The Justice That Seeks and Saves, Part One

What does the LORD require of you?  To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10

As we have been attending to the perhaps familiar “Zacchaeus story” this week, it’s important to set it in its wider context.  Good Bible reading doesn’t just attend to a given passage, it also notices what comes before and after.

Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem, for his climactic visit, a journey that will end with the King’s coronation upon a Roman cross. Luke has already told us that Jesus set his face like a flint towards Jerusalem, so most of Luke’s Gospel is organized around this final earthly journey of our King. 

Jericho, Zacchaeus’ town, is the last major stop on this journey.  Luke deliberately links the “Zacchaeus story” with the story immediately preceding it, the story of Jesus healing a blind man.  Both are stories of the doing of the justice of the Kingdom.

In “the blind man story” (Luke 18:35-43), Jesus heals (saves) a man who is oppressed.  In the Zacchaeus story, Jesus saves (heals) an oppressor.

Zacchaeus is a “tax farmer”: he makes his living by collaborating with the Roman occupiers.  He could not have become wealthy by being honest, by collecting only what Rome required and turning 100% of the receipts over to Rome.  He has joined forces with the oppressors of his people, and become an oppressor himself.

As far as his neighbors are concerned, he is not only a traitor-collaborator; he is also religiously polluted and “unclean,” unable to participate in Jewish religious life.  Zacchaeus himself, his house, his food—all of it defiled.  Any contact with Zacchaeus would defile you.

Jesus enters Jericho; he is “passing through” on his way to Jerusalem, which means he will not stay to enjoy the hospitality of the community.  A big disappointment!

Zacchaeus is not a man for whom a crowd would “make way.”  In fact, as both a collaborator and a short man, being in a crowd would be highly dangerous: “accidents” could happen. He runs ahead, down along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, trying to get away from his neighbors, and climbs into a tree to hide and hopefully catch a glimpse of Jesus.  

Jesus is on his way out of town.  Zacchaeus is spotted, somehow—and now, outside of town, from the anonymity of a crowd, the insults begin to be hurled.  I suspect that’s how Jesus learned Zacchaeus’ name!

Jesus now does the extraordinary—by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home, he takes upon himself the shame and disgrace of Zacchaeus. Jesus, whom the townsfolk had hoped would accept their hospitality, instead extends hospitality to their oppressor!  No wonder they grumble! 

Jesus demonstrates the costly love by which the justice of the kingdom is done.  And Zacchaeus pictures what repentance actually looks like in the life of ordinary people like us.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!

How do you see this story bringing together doing justice and loving mercy?

[Editor’s note: Today and tomorrow’s posts rely on the work of Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, InterVarsity Press, 2008, p 175-85.]

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