(1 of 3) My reflections on the radical nature of Friendship and its function in the missional church. This is the basic content from my CBF presentation I did with Zach. Enjoy.
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. Luke 19:1-3
the traveling worship circus and Zacchaeus
When Jesus came to Jericho he was no longer focusing only on his ministry, but had made the turn towards Jerusalem where the God Movement’s conflict with the worldly powers would come to head. Jericho is the location for two incidental happenings that reveal the nature of the God Movement in two profound ways. The first is necessary for understanding the context of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. With a crowd behind him and Jerusalem over the Jericho horizon, a blind man is told that the commotion he hears is the entourage of Jesus and so he calls out for mercy. Those at the front of Jesus’ band of travelers try to silence the man, but the blind man’s voice is heard and Jesus restores his sight. The blind man called out for mercy from Jesus and despite the organized ignoring and silencing by “those who were in front,” Jesus came to the man and restored his sight. The response of “all the people” was the immediate praise of God. The blind man saw who Jesus was and when his sight was restored all the people praised God, even those who thought Jesus should not have been bothered apparently broke out in praise. This traveling choir of praise was the entourage of Jesus as he entered Jericho. They entered with praise on their lips for the active presence of God in their midst.
Zacchaeus lived in Jericho and from what Luke tells us his social status was as clear as that of the blind man, Zacchaeus was a chief tax-collector, rich, and unquestionably a sinner. Jericho was an important city, a commerce center for the region and a fertile agricultural environment. The warmer climate inspired the Herods to build a winter palace in Jericho and so Rome’s client rulers invested a good bit of money into building a Roman style city out of Jericho. Being the head of tax-collection in a city that architecturally demonstrated the disparity between the rich and poor was not a friend making profession. While we are not sure what exactly ‘chief’ tax-collector means, we do know that personal and property taxes were collected by the Roman government directly, leaving the tax-collectors to collect customs. Rome was very sneaky in constructing an empire, it took all it could get and then farmed out a system that would lead to unlimited opportunities of exploitation. Zacchaeus was rich because he was in cahoots with Rome, he had bought into an imperial system of exploitation, and in doing so became the scapegoat for this community. In the minds of Jesus’ praise team Zacchaeus, this guy, was what was wrong with the world.
While on the surface Zacchaeus seems like a particularly depraved person, becoming rich off the exploitation of so many and supporting the foreign domination system of Rome, he made a compromise many of us could easily make. In the midst of the Roman empire there were not many options for ensuring food, safety, and a home for your family and none of them were without some form of imperial allegiance and service. In the first century, the meeting of these basic needs required you to be part of the 2 to 3 percent of the population who benefited from the organizational structure of the known world. Most people would not have the opportunity to join this group of elites and so they were faced with no other option than a life of poverty without security where half of children die before the age of 10 and where strategic food shortages and military threat preserved the ‘peace.’ It may be near impossible to think of Zacchaeus as something other than a sinner, but it sure is easy to imagine making the same decision.
Zacchaeus, the rich tax-collecting sinner, wanted and needed to see Jesus. When Luke establishes him as undeniable sinner the reader knows that he needs to see Jesus, but like so many other sinners he heard enough stories in the first century grapevine that we wanted to see Jesus. Oddly enough the crowd once again is the impediment to the one in need, but this time it is not those up at the front who shun Zacchaeus but the nature of the group itself. Remember the crowd began praising God after the healing of the blind man and this celebration traveled as they came into Jericho. The crowd had gotten so worked up in its celebratory praise over the real presence of God in their midst that someone who wanted and needed to see Jesus could not. This traveling worship service had become a circus. They were all so involved and focused on the show that they failed to create space and an opportunity for the outsider to come in contact with Jesus. The traveling worship circus is then judged by Jesus, because once again he moves outwards towards the outsider, a sinner who could not find a place in the worship of the friend of sinners. It is important to remember that even worship focused on the actual movement of God in the world with Jesus in the middle of it, can inhibit the mission of the church. Here worship kept someone who wanted and needed to see Jesus from doing so.