A tale of two rich folks

October 29, 2007

As a lectionary preacher, I’ve journeyed through the Gospel of Luke for
over 25 years. But this year I noticed something new. Luke places the
story of two rich folks in close textual proximity; in chapter 18, a
rich official remains nameless; in chapter 19, we meet a chief tax
collector named Zacchaeus. And in between? The two stories are divided
by Luke’s account of Jesus healing a blind beggar.

Notice
the way Luke identifies the respective responses of these two wealthy
individuals to seeing Jesus. The rich ruler asks Jesus how he can
strengthen his religious credentials. When Jesus tells him that the
very thing he desires—eternal life—will be his if he sells all he owes
and gives the proceeds to the poor to free himself for following Jesus,
the rich official is terribly sad and unable to surrender his wealth.

The
disciples are shocked to hear Jesus say, “How hard it is for those who
have riches to enter the kingdom of God. For it is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the
kingdom of God.” Jesus then meets a blind beggar, and the man simply
cries, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus tells the man his
faith has made him well, and the beggar does what the rich official
would not; he follows Jesus, glorifies God and stirs those around him
to rejoice.

This time around I’ve paid more attention to the
rich ruler and the blind beggar before looking at the story of
Zacchaeus. My bias was already against Zacchaeus, since he is wealthy,
powerful and not at all opposed to using heavy-handed business tactics
to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of common folks. Despite any
sentimental fondness for this story (“Zacchaeus was a wee little man
…”), most of us know that he represents a class of folks who deserve
God’s strong displeasure.

But note Zacchaeus’s response when
Jesus looks him up, calls him by name and invites himself to dinner. In
Zacchaeus, unlike in the rich ruler, there is suddenly great joy
because Jesus has summoned him to come down, thus celebrating the
recovery of another lost sinner for the kingdom.

Few stories
in the Gospels show us a more thorough and life-changing conversion
that goes “all the way down.” Few demonstrate a spirit as generous as
this wealthy tax collector when he is surprised by joy. He scrambles
down from his vantage point to join Jesus, joyfully invites him into
his home, happily confesses his less-than-stellar business practices,
pledges a full half of his earnings to the poor and promises to
repay—fourfold—damages to those he has cheated.

David Ford and
Daniel Hardy have said that a kind of moralizing stoicism or
joylessness characterizes many Christian communities these days (Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God).
Although identified with good ethical living and morality, stoicism
takes the joy and delight out of knowing God and loving his goodness.
Ford and Hardy suggest that in our prophetic denunciations of the great
evils of our time we’d be better off if we pay more attention to the
God of joy.