Henry Martinez

Before we get too far into this, it’s worth pointing out that Zacchaeus is not asked the question “How much do you give?” or anything like it, and yet his story can’t be told without considering how entangled his identity is with this concern. It is an uncomfortable question that typically doesn’t make its way into our conversations, but before we bristle too much we should ask Zacchaeus what wealth meant to him.

Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) presents a curious case for Luke, who offers chief tax collector and rich man as primary descriptions. The former implicates him, by default, in a system of corruption and on the margins of acceptance according to religious authorities (see the Pharisees’ reaction to Levi in Luke 5:30). The latter places him in a group that stands out in this gospel for its unwillingness to give to the poor. Biblical scholars observe that the name Zacchaeus means “pure” or “innocent,” neither of which fit Luke’s descriptions. But what makes Zacchaeus all the more curious is that in Luke’s gospel we don’t expect a man of his reputation to be so intrigued by Jesus or even responsive to his mission, “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

Luke’s uses both teaching parables and narrative interactions to portray the rich. The most notable parables are of the rich man who decides to have bigger barns built for himself so that he can retire and enjoy life (12:13-21) and the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). The first encounter we see between Jesus and a rich man ends with the rich man feeling sad after learning that he would have to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor in order to have eternal life (18:18-30). From these stories we get the sense that wealth leads one to a tragic end. But just when it looks like the rich are out of hope, Jesus hints there is another way of looking at things: a way that is possible only for God.

In addition to the unexpected announcement of Jesus’ visit, Zacchaeus hears the grumbling crowd. At the heart of their grumbling is an accusation that is just as much against Zacchaeus as Jesus. This prompts the first words we hear from Zacchaeus, who addresses the concerns about his character by offering an explanation of his charitable contributions and financial intentions, which is not unreasonable given the assumptions regarding his reputation. He says:

“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.” (NRSV; emphasis mine)

It is worth noting that some translate his words to “I will give,” and “I will pay back” suggesting a future plan that he has not yet enacted (NRSV, CEV). Other translations chose the present tense for both verbs, suggesting actions that he is currently doing and plans to continue (NIV, RSV, The Message). Both are possible translations of the Greek verbs, but regardless of which we opt for, the power in this statement is the challenge of the common assumptions about identity and wealth. No one expects this rich man, let alone tax-collector to say that he gives or will give to the poor.  Biblical scholar David Tiede finds similarities between the Zacchaeus story and a healing story, where it is not a physical condition which he suffers, but a spiritual one.[1] However, the spiritual condition is not just a personal one.

In this context, the healing comes in the form of Jesus’ announcement that Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham” (no longer just a “tax collector”) and salvation has come to his household. The declaration of salvation is not just a personal experience, but indicates wholeness and healing in a broader sense. Theologian Fred Craddock observes that salvation has personal, domestic, social and economic dimensions.[2] Knowledge of the social implications of his wealth distinguishes Zacchaeus from the other rich men in Luke. He recognizes that wealth is a dangerous thing, and he uses his wealth to make up for social and economic disparities.

In an overview of how wealth is presented in Luke and Acts, scholar Joel B. Green finds that wealth is certainly used as an economic measure, but that it is also woven into issues of status, power, and social privilege. He writes of the significance of Zacchaeus’ decision, “According to the cultural script of Luke’s world, Zacchaeus behaves toward those who make their lodging at society’s margins as if they were his friends, his neighbors, his kin.”[3] If numerous other factors are involved in wealth, implicit in the question of how much should we give is the issue of how we relate to others. Zacchaeus shows us that wealth is a central matter for our spiritual health, identity and personal relationships. It is a dangerous thing to be sure, but one that can’t be ignored.

Henry Martinez is an education associate for ELCA World Hunger.

[1] David Tiede, Luke, (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 320.

[2] Fred Craddock, Luke, (Interpretation), 220.

[3] Joel B. Green, “Wealthy…Who? Me? Surprising Perspectives on Faith and Wealth from Luke-Acts,” The Living Pulpit(2003), 18-19.