Zacchaeus and Christian Support of Destructive Administrations

“What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them?”

Luke’s gospel brings us the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus who walks away from his support of and participation in a systemically unjust and exploitative system to become a Jesus follower. In response to Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

The picture we get from the synoptic gospels is of a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor traveling through his society’s margins, teaching and calling his audiences to a distributively just society where those on the edges are included. Jesus appears in the stories as one who, like prophets such as John the Baptist before him, was a voice on the margins, “crying in the wilderness. ” Jesus’ vision was of the kind of society that the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas refers to as God’s just future.

Do Jesus’ ethical teachings still offer anything relevant to us in the 21st century, as we work to reverse systemic injustice? I’m convinced they do.

Luke’s story indicates that Zacchaeus was Jewish but also complicit in the injustice of the larger Roman empire. Like many Christians today who continue to unconditionally support the present administration in the U.S. despite harms to decency, democracy, minoritized people, and our planet, Zacchaeus participated in Rome’s economic exploitation of the vulnerable people around him.

Yet Zacchaeus finally wakes up. Luke doesn’t tell us what caused him to. He only tells us that Jesus declares his intention to go to Zacchaeus home, and the crowd objects, rightly accusing the unjust Zacchaeus of being “a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stands up and declares, “Look, Lord! 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” (Luke 19:8).

This was a deep reversal for Zacchaeus. He not only walks away from his support of Roman administration but he also offers reparations to those his previous actions harmed.

Jesus then responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

For my Christian friends, Jesus does not define salvation as a legal transaction in heaven that assures Zacchaeus of post-mortem bliss. Nor does Jesus define Zacchaeus’ salvation as a pardon or letting him off the hook. Jesus instead defines salvation as the healing of Zacchaeus’ most inward being, healing that manifests in Zacchaeus’ rejection of an unjust system and his decision to work to undo the injustice of that system.

When, as Christians, we view salvation as remote forgiveness, as convincing God to let us off the hook, or as obtaining a celestial ticket to heaven, we are actually defining salvation differently than Jesus did.

For Jesus, salvation was not about getting a person from a state of being unforgiving to a state of being forgiven. It wasn’t about getting someone out of a post-mortem hell and into a postmortem heaven. Salvation for Jesus in Luke was about change for those in Zacchaeus’ social location.

I want to be careful here. The change was not so that a person could be saved. The change itself was the salvation. When we define Jesus’ vision of salvation as getting free of heavenly legal charges rather than the healing, liberation, and reparations he taught during his life, even salvation labeled as “by grace” is just another form of legal-ism. In this story we see something different: someone was complicit with an unjust system’s harm of others and that someone made a radical change in the direction in his life and became a follower of Jesus, the Jewish prophet of the poor.

The second thing Jesus declares when Zacchaeus changes is “This man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus had been living outside of the distributive, economic teachings of the Torah, yet Jesus declares that he is a “son of Abraham, too.”

Luke contrasts the tax collector Zacchaeus with the wealthy religious teachers who had made fun of Jesus’ economic teachings two chapters previously.

“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” (Luke 16:14)

What this story communicates to me is that rejecting systemic injustice is not optional for those who desire to follow Jesus. People may bear the name of Christian, but if they support corrupt administrations who do harm in exchange for political favor or for the sake of winning a decades-long culture war, they are out of harmony with the teachings of Jesus.

I’d like to believe Zacchaeus understood this. Political, economic, religious, or even social advantage does not justify participating in or supporting a corrupt system that does harm.

What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them? What is needed for Christians to be more than simply believers in Jesus of the story, but followers of him as well?

Remember, the picture we get of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is of an itinerant teacher gathering those who will join him in a distributively just way of organizing and doing life as a community called “the kingdom of God.” The “kingdom of God” is not a place in the heavens or a place some go when they die. The “kingdom of God” is a vision of a just future in which people prioritize the least of these. History will judge us most critically by how we take care of “the least of these” among us.

Jesus’ vision of a distributively just future was about how we do life in the here and now. He called his listeners to go against what the status quo had taught them and to organize society instead, in ways that are life-giving for all.

Today, the Jesus story still invites us to choose a world shaped by distributive justice. To follow Jesus and live the Jesus way is not about saying a sinner’s prayer or attending a service once a week and then going back to the way things have always been done. To follow Jesus means adopting a life-giving way of living.

But the “kingdom of God,” God’s just future, received pushback then, and it will also receive as much from today’s elites. The cross was the elite of society’s violent “no” to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The resurrection undid all the violence of Jesus’ death, causing the hope of a just future to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. I believe that hope can live on in those who bear Jesus’ name today. Much will have to change in certain sectors of Christianity for that to happen, but I believe nonetheless that it’s possible.

I believe following Jesus is about learning to follow Jesus’ practice of love, inclusion, just distribution, and mutual aid, nonviolence, and compassion toward others. His practice was reparative and transformative and has the power to change our lives personally and systemically. If politics is society deciding who gets what, when, and how, and if we consider Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the politics of the Jesus story are:

  • Eradicate poverty by centering society on the poor.
  • Comfort those whom the present system causes to sorrow.
  • Create a system that takes care of those who are meek.
  • Give equity to those who hunger for things to be put right.
  • Stand with the merciful, those who refuse to acquit the guilty for bribes, the peacemakers working for distributive justice, and those the privileged and the powerful persecute, slander, and exclude for demanding change. (cf. Matthew 5:3-10)

Jesus’ vision of a just future is for the here and now.

The arc of history can bend toward justice if we bend it that way.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

We have choices to make.

Who will be our Zacchaeuses today?

HeartGroup Application

1. What parallels and contrasts do you see with Zacchaeus’ story and U.S. Christians today who fail to disavow the U.S.’s present destructive administration? If you need an example, ponder the children still in cages along the U.S. southern border. Discuss as a group.

2. Five years into the reign of the German Reich, in 1938 Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached:

“Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. ‘You cannot serve two masters’ (Matthew 6:24) . . . But with this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak [or vulnerable] and poor . . .”

(Confirmation, Kieckow, April 9, 1938, quoted in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 203)

What does this Bonhoeffer’s dichotomy mean for you today? Discuss as a group.

3. Create a list of how you can collectively say “no” to injustice as a follower of Jesus in our present context. Pick something from your list and begin putting it into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

Privilege and Power

Herb Montgomery | June 28, 2019

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

“Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable . . . to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with ‘the people,’ not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.”


“The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:19-20)

This passage juxtaposes the mass of Jewish people who favored Jesus, the elites in that society who were threatened by Jesus’ populist teachings, and Roman power and authority. The reference to the authority of the governor is a political story detail through and through. The story reminds us of how those in positions of power and privilege use the power of the state to protect their own social position, especially when their agenda is contrary to the masses’. 

For those who have been reading this month’s book of the month for RHM, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Jason W. Moore and Raj Pate, you’ve read how historically our capitalist society has not been based on equality, win-win, and cooperation, but on competition, inequity, and the kind of “winning” that requires someone somewhere else to lose. The economic and political elite has continually used the power of the state to accomplish their goals. In Luke, this method is chosen because the elite “fears the people.” 

Jesus’ teachings are represented here as being popular among the people. The elite does not have the people’s best interest in mind, but looks for how best to manipulate them and preserve the status quo. Jesus was popular with large sectors of the have-nots in the story: the haves have always used the system’s “authority” to preserve themselves.

In a more just and compassionate structure the state could protect the vulnerable from being exploited by the powerful and privileged. Yet the times when there has been a more regulatory form of state power on the side of the masses have been the exception to the history of state power in capitalist/colonialist society, not the rule.

As long as we have classes and other social locations where some have power and others don’t, the state should protect the vulnerable. I think of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a talk he gave at Western Michigan University in 1963: he spoke against the idea that the power of the state is useless in our work toward a just society:

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

When we consider the “authority of the governor” in our passage this week, it was not on the side of the people, but contrary to the will of the people, within the context of the conflict between Jesus and the political elite of his day. 

I want to stop here and ask you to dream with me for a moment . What is your image of a perfect world? I’m not saying the world will ever be perfect. The exercise of dreaming about what a perfect world would be though is a practice that helps us in our work of moving toward a world that is less unjust, less exploitative, less unsafe.

Does your image of a perfect world include the need for the vulnerable to be protected from the strong? Or does your image of a perfect world make even this obsolete? Is your image of a perfect world one where some take responsibility for caring for those who are vulnerable?

Jesus envisioned a world where even the meek inherit the earth.

“And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 -27)

Jesus here contrasts systems of dominion and systems of service. Humanity’s hope for the future is not in devising more efficient ways of dominating one another, but in creating more effective ways of caring for one another. 

The tragedy is when those who claim to represent Jesus today use the same method as is in our original story in Luke 20. Privileged and powerful Christian Evangelicals view Trump as their Messiah because he will enforce their political agenda. At the foundation of this delusion is the Christian Right’s long struggle to overturn Roe vs Wade, the law that affirmed legal access to a safe abortion. Just this week, someone commented on a post of mine that if Planned Parenthood was defunded it would protect “thousands” of lives of the vulnerable.

“Vulnerable?” I thought. I assumed they were speaking of the unborn. But what about the vulnerability of women, especially those in a certain social location, who will die as a result of overturning Roe vs. Wade? Those who are informed understand that lowering abortion rates has nothing to do with the legality of abortion. It does have to do with the availability of education and birth control, and child and youth advocacy. Abortions have actually increased when outlawed. In the end, this is yet another example of those in power, mostly men, using state power to control the lives and bodies of women who should have autonomy over their own bodies. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion. There are genuinely effective ways of lowering the rate of abortions in society that do not escalate the fatality rate for women nor seek to remove women’s bodily autonomy. (For more seeHow I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement)

Since Trump’s election, we have seen a surge in Evangelical, American Christianity’s desire to influence our state and federal governments to enforce its dogmas under the misapplied label of “religious freedom.”

Here in West Virginia, we are in the midst of a battle over education, where for-profit charter schools are using Christians as pawns. I understand that some nonprofit charter schools have been a tremendous help to some minority Black and Brown communities. That’s not what is happening here. Christians are lifting their voices alongside for-profit corporations against what the majority of “the people” here in WV want. These Christians want to use the power of the state to protect them from the fear that they will have to send their children to public schools where they will sit in a classroom beside nonwhite, migrant, Muslim and LGBTQ kids. 

Christianity has a long history of being on the wrong side of the use of state power. On October 28, 312 C.E., Constantine defeated his rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched with the sign of Christ on their shields. It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was aligned with the nationalistic, violent power of the state. This set a precedent and Christianity’s social location changed dramatically to make it the official state religion. Eusebius, Augustine, and other church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power that his victory engendered to be from God. The power of the state has been used for centuries to crush Christianity’s enemies to exploit and/or execute heretics, Jews, Muslims, women accused of “witchcraft,” indigenous populations, those whom we today identify as LGBTQ, and more.

Today, certain Christians are still trying to use the power of the state, not to side with the people and protect the vulnerable, but, sometimes ignorantly, sometimes knowingly, to push their own agenda regardless of the real harm such actions do to real people. 

As long as there is a state, it should side with the vulnerable against those who would seek to do harm. Christians must choose to learn from their destructive history. The Jesus story calls us to side with “the people,” not the agendas of the powerful, privileged, and elite.

A misuse of the power of the state executed Christianity’s Jesus.

And misuse of the power of the state is still harming the most vulnerable groups today.

“. . . but they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” Luke 20:19-20

HeartGroup Application

Here are a few things to discuss with your group.

  1. List examples you have seen the power of the state used to protect the interests of the have’s against the have nots?
  2. Think of the Jesus story for a moment.  What are some examples in the gospels of where you see Jesus taking the side of the vulnerable, excluded, or marginalized over against the powerful and privileged of his day.
  3. As we work toward a more just world, damage mitigation along that journey is also important. How could the power of the state be transformed and reimagined along this process to protect the have nots from the elite? Be imaginative. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  I’m so glad you’re here.

Wherever you are today, choose love, take action, choose compassion, work toward justice, title the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.