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

The Refusal of the Older Brother

Herb Montgomery | February 7, 2019

man sitting alone on hill


“If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.”


The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28)

This story in Luke’s gospel may be the most famous one Jesus ever told: the story of the prodigal son and the older brother. Jesus told this story for a reason.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

In response, Jesus tells three stories, the last of which is the story of the older brother we are considering here.

“But while he [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ THE OLDER BROTHER BECAME ANGRY AND REFUSED TO GO IN. SO HIS FATHER WENT OUT AND PLEADED WITH HIM. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son OF YOURS who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:20-32, emphasis added.)

The context of this story is economic. “Prodigal” is not a synonym for “sinner.” It means someone who spends money and resources recklessly with no thought of the future.

People labeled others sinners in Jesus’ community when they lived outside of certain interpretations of what it meant to be faithful to the teachings of the day. The label “sinner” has always been tied to the social purpose of marginalizing and/or subjugating certain folks while privileging others. I’m not saying that there are no such things as intrinsically destructive choices. I am saying that designating someone as a “sinner” is bound up with social, political, and economic exclusion because it is based on the interpretations of those centered in society.

And in this story, Jesus is including those whom the elite of his day taught should be excluded.

I was once a fundamentalist. I used to believe that the only reason anyone would not be “saved” in the end was that they had rejected God’s love for them. But the longer I ponder the story of the prodigal and his brother, the more I see how mistaken I was.

The context of this story shows that if any are left in “outer darkness” (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) if any are left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future, it will not be because they could not believe God’s love for them. Rather, like the older brother in this story, it will be that they cannot accept the inclusion of someone else that they feel should be excluded. It’s labeling someone else as other and seeking to exclude them from the table that causes us to be intrinsically out of harmony with Jesus’ vision for God’s just future—a world of safety, compassion, inclusion, justice, and love—a future we can shape.

Again, the elite class of the Jesus story didn’t reject Jesus’ vision of God’s just future because God’s love for them was too good to believe, but rather because God’s love for those they thought should be excluded was too inclusive for them to embrace.

One last example.

“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.’” (Luke 19:5-7, emphasis added.)

This is the famous story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who climbed into a tree to see Jesus pass by (see Luke 19:1-2). As a person who is also of a shorter stature, I know that if you are short, you step up onto the curb to see a parade, and the taller people stand behind you. This works unless some people do not want you there and shut you out from a good view.

But Zacchaeus, being resourceful, knew the procession route, ran ahead and climbed a tree.

When this parade begins, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the economic injustice of the economic, political, and religious elite at the heart of that society. But Jesus stops along the way to include this tax-collector who he perceives is changing his mind about Jesus’ economic teachings on the poor. Imagine the people objecting to Jesus, “But Jesus, this man is a sinner!”

Zacchaeus interrupts them all:

“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘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)

Just a few days earlier, some of the Pharisees had responded to Jesus’ call to give their possessions to the poor by “sneering” at him (see Luke 16:13,14). I can imagine Jesus with tears of joy in his eyes at this chief tax collector responding so differently. “Today,” he says to Zacchaeus, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Not everyone acknowledged that salvation had come.

Those left outside in Jesus’ story about the prodigal and older brother are not those whom the elites had labeled as “sinners” to be excluded. No, the ones outside the party are the ones who cannot handle Jesus modeling a just future where those they feel should be excluded are included instead.

What is the Jesus story whispering to us here?

Those left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future won’t be those who couldn’t believe in God’s love for themselves. They’ll be those who could not embrace God’s love for someone else—someone whom they thought should not be included. If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.

If in the gospels, God’s just future looks like Jesus, and Jesus looks like the one we find in the Jesus stories, then this should give those who believe in and practice exclusionary forms of Christianity quite a bit to ponder. Some sectors of Christianity today still practice inequality for women. Some sectors of Christianity still practice the bigotry of colonialist, European, and American White supremacy. Sectors of Christianity still practice the same economic classism our society does. Large sectors of Christianity passionately exclude our LGBTQIA siblings. But to the degree that Christianity has practiced and led others in the practice of systemic and private distributive and inclusive justice, it has thrived. To the degree that it has failed to practice justice, it has done much harm to people and to itself.

The question Jesus followers today must ask is this: when we see Jesus’ inclusion being practiced, do we celebrate like those who “went in” in Jesus’ story, or do we mimic the “older brother,” refuse to “go in,” or even threaten schism to protect our practices and sense of superiority?

HeartGroup Application

  1. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion and mutual participation in your faith communities? As a group, make a list.
  2. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion, representation, and equity in our larger society? As a group, make a list.
  3. Brainstorm with your group how you can collectively participate with the work you see being done in both areas. Pick something from what you’ve come up with and put it into practice this coming 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