Choosing the Common Good

illustrates the common good

Herb Montgomery | October 30, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

“Is my Jesus-following contributing to harmful policies toward those who are different from me? Or does my Jesus following move me to listen to those whose experiences in our communities are vastly different from my own, those whom our system makes vulnerable to harm rather than safe?”

I reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’

But Zacchaeus stood up and said, Look! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’

Jesus said to him, Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” (Luke 19:1-10)

We miss a lot in this story if we don’t understand it in terms of how much Roman imperialism harmed the masses in Judea and southern Galilee. Roman occupation benefitted the elite who had become wealthy to the detriment of others and through the Roman economic system. But for many others, Rome drastically changed the economic landscape and how Rome’s client rulers acted in their region.

In this week’s story, Zacchaeus is a tax collector for Roman imperialism and has become rich through his work.

To understand this context more, read this month’s Renewed Heart Ministries book of the month, Richard Horsley’s book Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.

Horsley brings to our attention what Roman taxation looked like for many in Jesus’ region:

In one of the most serious omissions, studies of the historical Jesus have failed to investigate the fundamental social forms within Galilean society. The Galileans among whom Jesus worked, indeed the vast majority of people in any traditional agrarian society, would have been embedded in households and villages. Villages were communities of families or households engaged in subsistence agriculture (and/or fishing), a substantial percentage of whose produce was expropriated by their rulers. These rulers intervened in village affairs fairs mainly to extract their tax revenues.” (Kindle Locations 788-789)

Because of heavy Roman taxation, former land owners had become peasant farmers on lands that used to belong to their families. Their role in the economic system became especially oppressive.

“As the productive economic base of the Jerusalem Temple and priesthood and of the Herodian capital cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee, the peasants’ role was to render up produce in tithes, taxes, and tribute for the rulers’ support.” (Kindle Locations 516-517)

The placement of Herod Antipas as a client ruler of the Roman empire marked a first in the history of Roman imperialism for this region: a “king” representing Rome lived directly in Galilee. This brought an “unprecedented rigor in the collection of taxes” (Horsley).

Horsley’s research demonstrates that the political climate among the people in response to this deep economic oppression inspired their reimagining the liberation themes and stories within the Hebrew tradition and then expressed in various forms of resistance.

“Judean and Galilean peasants were cultivating their own popular version of Israelite tradition that, far more than the version accepted in Jerusalem, emphasized stories of liberation from oppressive rule . . .” (Kindle Locations 519-520)

“In order to protect their own minimal subsistence, the always marginal peasants regularly sequestered portions of their crops before the tax collectors arrived or found various ways of sabotaging the exploitative practices of their rulers.” (Kindle Locations 700-702)

Roman imperialism through economic oppression also meant that Jesus’ society began to break down:

“Roman conquest and imposition of client rulers, with the resulting multiple layers of taxes and socially disintegrative economic and cultural practices, set the conditions of and for Jesus’ mission and other, parallel movements. In generating and articulating his program, moreover, Jesus drew thoroughly on Israelite traditions of opposition to imperial and oppressive domestic rulers. There is no need to debate whether he was ‘apocalyptic,’ because both Jesus and the apocalypses produced by scribal groups shared the widespread common Israelite pattern of God’s judgment against foreign rulers as a prerequisite of restoration of the subject people, a pattern dictated by the recurrent circumstances of Israelite peoples under imperial rule. In this regard Jesus stands together with activist Pharisees and other teachers and administrators who formed resistance groups such as the Fourth Philosophy. They stand on precisely the same grounds in rejecting the tribute to Rome: they owe exclusive loyalty to God as their only ruler and lord. Surely the vast majority of Judeans and Galileans believed that, and attempted to resist Roman exploitation in whatever ways they could whenever they could.” (Kindle Locations 1339-1346)

We must read this week’s story within this context. This backdrop also gives new insights into the political, economic, and social meaning of the gospels. Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and demonstrations of the “kingdom of God,” the rule of God, or God’s just future must be understood as an answer to the people’s desire for liberation from Roman rule and imperialism.

In our story this week, conviction has come home to Zacchaeus who has participated in the empire and become personally wealthy from systems that were to blame for the disintegration of his own Jewish society. This is a story of repentance and change that manifests through economic and political change for Zacchaeus here and now, not after death. Life as usual doesn’t continue on for Zacchaeus. No: Zacchaeus choosing to embrace Jesus’ program meant him choosing to let go of his ill-gotten wealth and use it for reparations and restoration after the harm Roman imperialism had done. He is rejecting the kingdom of Rome for the rule of the God of the Torah, not just religiously, but also politically, economically, and socially in concrete ways for his community.

In response to this holistic change, Jesus states, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

As Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney insightfully comments:

“Riches may buffer some of the hardships of life, but one can have all the wealth in the world and still be deeply lost.” (In A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W, p. 278)

What does following the Jesus of these gospel stories mean for us, today? This Jesus prioritized the marginalized and disenfranchised. This Jesus called those complicit with social harm, like Zacchaeus, to join his program of liberation?

Today, some who claim the name of Jesus are responsible for the political, social and economic harm being perpetrated against LGBTQ people. Some Christians have chosen to put women’s lives in jeopardy because of their shallow understandings of women’s healthcare needs and basic human rights. My own Appalachian communities have been harmed through politics that Christians have been duped into supporting (i.e. “pro-life” being the opposite of life-giving, as an example), and also Christians have not educated themselves out of forms of Christianity that make them especially vulnerable to political manipulation.

Yes, Zacchaeus’ story has something to say to those whose wealth has come to them through harming others. It also has something to say to all Jesus followers who live in other forms of social privilege. This story speaks deeply to me. I am not wealthy, but I am white, straight, cisgender, male, and have middle-class privilege. Reading this story, I ask myself: Is my Jesus-following contributing to harmful policies toward those who are different from me? Or does my Jesus following move me to listen to those whose experiences in our communities are vastly different from my own, those whom our system makes vulnerable to harm rather than safe? The story of Zacchaeus calls me to question ways in which I, too, am complicit in the harm of others and can choose change.

I and others who share my social location can do better, and our doing better is not an act of charity. It’s the work that Zacchaeus did, of reclaiming our own humanity through acknowledging, valuing, and honoring the humanity of others.

The lessons are deep and life changing this week, and I’m thankful for them.

What would it take today for those who live in social locations of privilege to hear the words, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In our story, Zacchaeus chooses not only to change, but to also make reparations for harms he has committed in the past? Discuss the kinds of reparation you believe we as a society should be making with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

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