, it would not be far fetched to imagine their response was as varied as our own today. Yet these verses are no longer focusing on the conflict between the crowd’s vision of Zacchaeus and that of Jesus’, but instead the transformation of Zacchaeus as a new friend of God.
The text emphasizes the radical and quick response of Zacchaeus to his new found circle of friends. The divine initiative and proclamation of belonging shakes Zacchaeus to his core. Before they even make it to his home he stops and voluntarily offers half of his possessions to the poor and promises to make four-fold restitution to all he defrauded. Surely this was good news for those grumbling minutes before. Those to whom Jesus most identified with and called blessed, the poor, hungry, and weeping, were frustrated by Jesus’ movement towards the exemplar sinner and recipient of prophetic woes – the rich, full, and happy. What occasioned this radical transformation is the embrace of God through the person of Jesus. Zacchaeus as rich, tax-collecting, poor exploiting, empire supporting, sinner was embraced into the friendship of God. In response to his new friendship and not prior to it, Zacchaeus repents in the fullest measure. The teachings of Jesus never fare well for the rich and Zacchaeus and Levi are the only ones who respond favorably. Why would friendship with God be so difficult that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God? This is not only a perplexing question, but one the affluent church of the first world should attentively listen to. The response of Zacchaeus is revealing, because moments after entering the friendship of Jesus he entered into friendship with the people of Jesus. The overwhelming majority of Jesus’ people were the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Jesus’ preferential option for the poor creates a dilemma for the rich and this dilemma is one of friendship and not obligation. Obligation is not a category of friendship, because friends are attentive to the situation of each other and respond out of love for the other. When Zacchaeus entered the belonging friendship of God he was now attentive to the situation of his new friends. They were no longer people to be exploited and bled for his own gain, but people he was now going to live with in the presence of Jesus. The repentance of Zacchaeus was not first to God, but the people of God – the friends of God. In the context of these relationships the sin of Zacchaeus is revealed as social and not simply private and individual. The salvation Jesus identified and proclaimed was then as social as the sin. The gospel is social, more social than sin because in the consummation of the God Movement creation will find its intended identity in the friendship of God.
The condemnation of the injustice practiced by Zacchaeus comes when his oppressed Other is no longer dehumanized. In the presence of Jesus they too are given names, identities, and the God given value of life is made known. The dichotomy of oppressed and oppressor is over come in the bounds of friendship in God. The evangelization of the power wielders is a liberating one, but not in a detached way. Friendship as the foundational context of the gospel helps Zacchaeus and his contemporaries in every age realize that “only by participating in [the marginalized] struggles can we understand the implications of the gospel message and make it have an impact” in our relationships with them. Those who enter into the friendship of God “do with their own resources what God has been doing with God’s, that is, [empowering] those who are powerless.” It is important then to notice, as members of the contemporary church of Zacchaeus, the nature of his response which is two fold. His first response is to shed his abundance. In light of his new friends struggling to have their own necessities met Zacchaeus rids himself of his gluttony of mammon and simply gives half of his possessions to the poor. The realization in the context of friendship is that much of his impressive pile of stuff was in fact not his own. In response he gives half of his possessions to the dispossessed around him because he was no longer going to be possessed by his possessions or continue to perpetuate the lie that he in fact had the right to wealth while his friends struggled for necessities. What this first act is not is charity. This act was not detached from his inclusion into the friendship of Jesus and Jesus’ ensuing pronouncement of salvation. It is only in the context of friendship and repentance that the God movement “becomes Good News for Zacchaeus and salvation enters his house.” When one on the take from Rome became friends with Jesus, when he experienced the presence of the God Movement in real relationship, he recognized his sin and did more than give charity. He repented for having extorted what was not properly his. When the wealthy and powerful enter the God Movement they see a friend in need as a call to confession for having taken more than their share and justified their thievery by adopting the dehumanizing world view of Empire – here Rome. The lesson learned is simple, “the ultimate evil of riches is relational: the oppression of the poor.”
The second voluntary act of Zacchaeus is even more telling if our comfort and imperial hermeneutic led us to interpret the first as simple charity. Here Zacchaeus promises to make a fourfold restitution if he has cheated anyone. The ’if’ here is conditional only in the sense that specific acts of extortion will come to light as he lives in relationship to his new friends. What he is committing himself to is the most stringent demands given in Torah for stealing. The conditional form of his statement is connected to having never seriously thought of life otherwise. In the past, like many of us privileged people, he did not think twice from reaping the benefits of a system that culturally marginalizes, economically exploits, and politically oppresses a majority of the human population. Since it was his job and he broke no laws he was not stealing, but playing fair by the rules making all his wealth his own earnings. After entering the friendship of God this previous determinative reality is revealed as an idolatrous interpretive reality whose God is mammon. The rich are those left to chose who they will serve, for you cannot serve both God and mammon. When Zacchaeus says ‘if’ he is in effect admitting he does not know what it would look like to give himself to the God Movement and live in the loving mutuality of friendship with those who now have a name. At first glance he knows it requires a shedding of wealth, but immediately after that realizes that as he comes to be shaped more fully by his new relationships he may, and more than likely will, realize he has extorted someone. If he
discovers this while living his life with the marginalized he will repay them fourfold. Zacchaeus has publicly committed himself to the God Movement and is in the process of being shaped by its vision or better yet, he is being converted. Today in the 21st century the affluent first world church also needs friendships that bring relational accountability “to those who are forced to provide us with “the good life” at their expense,” because abstract ethics are not only contrary to the nature of friendship, but easily manipulated. Manipulation is contrary to true friendship, for in friendship there is an unforsakable solidarity funded by the love of God. The ‘if’ of Zacchaeus is a commitment not to defend his privilege, he will not blunt the gospel to a spiritual language with no consequence in the world he and his friends live in. The repentance and new found stance of Zacchaeus “leads to a redistributive form of justice in which those defrauded by an exploitive system are repaid fourfold…The restoration of kinship status involves repentance, and repentance involves redistributing what has been taken falsely.” Zacchaeus took on a new interpretive frame work, the God Movement. In the framework of human empire, “the rich are all the people who live with tightly clenched hands. They are neither dependant on others nor open for others. The rich can only be helped when they recognize their own poverty and enter into fellowship with the poor.” Zacchaeus made this transition and joined the Movement. At this point, and not earlier, does Jesus say “today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
What does salvation mean here? It is clearly contextual, social, and a far cry from the individualist gospel present in church today. It does not promise security or prosperity in any worldly fashion and is decidedly obtuse and backwards to the logic of success and empire. The salvation of Zacchaeus is multifaceted and cannot be limited to a question of eternal destination. When Zacchaeus joined the God movement he claimed his identity as a son of Abraham, he came to be identified by his blessing of others. Zacchaeus’ blessing of others is not in his giving of material wealth and restitution, that was part of his relational repentance, his blessing of others comes in the reorganization of his life and relationships to no longer be a slave of mammon, but a friend of God. He will bless others by living for the common good of his friends and not preserving the good life for himself.
Just before arriving to Jericho and healing the blind man Jesus was asked a question that assumed a very impoverished view of salvation, one that we will see is foreign to the gospel. A rich ruler asks ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ It is no surprise that the rich ruler wants to discuss eternal destiny with economic terms of inheritance, because he envisions salvation as a possession given by God to individuals. The poor experience inheritance as the preservation of the oppressive system which ensures longevity to the gains of the wealthy. Jesus then asks him if he knows the commandments related to inter-human relationships – “you shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.” All these inter-human commandments the rich ruler reports to have kept since he was young, but Jesus knows that there is still one thing a miss so Jesus says, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus was not using hyperbole to point out some spiritual struggle between his wealth and belonging to God, it was clearly physical. The commandments Jesus listed, and he did know them all, were those centered on human relationships. He then says one thing is lacking. The rich ruler thought of these categories in very individualistic terms and missed the point, just as he did when he started the conversation about eternal destiny. Sure he had not personally broke the law and stole from the poor directly, but this is not keeping the commandment of God not to steal. As we have seen in the salvation story of Zacchaeus the relational notion of theft only becomes clear to the rich when they are friends with the oppressed. In order to both answer the Rich Ruler’s question and not compromise the integrity of the God Movement, Jesus is left to offer him what he needed but could not fathom due to his love of stolen wealth. The Rich Ruler was after one thing only, confirmation of his current life style’s compatibility with an eternal inheritance. Outside of joining the friendship of God, Jesus could not give him what he wanted; a neutered gospel of confirmation that keeps the affluent happy, healthy, and heaven bound without one having to every enter into the friendship of God which will transform all who dare to enter. The Rich Ruler however does understand Jesus, since on hearing this he was sad because he was rich. We do not know what happens to this Rich Ruler, he may have responded later in life. We know the friendship of God is as near as the marginalized and the offer is always open.
In response to this direct confrontation with wealth the disciples ask just who then can be saved to which Jesus replies, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” This question was more than a question of the salvation of the wealthy but of anyone. Jesus’ answer leads us back to where we started, friendship with God. Salvation is impossible for mortals, but for God it is friendship. Salvation for one and all is then joining the movement of God in friendship. This truth will surely revolutionize our theology, but more than that our mission. As the church most akin to Zacchaeus we must refuse to describe friendship as something that can be had without the inclusion of our Two-Thirds world sisters, brothers, and enemies. We must take the advice of Martin Luther King seriously who said that “we will either live together as sisters and brothers or perish together as fools.” How would our relationships change with the marginalized should be become friends and realize that they are the global majority who live in poverty and we are the affluent global minority? We must also refuse to be ministers who preach a sermon that leaves Zacchaeus in a tree and the Rich Ruler happy. If we are to be a Jesus’ church, then we will share in the mission of Jesus and preach the message of Jesus. At the foundation of the God Movement which we hope to be a part of is friendship. Friendship is the only foundationalism that can support the Good News, because friendship is the only relational structure that can begin with love for the Other in every varied form.