Text: Luke 19:1-10
Here’s a question: Can a good person get caught up in a bad system and do bad things that the system expects them to do? Is it possible for a decent human being to do indecent acts that are harmful to others simply by carrying out their duty and doing their job?
It’s not a very hard question to answer. We don’t have to think very long before we can say that Yes, this has happened and continues to happen all the time. It can happen to the soldier, it can happen to the business manager, it can happen to anyone within an institution where there is corruption.
For someone who finds themselves living more like a cog in a machine than a caring human being, what does salvation look like? In an inhuman system, is it possible to live humanly and save your own soul, while also extending grace to others?
Abbie and I recently rewatched the film The Lives of Others, which works with some these kinds of questions. The film takes place in East Germany in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin wall. One of the main characters, Gerd Wiesler, works as an agent of the East German secret police and is firmly committed to the communist regime. He is an expert in interrogation techniques for getting people to admit to acts they have done against the state. He takes on an assignment of spying on a popular playwright named Dreyman whose support for the communists is in question. Wiesler and his team bug Dreyman’s apartment and set up their equipment in the attic space of this building.
The film goes back and forth between the lives of this playwright and his actress girlfriend and other friends, and the life of this secret policeman who is spying on them. There is a noticeable contrast between the humanity and passion in the relationships of Dreyman and his friends and the duty bound solitude of Wiesler, faithfully recording all activity going on in the apartment below him for his superiors to read.
But as he becomes more intimately familiar with the lives of these others, a slow conversion begins taking place in Wiesler. In a key scene, Dreyman and his girlfriend are sitting at the piano, playing a piece of music that was written and given to them by a dear friend. Wiesler is in the attic listening to this through his headphones, stunned by the beauty of the song. Not knowing he is being listened to, Dreyman finishes the song and comments that no one who hears this song, really hears it, can be such a bad person.
Wiesler is a potentially decent human being entangled in a system causing him to do indecent things. Is salvation possible for him and how will that look?
The gospel story of Zacchaeus addresses similar types of questions. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, a perfect example of someone caught up in a corrupt system, living a prosperous and secure life at the expense of his fellow Jews.
Being a tax collector in first century Palestine was quite a bit different than working for H&R Block or the IRS. Behind the entire drama of the New Testament, are the politics and economics of a land controlled and occupied by a foreign power. And like any occupied people, the Jews were deeply divided over how to respond to Rome’s control over them. Groups like the Sadducees benefitted by cooperating with Rome in how they ran the temple system, living off of the wealth that the temple economy generated. Some groups openly opposed Rome’s rule through organized or not so organized violence. Barabbas is an example of someone who was arrested because of leading an insurrection against Rome. The Pharisees focused on religious renewal and worked to make Torah available to as many as possible through the synagogues. Large landowners thrived as they acquired more and more property from indebted peasants, hiring them back as servants and day laborers to work their fields and manage their affairs. Most of the population was stuck in survival mode – working at their trade, working off debt, or, if you were physically unable to work – lame or blind or sick – being at the mercy of other’s charity.
All Jews were expected to pay taxes to Rome. To do this, Rome needed tax collectors, and their method was to hire local contractors to do the work for them. The idea of a Roman-owned Halliburton or Raytheon type company had not yet occurred to them. Zacchaeus was a Jew, working for Rome, collecting fees from his own people that would help support the ongoing Roman occupation of Palestine. It was up to him to collect a certain amount of money to give over to Rome, and then everything above that that he was able to demand from people he would be able to keep for himself. So there was incentive to overcharge and be harsh with people. Accountability was low and corruption was high. Being a chief tax collector he most likely managed his own small tax collecting corporation, paying out salaries to his employees doing the actual collecting, and skimming everything else off the top for himself. The scripture is redundant when it says “he was a chief tax collector and was rich.” Zacchaeus would not have been a member of the 1% of his time, the governing class, but he would have been a part of the top 10%, a member of what scholars have called the retainer class.
Of all the ways to respond to Rome’s presence in their land, Zacchaeus’ career choice was one of the most hated by the Jews. His wealth was a direct result of profiteering off of the military occupation of his own people. Theft, some might say. If you personally don’t enjoy the thought of your tax dollars going to support the occupation of another country, let alone your own country by a foreign power, there’s good reason to dislike a guy like Zacchaeus. It’s a corrupt system, and Zacchaeus is right in the middle of it, benefitting from it. It looks to me like anything resembling salvation for him is a long ways away. But when we meet him in the gospel, salvation is actually very close at hand. Jesus is coming through town, Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem.
The more I know about Zacchaeus, the more amazed I am at Jesus’ response to him. Here is a guy who was directly implicated in the oppression of all those poor people Jesus loved so much. Not only that, but in a week’s time, one week, Jesus will be crucified by the very empire that Zacchaeus works for.
Jesus is getting the red carpet treatment with the crowds following him through Jericho. Everyone is on his side at this point. In the verses right before this, Jesus has just healed a blind beggar by the side of the road outside Jericho and the text says, “and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.” Jesus has once again championed the cause of the powerless. And here he and the praise-filled crowds come, into Jericho.
Having this isolated guy in the rather vulnerable position of being perched up in a tree, literally out on a limb, would have been the perfect opportunity for Jesus to take a prophetic jab at the Roman collaborator. To say, “Woe to you…” to say “Cursed be you…” to point directly at him and say, “Beware, those who gain from other’s loss.” It would have been justified, and the crowds would have loved it. “All the people” would have loved it. We might love it. But that’s not what happens.
In the film, Dreyman and his girlfriend unknowingly give dignity to the government spy perched up above them. Their ability to live humanly in an inhuman environment taps into the humanity of Wiesler and leads to his redemption. Jesus knew that he was being watched by this curious tax collector and chooses to offer dignity and humanity to him. His words are direct, even with a sense of urgency. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” The one who came to your house to eat offered his own honor to you and your house. Jesus is offering his honor to Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus accepts. In contrast to the previous encounter, Luke now reports, “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” Indeed.
The film becomes more complicated when Dreyman and his closest friends decide to defy the government by writing an article about the despair in East Germany that they plan to have smuggled into the West to be published. At this point Wiesler must make a decision. Will he continue to play out his assigned role and get Dreyman arrested and jailed, or will he risk his own security and try to protect this person he has come to respect? He chooses the latter. Without giving away too many of the details, I’ll say that as the story continues, Wiesler goes more and more out of this way to keep Dreyman safe. Wiesler’s salvation comes at the point when he is enabled to see his own humanity, and realizes he cannot but act out of honor and gratitude by protecting the humanity of another.
Zacchaeus has a similar kind of response. Jesus has just given him the gift of seeing himself in a new light, and he instinctively knows that his own salvation is very much tied up into how he relates with others. After having been startled into recognizing his own dignity, and his own agency in being the person he needs to be, he doesn’t need any more prompting or preaching from Jesus. In fact, Jesus never preaches a word to him. But Zacchaeus has been converted away from the norms of his position in the system, to Jesus’ norms of grace. He makes strides to restore those relationships he had damaged. 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.” Redemption has an instant ripple effect and leads to collatoral grace. Jesus announces what has just happened, “Today, salvation has come to this house. For the Human One, the Son of Man, came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I don’t know if anyone has ever asked you that question. You know that question, that some Christians tend to ask other people: “Are you saved?” And I don’t know how, if you have been asked that question, you have chosen to respond. Or how, after you had some time to think about it, you wish you would have responded. Are you saved?
I was interested to see in the October 14 issue of the Mennonite World Review a front page article about John Stoesz, former of director of Mennonite Central Committee Central Plains. Stoesz is riding his recumbent bike 2000 miles through the Dakotas to raise awareness of the injustices committed against the Dakota people by settlers over the last 150 years. Stoesz has a personal stake in the history as his great-grandfather immigrated from Ukraine and, like other immigrants at the time, received recently “cleared” land through the railroad, to farm.
More remarkable than this long bike ride is that last year Stoesz’s family decided to sell the 320 acre family farm, leaving Stoesz with the decision of what to do with the profits from this land.
The article says this: As Stoesz considered what to do with his inheritance, he was drawn to the biblical example of Zacchaeus, who gave half his money to the poor. “I think Zacchaeus recognized that he benefited from an oppressive system, the tax collection system. He realized that to join the Jesus movement and to become part of the community modeling the kingdom of God, he needed to make a change,” Stoesz said.
So Stoesz did the silly and unpredictable thing of actually following this example in the gospels, and gave half of his inheritance from the land to an organization that focuses on the recovery of traditional Dakota knowledge and culture and land.
Today, salvation has come to this house.
Are you saved? Are we saved?
Maybe the best we can answer this question with integrity, is to say that we are in the process of being saved.
God comes to us and we are found by the Human One, entangled in systems, playing out roles we have inherited, scripts that forces larger than ourselves have written for us. We are confused and conflicted, and Christ finds us and offers us an honorable humanity. When every other finger in the world is pointed at us in condemnation or disgust, including our own finger, Jesus steps out from the crowd, looks us in the face, and says he’d like to come over to our house.
We have this notion that somehow we have to experience some kind of “salvation,” and then we become acceptable or somehow “right.” But being loved unconditionally, and being welcomed fully, are not the result of salvation, they are the prelude to salvation, what makes salvation possible in the first place. They are what wake us up to a new way of being in the world. We are given our humanity by one who recognizes it in us before we are able to. The beautiful music awakens a part of us we never knew existed.
And then we realize that our own salvation can’t happen separate from the salvation of those around us. Those we’ve hurt and those who have hurt us. The oppressed and the oppressors. Our salvation might not even be complete without including that person we’d like to avoid who asked us whether or not we are saved.
God is in the process of redeeming the whole world, and we’re a part of it.