Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost

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. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

- Luke 19:1-10

This account of Zacchaeus the tax collector appears only in Luke. Once again, we continue with the theme of judgment and justice in this story. Unlike the story of the rich ruler, who's dismayed that he has to give up wealth, Zacchaeus embraces his own salvation, acknowledging his own deeds and seeking, on his own, to set things right between himself and those he may have wronged.

A tax collector is of course a despised persona in the gospels, as we can see from the specific writing of this passage above. It's almost touchingly comical to see the short Zacchaeus so desirous of seeing Jesus that he climbs a sycomore tree (in biblical times, a species of fig) to get a glimpse. So we start with this deep desire - the small-statured publicly-disliked sinner who deeply wants his chance to see Jesus too. He makes the effort and climbs the tree. But Jesus not only wants to see Zacchaeus as well, Jesus singles him out above the crowd on the tree. In the previous passage Jesus gives a blind man his sight who has addressed him openly as Messiah ("Son of David"). Here, Jesus displays the kind of understanding we'd expect from such a persona - he knows Zacchaeus already, and even calls him by name. This is in a sense, reminiscent already of the Judgment Jesus has recently spoken about to his disciples: he knows who we are, knows us well, our names are recorded somewhere. Zacchaeus the despised sinner is singled out to host Jesus' visit to Jericho.

Zacchaeus is so honored merely at this reciprocal attention that he voluntarily admits what he's done and offers a great restitution. He initiates his own impulse to justice, to mend relations. And the Judge replies that He is satisfied that Zacchaeus is also included in the salvation kinship of the kingdom. To further set down the notion of the role of Judge, Jesus here refers to himself as "Son of Man." Jesus gives us a powerful teaching on Judgment and justice here: At its most satisfied, the conditions of Judgment are met when redemption is the conclusion, when all are included in its reconciliation and its purposes. This is the truly just conclusion, the one for which Judgment aims as its highest goal: that we all stand reconciled and included in the family and relatedness of the kingdom. Judgment's highest goal is not to punish nor to cast out, but for redemption and inclusion, to find those who are lost and claim them as members who belong in this kingdom as well. We would all do well, when contemplating notions of judgment and justice, to understand this important principle and to remind ourselves of it as often as we can when we use our own judgment in life.

It's equally important to remember the steps Zacchaeus has taken when we seek mercy: he's made a moral inventory of himself and sought to repair the harm he's done (see Steps 4, 5 and 9 of a Twelve Steps program). It's no accident that true justice is an important component of rehabilitation and restoration. So often, "forgiveness" or "mercy" are invoked as tools to sweep something under the rug or pretend it never happened - and silence a victim with false guilt. That's not part of good judgment or true justice either, but is still a form of denial or corruption, a lie. Most often it's a way to guarantee the harmful behavior will continue.

The name "Zacchaeus" means "the pure and innocent one." Not only does Jesus already know his name, Zacchaeus lives up to the name given him in Jesus' presence. The justice of God brings out who we are, gives us true selfhood and identity, restores us to ourselves. Justice is healing, on all levels. As in the story of the Prodigal Son (which appears also in Luke's gospel, in chapter 15), Luke writes "he came to himself" when he remembered his father. In this justice, we are restored to ourselves, we remember who we are. It is this we find in the relationship to Christ, and this we seek. It is the ultimate healing, this balm of mercy, and our physician Luke reminds us of this over and over again.

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