bible blog 1064

Today’s blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily reading along with a headline from world news


Dawn raid in Caju favela, Rio

Dawn raid in Caju favela, Rio

New English Translation (NET)

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. Now a man named Zacchaeus was there; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to get a look at Jesus, but being a short man he could not see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, because Jesus was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.” So he came down quickly and welcomed Jesus joyfully. And when the people saw it, they all complained, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham! 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

zaccThere’s a comic element to this story, where the short rich man tries to get up to Jesus’ level by climbing  a tree (he’s a social climber?). but is told to come down and divest himself of his wealth, so that he can stand on common ground with Jesus and the poor. Salvation arrives when Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus in at one door and lets his ill-gotten wealth go out the other. He “repents” that is, he turns his life around.

In so doing he takes his place alongside all the other “repentant” characters in Luke’s story who meet Jesus with joy and change their lives; fishermen, the sick, the possessed, the women, foreigners. Because it’s so frequently emphasised that Jesus “opted for the poor” in the peculiar language of liberation theology, it’s good to note that here Jesus “opts” for a rich racketeer, the sort of man who might be trafficking drugs or fixing oil cartels, or controlling several favelas of poor people in Rio. Jesus is not alienated either by the man’s wealth or by the fact that he’s a collaborator. He discerns the new man in the old and calls him out.

We are not righteous because we are poor; we are blessed because when we are poor we more easily welcome God’s justice. We are not unrighteous because we are rich; we are cursed because it’s very hard for us to welcome God’s justice. But we are all rebellious human beings befriended by Jesus so that we turn around our lives and enjoy God’s justice. All of us are capable of that change. It’s as bad to turn a rich man into a fixed thing as it is for the wealthy of the world to turn a poor person into a fixed thing.

We can, and should use the language of “class” to understand the dynamics of society, but we should not imagine that classes exist or that they can, for example, decide to change. They do not exist; they are categories of analysis. Only people can change. Jesus was as aware as Karl Marx of the “class behaviour” of the rich; but he never treated rich people as robots controlled by their class, but rather as flesh and blood human beings with the ability to go wrong or right. He met them with same affectionate advance of trust that he offered to the demon-possessed and the prostitutes.

liberation theology poster

liberation theology poster

Simone Weil, the great, crazy, challenger of intellectual certainties, asked her countrymen in 1945 to consider, of two groups in Jesus’ society, the armed resistance and the collaborators, which drew closer to Him. She did so in order to disturb the easy self-righteousness, not so much of actual resistance fighters, but of those who from the safety of the post-war peace, suddenly revealed themselves as secret resistance fighters. Jesus friendships with both collaborating tax collectors and Roman soldiers would have made him very suspect in the eyes of some militant Jews.

If I was asked about my theological stance I guess I would admit to a preference for liberation theology, not least because it got so effectively up the nose of the thuggish pope John-Paul 2, whom the Catholic Church is hoping to sanctify before the true story of his part in ecclesiastical child abuse becomes fully apparent. But when I’m faced with this story from Luke’s gospel, I’m reminded that the Jesus remembered by the church escapes all theological pigeonholing, even the kind I like. He remains the church’s saviour and lord, not its creature.


Today this blog proposes a popular campaign against the canonisation of the late Pope John-Paul 2. I was reminded by a marvellous programme on TV about abuse survivors from Catholic school for the deaf on the USA (BBC 4 10th May), that perhaps more than anyone else he crafted the church’s denial of justice to victims of sexual abuse by priests. Anything he didn’t like, he rejected out of hand. In another context the man would have been known as a thug, who would do anything to preserve his own and his institution’s power.

It would be the gravest insult to all the goodness, past and present in the Catholic Church to declare this man a saint. I hope that all good people, and especially all Christian believers, will urge their Catholic friends to oppose a travesty which would only re-affirm the power of a corrupt curia.


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