Luke | True stories at the Zacchaeus tree

This is a very well-known story isn’t it? It only occurs in the Gospel of Luke, but it’s in all the children’s Bibles. Me and my kids were reading it in the children’s Bible recently. We talked about taxes and kings and tax collectors. We talked about why the people hated the tax collector. Was it fair that they hated him? Was it his fault that that was his job?

We talked about how these days the government collect taxes so they can do important things like have schools and hospitals. But in those days the king was just whoever had the most soldiers. He would say, “I’ve got the soldiers, so you have to do what I say”. And they didn’t help people. The kings just took money off people so they could have bigger palaces and more soldiers so they could fight more wars. And sometimes the people didn’t have enough money left to buy food.

So we thought it was pretty bad that Zaccheus was helping the bad government take people’s money away.

But Jesus cared about him anyway. Jesus knew that he needed a friend. So Jesus decided to be his friend. And Zaccheus was so happy about having friends and being part of the community that he decided to help people and not help the bad government anymore.

But the people gathered at the tree of Zaccheus didn’t understand what was going on. So Jesus told a story to help them understand. And Luke recorded the story for us in the Gospel, to help us understand. So I want to come at the story of Zaccheus from another angle – from the parable Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus.

So here is where we come to the story within the story. Like a painting set in a well-chosen frame, the next story that Jesus tells is set within the story of Zaccheus.

Here is the parable that Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus:

A certain man was from a rich family, and we went to another country far away to be appointed king, so he could come back again and be king in his own country. He called together ten servants, and gave each of them a big pile of money. He said, ‘Do business with this money until I get back.’

But the people in his country hated him, so when he went away to be made king, they sent people after him to say, ‘We don’t want his man to be our king. Please don’t make him the king.’

But he was made king anyway. And then he came back to be king in his own country. And he called the servants that he gave some of his money to, to find out how much money they had earned.

The first servant came and said, ‘Your money has made ten times as much money!’ The kind replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good servant. Because you have been faithful with my money, you can be the boss of ten cities.’

The second servant came and said, ‘Master, you money has made five times as much money!’ To this one the king said, ‘You can be the boss of five cities.’

Then another servant came and said, ‘Master, here is your money. I wrapped it up in a cloth to keep it safe. I was afraid of you, because you are an unfair man. You go to the bank and get out other people’s money, and you go to the farm and harvest other people’s crops.’

The king replied, ‘So you know that I am a unfair man, taking out money from the bank that I didn’t put in, and harvesting crops that I didn’t plant? Well then, why didn’t you put my money in the bank so that when I got back I could collect the interest?’

Then the king said to his other servants, ‘Take his money away and give it to the man who has ten times as much. And as for my enemies, those people who didn’t want me to be their king, bring them all in here and kill them.’

This is the story that Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus. It is a troubling story. But a simple story. It is simple in the sense that everyone who heard it would have recognised the story. There is a man. He is rich. He is a prince. He also wants to be king. So he goes away to another country to be made king of his own country.

But wait a minute. Does that part make sense? He goes away to another country to be made king of his own country? Is that how it works? Do you have to go to another country to be made king of your own country?

Well, yes, you do…if your country has been taken over by a huge empire that chooses its own puppet kings…Maybe a rich man born into a rich family would travel to Rome and put in an application for the job. He might say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m loyal to Rome. I love you guys! I’ll keep this Jewish rabble under control. I’ll make sure they pay their taxes. I’ll collect lots of taxes from them. The most ever. The best taxes ever. I’ll give it all to you, and keep a share of it for myself of course. I’ll get so much taxes off them like you wouldn’t believe. Business will boom. There will be gold flowing in the streets of Rome. I’ll build a huge wall to keep out the Parthians. There will be law and order. I have the best law and order. I’ll come down on those Jews like you wouldn’t believe. Don’t listen to these other people. They’re just biased against me. And don’t give the job to this other guy. He doesn’t have clue how to be king. And anyway, when I’m king I’ll put him jail. Come on, make me the king.”

There was a Jewish historian called Josephus who wrote some interesting history books not long after the time of Jesus. Josephus tells the story of Herod, who was king when Jesus was born. How did Herod become king? He was appointed by the Roman emperor. And as soon as he had gained his kingdom, he greatly rewarded those who had supported him. He also organised for his political opponents to be killed. And that sounds kinda familiar doesn’t it? In the story Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus, when the prince receives his kingdom, he appoints his faithful servant as mayor, and has his opponents killed. Certainly when Jesus told the story, the listeners would have thought, “Yep, that’d be right”.

But Josephus the historian doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell the story of Herod’s two sons, Archelaus and Antipas. When Herod the Great died, they both travelled to Rome to ask to be made king. So we have two applicants for the job here. Who will be made king? Well, the people of Judea knew who they wanted to be king, and it wasn’t Archelaus. They hated him and sent a delegation after him saying, “He is a poor economic manager, and we really don’t like his zero tolerance approach to political disagreements.” According to Josephus, their accusation was correct. But the delegation failed. Archelaus got the job anyway. And that sounds kinda familiar too, doesn’t it? In the story Jesus tells, the citizens hated the man, and sent a delegation after him saying, “We do not want this man to be king”. But he got the job anyway.

The people gathered at the tree of Zaccheus understand this story. They know this story. And they know that this rich prince is a bad dude.

Wait a minute. The rich prince is a bay guy? But isn’t the rich prince actually meant to be God?

No. I don’t think so. And the people gathered at the tree of Zaccheus would not have thought so.

If we are to understand this story, we must put aside the simple stories that we have been told up to this point. It is easy to associate God with money and power. But maybe God is not found especially among the rich and powerful. Maybe we find God among the poor and the powerless.

The story that Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus represents reality.

The rich prince in the story represents…a rich prince.

The money that is given to the servants represents…money.

The political power (given as a reward to the faithful servants) represents…political power.

And the third servant, who does not do what the prince demands, is the truth-teller.

When he is called before the prince to explain his actions, this is what he says: “Sir, here is your money. I kept it hidden away. I did not do as you asked me, because I know that you are a harsh man. You go to the bank to take out money that other people earned. You go to the farm to take crops that other people planted. Here, take your money back.”

We need to take the words of this truth-teller seriously. What he says to this king is, “The way you make your money, and the way you live your life, hurts other people…And I can see that all these others are willing to be part of that system if it rewards them – but I will not be part of it.”

And here we see the story within the story, each giving meaning to the other, because the story of the third servant resonates deeply with the story of Zaccheus the tax collector. For years he played his part in exploiting others, but in the end he said “I’m not going to be part of that anymore”.

What is interesting about this parable, the story within the story, is that the new king does not deny the accusations. He accepts that it is true – he just doesn’t see a problem with it. What is wrong with taking other people’s money? What is wrong with taking other people’s crops? If I can take it then it’s mine. That is just how the world works.

The new king responds predictably. He rewards his faithful servants with power and status, but the truth-teller is cast aside. He is denied power and status. He is not given a role in society. He becomes a nobody. The little bit of money that he has is taken from him, and given to the one who had the most.

This is a society where the rich become richer – at the expense of the poor. The powerful become even more powerful – at the expense of the powerless. And the man who said he was afraid, but was the only one brave enough to tell the truth – he is cast aside.

There is a sense in which this story is simple, and a sense in which this story is not so simple. Where is the Hollywood ending? Where is the investigation into the corrupt prince? Where is the “we the jury find this man…guilty”? But no. This is not a Hollywood story. This is not a fairytale. This is a parable. A peek behind the curtains. A story about reality.

Once reality has been recognised we are left with a choice: Do I choose to be part of this reality, or do I reject this reality? Will I accept that this is how the world works, and seek a portion of the power and money for myself? Or will I refuse to participate? Will I speak the truth?

In the story Jesus tells there is no reason to speak the truth, and no reward for those who refuse to participate. But in spite of everything, when Jesus comes into your home and sits with you and acknowledges your humanity, perhaps you begin to realise that you can be human again.

Because Jesus also spoke about an alternative reality. Unlike the system of the world, in this reality the powerful do not lord it over the weak. They do not gain honour by putting others down, but by building them up. Does this other reality actually exist? I don’t know. Maybe the story about the corrupt prince is more realistic. It’s just that there is something about Jesus…and even if we have to climb a tree to catch a glimpse…perhaps we’ll see beyond the crowd. Because there is something about Jesus and the story he tells, this parable that doesn’t have a simple meaning or a proper ending, that always leaves me wondering. Ω

A reflection by Joel Rothman given to Sanctuary on Luke 19:1-27.

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