From Debt to Life

From Debt to Life
Luke 19:1-10
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 30, 2022

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

1996, downtown Atlanta. My family had been waiting all day on the curb. We had our picnic chairs, games, and food as we waited and waited. My parents and two of my brothers had been waiting all day to get a glimpse of the olympic torch as a runner carried it to the Olympic Stadium where it would light the large torch that would stay lit for the entire Olympic Games. We could hear the crowd start to stand and cheer down the road so we knew it was coming soon. We stood up, dressed in our Olympic gear and facepaint, and right as the torch was about to pass by us, a man stepped in front of me and my brothers, blocking our view. And just like that the torch was gone. We had missed our opportunity to see it. 

Zacchaeus was also worried about missing this famous person, Jesus, as he passed by. This is the only appearance of Zacchaeus in the entire bible, a man whose name literally means righteousness. It is a memorable story even if we only remember it through children’s songs. Zacchaeus was a wee little man… The story makes sure we know that Zacchaeus was short in stature. So much so that he had to climb a sycamore tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus. Interestingly, he does not approach Jesus to be seen but is happy to be an observer on the side of the road. Did he stay up there at a safe distance because he was not sure he wanted to be called out? Did he stay because he had been overlooked his whole life and wanted to stay safe, knowing how Jesus calls out the rich? Did he stay up there because of his short stature and not wanting to receive any more comments about his body? 

We also know that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector and was rich. Luke’s gospel engages more with the rich than any other book in the new testament. Zacchaeus would have been raised in a Jewish home only to go out on his own to try and get some safety through the state sanctioned job of tax collector. However this would mean he was most likely shunned in his hometown and from his family. Being a tax collector required taking more than the state required to survive. They were responsible for getting their quota for the government but the only way to care for themselves was to take extra. People did not like to pay taxes to Rome or to have extra skimmed but this was a very common practice and not illegal under Rome’s imperial system. We look back and say that was so corrupt, but to them it was simply the normal everyday life of it. What is normal today that would be seen as corrupt in the future? What practices are harmful for our communal life that we let go because it is easier than trying something else?

Debt is an old strategy to maintain power and control, keeping some in high places and others in destitute places. The average credit card debt for Americans is reported at over $6,000! Forty-five million people in the United States owe $1.6 trillion in student debt. One in three people in our country have so much medical debt that they cannot afford safe housing, feed their families or themselves, or even receive the life-saving medical care they might still need. Debt is how ancient Rome kept its wealth gap and that practice continues today in the United States. (“Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Medical Debt Burden in the United States.”)

So here we have Zacchaeus in a tree, watching for the prophet who is feeding people without payment and healing them without medical debt. Jesus stops and looks up at Zacchaeus , a man short of stature who has worked hard in the current system to find safety and stability in wealth but still feels looked down on. The crowd starts to notice and is ready for one of Jesus’ fiery speeches condemning the wealthy, “Woe to you tax collector.” But instead Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from his lofty position but does not call him out of community. Zacchaeus is so moved by this tender engagement that he immediately vows in front of Jesus and all present to give away half of his possessions and return the money he has stolen 4 times over. Jesus responds then that “ today salvation has come to your house.”

According to Professor Amy-Jill Levine, sinners are “those who fracture community welfare.” (Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Z. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. 1st edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.) Zacchaeus is being confronted with the role he has played in the debt-based system of maintaining wealth for some at the expense of others and sees that he has been the one to fracture his community by engaging in these corrupt yet legal practices. The only response to this sin is to offer restitution and reparation. The original harm of the sin might not be healed immediately but the basis for that harm is beginning to be compensated for and the influx of support will help the community survive. 

What if salvation is connected to wealth redistribution? Salvation has the same root word as safe. People are not safe when they cannot afford medical care or housing or food. People are not safe when they are promised a better life only to find the terms of the debt have increased the debt 100 fold. People are not safe when some hoard wealth in Wall Street and offshore banking and yachts and real estate while others toil for their daily bread. 

One of the primary themes in the books of Luke is the challenge to the rich to turn around their lives and their assets. This story about Zacchaeus is one of many where Jesus pushes back against the legal economic exploitation of the Roman imperial system and where the rich are offered good news through repentance, reparation, and restoration. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. We are lost when we fracture community through hoarded wealth. Our society is sinful when the richest country in the world has people die because they can’t afford medication or housing. But in response to sin and lostness, Jesus calls us down from our lofty places into repentance and restoration. Jesus is calling us to a more just and fair society. How will we respond when we are called?

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