Pre-emptive Friendship and the Conversion of Zaccheus

Martha Stortz—November 3, 2004

Pentecost 22
Isaiah 1: 10-18
2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12
Luke 19: 1-10

A little later in this brief letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned” (2 Thess. 2:11-12). I had no idea the apostle Paul had been hired on as an international observer of this presidential election.

It would be hard to imagine a more vitriolic campaign than the one that mercifully ended last night. The charges have been so fierce that the election of 2004 already goes down in punditry as “The Angry Campaign”— though that way understates the case. Both sides get credit for non-stop nastiness. The verbal theatrics were completely bipartisan—and they were the only thing that was. The sheer spitefulness of it all reflects a nation divided, very different from the country immediately after 9/11, when national and world opinion united in disgust at a despicable crime and in sympathy for America.

Accusation has been elevated to an art form: Flip-flopper, Girlie Man, Breck Girl, Darth Vader of Halliburton, and in sheer jest, the Great Communicator. Scolds abound: just read the bumper stickers. Nothing accomplished! Band-Aid Purple Heart! How much of the campaign on both sides has been about accusation and scolding. And beneath all this surface drama a dark war rages on with an American occupying army losing its grip in Iraq.

From the midst of this political maelstrom the world of Jesus seems quite distant—but only at first glance. In the world of the New Testament, the Jews time knew all too well the anguish of occupation and the tyranny of an army of outsiders. During the time of Jesus’ active ministry, Palestine was under direct Roman control. The Roman proconsul Pontius Pilate saw to it that tribute was rendered, taxes paid, and a volatile population kept in line.

The Romans had occupation down to a fine art. We could take a few pages from their book—if only we could read them: they are awash with blood. The Romans assimilated the gods of the peoples they conquered, they buttressed power with cruelty; they humiliated and then manipulated their foes. Remember the graphic details from Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” Know that beneath the impassive brutality of the guards who tortured Jesus was a bedrock fear: the Romans knew they were outnumbered by the people they occupied. Their control was only a mask, and they knew it.

Like Americans in Iraq in the present century, the first century Romans had too few soldiers on the ground to manage the occupation, especially the more mundane tasks like collecting taxes. The occupiers remanded these tasks to those few Jews whom they could trust to do their dirty work. Tax collecting was one of these unsavory tasks, so they passed it off to Jews whom they could coopt. The Romans contracted with these locals for a fixed amount, then encouraged them to overcharge and keep the surplus to line their own pockets. It was a sinister, if tidy system: extortion backed by the power of rule. Among their own people, however, these Jews were accused of being traitors. They had voluntarily renounced their patrimony and chosen to side with the enemy. They were despised, no longer worthy to be called the “children of Abraham.” Zaccheus was one such turncoat Jew: he was accused of being a lackey to the Romans and a traitor to the Jews.

The Gospel story charitably suggests that Zaccheus climbed the tree because he was small in stature—and wanted a better view. It’s probably more truthful that he climbed a tree for protection. Zaccheus knew how vulnerable he was. In a crowd straining to see this healer and wonder-worker, it would be all too easy for a small man to be jostled and shoved, to stumble and fall. Hopefully he would lose consciousness before he was trampled to death by his countrymen. His demise would be chalked off as an accident—and he knew it. No Roman would step in to stop the violence; no Jew would come to his rescue. There was a reason Zaccheus was in that tree—and it wasn’t just to get a better view.

The title at the top of the column in my bible calls this story simply “Jesus and Zeccheus,” and that title states the facts. I always want to reframe these titles, because this story in particular is about so much more than that. What really happens is the story of Zaccheus’ conversion, but it isn’t your usual conversion story: as in, Zaccheus sees the light and comes to Jesus. Rather, Jesus comes to Zaccheus—and then he sees the light. So the title I want to give this encounter is “Jesus’ pre-emptive friendship—and Zaccheus’ conversion,” for there are two miracles embedded in this encounter, and their order is crucial.

The sequencing is stunning. Jesus looks up—a feat in itself, given that he was swarmed by people. Don’t think of this antiseptically: these were not Sunday-best and ready-for-church, scrubbed and gloved people. Jesus was surrounded the way an emergency room doctor would be in a crowded waiting room on Saturday night of some holiday weekend—in summer. So the first miracle is that with all the stuff going on in front of him, Jesus looks up. He sees this tiny man literally above the fray, clinging precariously to the branches of a tree. .

And then the first miracle happens: Jesus offers Zaccheus his friendship. Without fanfare or preparation, without accusation or scolding, Jesus simply announces that he is coming to Zaccheus’ house that day. And think of all the accusations and scolds that had been flung Zaccheus’ way: traitor, turncoat, toadie of the Romans! Pig—not a happy association for a Jew. And perhaps the worst of all: you are no son of Abraham! Jesus puts all of that aside: he is simply coming to Zaccheus’ house that day, and in the world of ancient etiquette, this is a truly shocking statement. When you go to someone’s house, the host is expected to wash your feet, wine and dine you. Furthermore, according to the Miss Manners of the Ancient Near East, you were the company you kept. In ways we cannot begin to appreciate, the people you ate with were your friends, and your friends were the people you ate with. Abraham ate with angels, therefore he was called the friend of God. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells his own disciples that they are his “friends” – and the setting of course is a meal, that terminally long Last Discourse, which is also John’s Last Supper. Eating together is the sacrament of friendship. So in announcing he is going to Zaccheus’ house that day, Jesus offers him friendship—which is also the friendship of God. The first miracle is this offer—utterly unbidden—of friendship: I’d call it Jesus’ pre-emptive friendship.

This cannot have been good news to the angry crowd surrounding Jesus. Later, they would take their revenge, accusing Jesus again and again of being “a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” The people remembered—and the reference to Zaccheus is unmistakable. Dining with Zaccheus brands Jesus as a traitor in their eyes and fuels the accusations that pave the way to his crucifixion.

And then the second miracle takes place. To Zaccheus Jesus’ announcement is a moment of grace. No one ever came to his house, and certainly no other Jew – except to throw something or leave graffiti. But Jesus offers him friendship. And that gesture of friendship, offered without condition or demand, strangely moves Zaccheus. It evokes a pledge of good behavior: “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” This is a kind of a declaration of bankruptcy, for Zaccheus promises to abandon his livelihood: this is how he made his living. His standard of care for clients was to skim a hefty portion of their taxes off the top for himself. His countrymen all knew this—and despised him for it. He was, we are told by the gospel writer, a wealthy man. But something in Jesus’ manner makes him drop his defenses. Jesus wins him over by showing him love. And more than any scolding or accusation, Jesus’ friendship creates the possibility for a change of heart and a change of life. The Zaccheus that climbs out of the tree is a very different man than the Zaccheus that climbed into it.

This second miracle is the conversion of Zaccheus—make no mistake about the order of events here. Jesus comes to Zaccheus—and then he changes his ways. Even a lot of commentators on this encounter seem to miss the point. Some deliberately reorder the miracles, placing Zaccheus’ conversion first and making Jesus’ friendship a kind of reward for good behavior. Others suggest that Zaccheus was a pretty good tax collector to begin with. Or that he was already doing the right thing in his despicable but necessary calling, as if Zaccheus somehow merits Jesus’ attention. And I want to tear up all the words of these tweedy scholars and say: Read the text! Jesus’ friendship is pre-emptive! First, he notices Zaccheus—and then the man changes.

The conversion of Zaccheus tells us two things that are worth repeating: one is about ourselves and the other is about God. Zaccheus, after all, is a lot like were are. He’s looking for something to hitch his life to. That’s the only reason he would venture into such a potentially volatile situation, risking everything to see this strange healer. He’s a seeker—and Jesus searches out his face in a crowd. He’s looking for something—and discovers he has already been found. And the message to us latter-day seekers is clear: Show up—so that God can find you. Isn’t this the essence of contemplation, not some array of meditational techniques, but the simple act of showing up in the presence of God, so that we can be found?

And then this conversion tells us something very important about Jesus. He doesn’t scold people into conversion, he doesn’t accuse people into conversion, he befriends people into a new way of being. He wines and dines people into changing their hearts and then changing their lives for him. Our conversion comes out of gratitude for that attention, that friendship—and that meal. So come, let us eat together with the One who gave himself for food.