When salvation comes: context

jesus-zacchaeus1 He came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. 2 Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, 3 was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 And he came down quickly and received him with joy. 7 When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.

Context. A long section of the Gospel of Luke is passed over as we move from the 30th to the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C:

  • 18:15-17 The Little Children
  • 18:18-25 The Rich Ruler
  • 18:26-30 The Demands of Discipleship
  • 18:31-34 The Third Passion Prediction
  • 18:35-43 The Blind Beggar

For many weeks, the Sunday gospels have been accounts are that are unique to Luke.  At the beginning of his narrative of the journey to Jerusalem (9:51), Luke departed from the outline of Mark and began introducing material from sources either personal or common to Matthew and himself. At this point Luke begins to follow Mark again. The paragraphs below provide a very brief description of these passages:

18:15–17 Jesus and the Little Children. Luke uses these verses along with the story of the rich man as an illustrative sequel to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The tax collector has the attitude of a child, defenseless and expectant, while the Pharisee is like the rich man (vv. 18–25), not yet ready to give up control over himself.

The disciples are infected with the attitudes of the Pharisee and the rich man. They have no regard for children perhaps seeing them as non-persons since they were not able to contribute to the family or earn their way. In their view, Jesus is wasting his time on these children who are unable to comprehend the great work he is about. He startles the disciples by saying that the reign of God belongs precisely to such as these children. As well, the disciples are to learn that those in positions of power or authority must never hinder the weak, outcast, or stranger from the Kingdom of God.

18:18–25 Jesus and the Rich Ruler. This account seems to be intended to be read as having the same setting as the encounter with the Little Children. Perhaps the Rich Ruler is asking that if the Kingdom is meant for “them” then what awaits a ruler? … and what must I do to inherit eternal life? (18:18). This is the same question as posed by the lawyer in 10:25 – and Jesus’ answer is the same, pointing the questioner to the Law and its demands – in other words, the simple answer that any child would know. In a way it is taken as a demeaning answer and elicits a response that suggests a tone of “this is all you can offer?”

Jesus does not draw the man into closer relationship immediately. But when he hears a wish to go further, Jesus offers him his own way of life (see 9:57–58). The ruler cannot take the step because of his wealth, so often a threat to life in the kingdom (14:33; 16:13). He seems to know deep down that Jesus has spoken the word he needs to hear, but he is too enslaved by his possessions to follow it through. This provokes Jesus’ memorable remark about the camel and the needle’s eye. Semitic exaggeration is used, not to deny the possibility of salvation for the rich, but to imprint indelibly in his hearers’ minds the sinister influence that riches can be even on those sincerely desiring the reign of God.

18:26–34 The demands of discipleship. Jesus’ listeners are shocked by his warning to the wealthy. They would have thought that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing because of a person’s goodness (Prov 10:3, 22). Jesus does not retract the harshness but enunciates the important principle that God is willing and able to save all who call out to him. Peter notes that the disciples have done what the rich ruler could not do, and asks in a rather clueless  (cautious?) manner about the reward. Jesus promises an “overabundant return,” without specifying his meaning and speaks again of the priority of kingdom over family (see 14:26).

18:31-34 The Third Passion Prediction.  Then to the Twelve Jesus makes the third prediction of his passion and resurrection, adding this time that these things will happen in fulfillment of prophecy. The meaning of his words is lost on them.

18:35–43 The Blind Beggar. The approach to Jericho signals the final stage of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Here, as in the incident of the children, the disciples try to keep an “insignificant” person from bothering the Master. The evangelist continues on another level to present the life of the church as a journey with Jesus on the way of the Lord. The note that it is “the people walking in front” who reprimand the beggar is a subtle warning to church leaders who might overlook the needs of the powerless (see Acts 6:1). But it is for these lowly who express their need for salvation that Jesus has come. The present chapter is a gallery of such people: the widow, the tax collector, the children, now the blind beggar.

The beggar’s name is given in Mark as Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46). Blind as he is, he cries out with inspired insight, calling Jesus by the messianic title “Son of David.” When questioned, he goes further to identify Jesus as “Lord.” In response to this faith, he receives the message of deliverance that by now is a stereotyped phrase: “Your faith has saved you” (7:50; 8:48; 17:19). Both the beggar and the witnesses see the ultimate meaning of this act of power and glorify God.

The two Jericho stories – the blind man and Zacchaeus – each contains interesting parallels:

  • a (poor) beggar || a wealthy chief tax collector
  • dependent upon other’s generosity || dependent on his own power and wealth
  • unable to see Jesus || initially prevented from seeing Jesus
  • wants to see (again) || tries to see (Jesus)
  • cries out to Jesus || says nothing
  • the crowd tries to keep him from Jesus || the crowd blocks his way to Jesus
  • Jesus asks what he wants || Jesus tells him what Jesus wants
  • Your faith has saved you” || “Salvation has come to this house

19:1-10 Zacchaeus. The story of entering the house of Zacchaeus stands fittingly as the last of Jesus’ encounters with the outcasts before his entry in to Jerusalem. The pericope picks up threads of the previous chapter. Alan Culpepper notes (Luke, 357):

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14) turns on the question of righteousness. Jesus declared that “all who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14), and Zacchaeus cast aside all regard for his own dignity by climbing a tree in order to see Jesus.  Jesus challenged the rich ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor (18:22), but he went away sad. Joyfully, Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ declaration that he would stay at Zacchaeus’ house by promising to sell half of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The difference between half and all is not the issue. Rather, it is Zacchaeus’ eagerness to do what is right for the poor. Thus the salvation of Zacchaeus is told in the form of a miracle story. Jesus demonstrated the power of God at work in the announcement of the kingdom: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24). Finally, the story of Zacchaeus is coupled to the story of the blind beggar – both occurs as Jesus is passing through Jericho; the blind man wanted to see, and Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus; in both stories the crowd serves as an impediment to the one who desires to see; in both the verb for “stood”…marks a dramatic turn in the story (18:40; 19:8); the joy or the praise of God accompanies the “healing” (18:43; 19:6); and in both the effect is immediate (18:43; 19:9)

Sources

  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 340-43
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