A man on a quest

This coming Sunday is the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Yesterday we look at the parallels and connections within the Lucan narrative as Jesus, moving steadily towards Jerusalem, continues to prepare his disciples for their evangelical mission.

At first glance we might expect this to be another parable challenging the rich. The rich have not fared well in Luke’s gospel. Jesus pronounces woes upon the rich (6:24). God called the rich farmer a fool (12:16, 20) and required his soul of him. The rich man went to Hades while Lazarus went to the bosom of Abraham, and Jesus observed how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (18:23, 25).  Zacchaeus is a “wealthy man” (19:2)

Yet, Zacchaeus is like the others in previous stories of Jesus – people faced with obstacles (18:3-4, 15, 39); he is of low social status and esteem as are the widow, the toll collector, children and a blind beggar.  Yet, like the rich ruler (18:18-30), Zacchaeus is a person of power, privilege and position – people not easily ignored.  Whereas the Rich Ruler’s self assessment is that he keeps all the commandments, Zacchaeus, according to popular opinion, is a sinner. Zacchaeus is a “Son of Abraham” and yet serves the Roman Imperia to the detriment of this own people and to his financial benefit.  In a way Zacchaeus is a pivotal character whose characteristics straddle the boundaries. Then who can be saved? (18:26).

Zacchaeus is introduced in v.2 and characterized in four ways: Jew, a ruler, a chief tax collector, and wealthy. This last characteristic reminds one that Jesus has just remarked on the near impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom of heaven (18:24-25).

Yet Zacchaeus is a man on a quest. Either because of his stature or age, Zacchaeus goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest – even if it means enduring the probable shame of climbing a tree as though he were a child. The earnestness of his quests accounts for some of the exuberance, but also because of the crowd. In some way the other people have become an obstacle to him, rendering him as a member of the lowly along with the widow, the tax collector, children, and the blind beggar of chapter 18.

Jesus is on a quest and so the “seeker” Zacchaeus, becomes the “sought”. While he is trying to see Jesus, apparently Jesus had already seen him. The same word (zeteo) is used in v.3 where it is Zacchaeus “seeking to see.”  In v.10 it is Jesus who seeks and the resulting “seeing” is expressed in terms of salvation (to save): “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”  Who is seeking whom?  Each are on a quest – the terminus of salvation played out in the offer of salvation, without out cost or prerequisite, to one who was lost. With the offer accepted, the banquet of the reign of God is proleptically seen in Jesus staying at Zacchaeus’ house: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (v. 5).

“Today” (semeron) is an important word in Luke that is part of a recurring theme from start to finish of this gospel. Some of the significant verses:

  • Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (2:11)
  • Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (4:21)
  • I must stay at your house today. (19:5)
  • Today salvation has come to this house (19:9)
  • I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (23:43)

“Today” is the moment of salvation. That moment is created by Jesus’ presence and his word.

“Today” carries its own urgency, and so Jesus insists that the nature of his mission renders it imperative that he share Zacchaeus’ hospitality. This is a breach of decorum because Jesus does not wait to be invited to the tax collector’s house. He invites himself; the shepherd seeking the one lost sheep (v. 10; 15:4–7). Zacchaeus quickly descends from the tree and received him with joy (v.6).

There is one question that flows in and out of  the ongoing Lucan narrative: who can be saved? Since this post is already long, I will post another one later this morning.

Image credit: “Zacchaeus” by Niels Larsen Stevns (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen) (Randers Museum of Art, Randers, Denmark), Public Domain

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