Love the oppressed, but also the oppressor?

You may remember that in the previous post on Jesus’ inaugural sermon, we noted how he stressed his vocation as embodying proclamation, justice and compassion. Well, here is the Lukan Jesus embodying all three of these at the same time in a genius way.

In Luke 18:35-19:11, there is a “Lukan sandwich” concerning the Blind Man and Zacchaeus.

The oft’ forgotten text of YHWH’s concern in Ecclesiastes 4:1 is the backdrop:

“Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.

Though the story of the blind man is awesome in itself – I want to focus on Zacchaeus here.

The passage forms this chiastic structure:

  • Jesus comes
    • Zacchaeus – a rich man
      • The crowd (hostile)
        • Up the tree
          • Jesus’ act of costly love
        • Down the tree
      • The crowd (angry)
    • Zaccheaus – money for others
  • Jesus’ final word of love[1]

Tax collectors were despised because of their collaboration with the empire, extracting unjust gains, and were considered unclean as noted in many rabbinic texts. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but couldn’t because he was short and hated. So he ran ahead and climbed a tree. Rich men do not run or climb trees. Ever. Zacchaeus seems to be somewhat eager.

Why a sycamore tree? It is low to the ground and has large leaves so that one could hide “in the tree”. These trees were good for beams, but the Mishnah states that Sycamores cannotsycamore_fig_tree be grown more than twenty-five cubits from town “because the beauty of the town requires an open space all around” and because “if ceremonial uncleanliness occurred under the tree, the uncleanliness was transferred to anyone under any section of the tree”. Weird. But there it is.

Now, Jesus not only calls him by name, but he then invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. This is never done on two accounts. Never do you invite yourself to one’s house  and especially not that of a known “collaborator with the enemy” (or perpetually unclean) person.

What exactly has Jesus done here? Bailey contends that Jesus has shifted the hostility of the crowd to himself. Jesus stood with the oppressed in the previous story (Blind man) and now he will extend costly grace to the oppressor, re-directing the crowd’s animosity towards himself, much like the episode of the women caught in adultery, relieving Zacchaeus from being the aim of the crowd’s anger if even for a moment! Of course, Jesus does not endorse Zacchaeus’ behavior, yet he displays love towards him when he was the recipient (rightly so perhaps) of the crowd’s anger. In one way actually, Zacchaeus (the oppressor) was oppressed by the crowd and Jesus stood with him against the crowd in order that the lines between the oppressed and oppressor may blurred and disavowed in himself. Jesus received the name “oppressor” (by standing with Zacchaeus) in order that Zacchaeus may receive the costly love of God.

The crowd was clearly angry that Jesus went to dine and stay at a sinner’s house on the eve of Passover because of course he would emerge unclean on the eve of this greatest feast. maxresdefaultThis might mean (some scholars have suggested) that Jesus would be disqualified from taking part in the feast only so that this oppressor may receive salvation in Person.

Jesus states that “salvation has come to this house”. Literally, in Person and in faith, it has. Which means that Zacchaeus has recognized and accepted Jesus’ costly love and responds to this gift out of who he is and where he is. As Bonhoeffer notes, the only true option is costly grace. This story embodies such truth. Grace was costly for the one who offered it (Jesus) and also for the one who accepted it (Zacchaeus). Jesus affirms Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham” – the equivalent of affirming his acceptance in God’s eyes as a “true Jew” of faith all the while Zacchaeus was under the curse of uncleanliness according to the Jewish law (on a number of accounts).

So here are the key takeaway points:

  1. In one of few places, Jesus embodies all three of his (Luke 4) vocations of proclamation, justice and compassion. Jesus offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love (an action of proclamation). Jesus engages in justice advocacy for the blind man, lifting the oppressive aspects of the tax system from the town and freeing Zacchaeus from his debilitating injustice. Doing this, all the while demonstrating God’s unconditional compassion towards the oppressed and oppressors alike.
  1. Jesus deliberately shifts the town’s hostility away from Zacchaeus onto himself in an act of solidarity with the person of Zacchaeus.
  1. Jesus rids the town of the oppressive tax system by getting to the “heart of the issue” which is actually the “heart of people”.
  1. By entering Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus grants him the gift of a new status – that of real acceptance of his person in Jesus’ sight.
  1. Zacchaeus responds to the costly love by demonstrating costly love to the community. The gift of grace creates the energy in him to offer the same gift to others.
  1. Zacchaeus was a “child of Abraham” all along but never knew it until Jesus revealed it to him. By this, Jesus reveals to us how we are to see every person as through the eyes of the Father. For God does not desire that any one should person but all to come to the saving knowledge of his love.

Within the all-consuming media (and presidential) frenzy of “scapegoating” those we deem to be the scourge of society and destroyers of freedom – this story is an exercise in exhaling the hate from our lungs, re-orienting our vision and learning to stand with Jesus as he stands with and for the oppressed and oppressor alike – which turns out to be each one of us.

zacchaeus (1)

[1] Adapted from Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes


Published by Ryan Hayes

Ryan Hayes is a development practitioner, teacher and co-author of his first book of poems, Paralipomenon. Being born in Nairobi, Kenya and living most of his life in Africa, he has a wealth of experience and understanding into the cultural and linguistic factors of South-East Africa. Ryan is happily married to Justine with whom they have begotten three beautiful girls – Amelie, Lily and Rylee. He is a lifelong learner and devoted student of Jesus, mysticism, quantum physics and the human psyche.

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