Zacchaeus on the Issue of Reparations


Isaiah 1:10-18

Psalm 32:1-7

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

Prayer of the Day: Merciful God, gracious and benevolent, through your Son you invite all the world to a meal of mercy. Grant that we may eagerly follow his call, and bring us with all your saints into your life of justice and joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“‘Look, [said Zacchaeus] 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 19:8-10.

“Look here!” said the angry red faced parishioner. “Nobody ever gave me a dime! I worked my way through college, fought like hell for every job interview I ever had, started at the bottom rung of the ladder and climbed every step of the way with my own blood sweat and tears. I don’t have anything I haven’t worked my butt of for. So don’t be calling me “privileged!” “God loves EVERYBODY!” the elderly woman nearly screamed in my face. “God doesn’t care whether we are rich or poor!” “Yes, you could say I’m rich by some standards,” said the doctor in his measured and rational tone. “But with pre-med studies, medical school, residencies and fellowships, my life didn’t even start until I was almost thirty-and then there was the debt for all that I had to pay off. That is the price I paid to obtain the skills promoting human health and saving human lives I use today for the benefit of all. I am not about to apologize for the benefits my profession brings to me.”

All of this following a sermon I preached during my internship back in 1980 in which I used the following quote from liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez.

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

We are nothing if not defensive about what we call our own. Though I suspect few of my readers would consider themselves rich, I think it fair to say that the most financially strapped among us still live on a level of comfort and security the financial bottom third of the world’s population can only dream about. That is perhaps why preaching the God of slaves, the God who champions the rights of the poor, the God who “sends the rich away empty” pushes a lot of hot buttons. When I read the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke describing the “great reversal” in which the powerful and wealthy are cast down in favor of the destitute, I can’t help but wonder where I will end up. My name may not be Gates, Musk or Zuckerberg, but I know that I am probably a good deal closer to the hated 1% than I am to the folks to whom Mary sings her liberating hymn of hope. So I have to wonder, is there any place for people like me in the new world God is preparing?

Sunday’s gospel issues a resounding “yes,” to my anxious query. Zacchaeus, we are told, was a chief tax collector-and “rich.” Yet Jesus does indeed see Zacchaeus as a child of Abraham, one beloved by God and one God seeks to redeem. Zacchaeus, for his part, recognizes what this means for him. He understands now that the reign of God Jesus proclaims stands all of the power, wealth and status arrangements of this world on their heads. He understands now that ownership is a myth, that private property is a fraud perpetrated on behalf of the powerful to hold the status quo in place against the onslaught of God’s just and peaceful reign. So Zacchaeus does what any sensible person would do in his circumstances. He gives away half of his wealth to the poor. More importantly, he vows to restore fourfold the wealth he has made at the expense of others. To use a more contemporary term, Zacchaeus makes reparations.

Of course, a lot of wealthy and privileged people are not as perceptive as Zacchaeus. I can well imagine Zacchaeus making the same kinds of arguments as those of my hearers decades ago . Sure, nobody likes the tax man. Everybody complains that taxes are too high. Everyone thinks they are paying too much. But if you want the streets paved, police and fire protection and some semblance of civil order, you need government. Government has to be paid for and that means taxes. Somebody has to get the taxes from the pockets of the people to the government coffers. “So,” says Zacchaeus, “that is the legitimate service I perform. And, I might add, I’m good at what I do. So good that I was promoted to the station of ‘chief.’ The job pays well-as it should. If you have a problem with my success, it’s your problem. My being rich doesn’t make me responsible for your being poor. The world isn’t a fair place, I’ll grant you that. But I didn’t make the world, I just live here.”  

These excuses would have been as lame in the mouth of Zacchaeus as they are in our own. As Gutierrez reminds us, we did and do make the world. “The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.” As he goes on to point out, “the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” I believe that this is precisely what Zacchaeus is doing. His relinquishment of half of his wealth to the poor is not to be construed as a charitable donation. It is a wholesale rejection of a way of life that sustains itself by impoverishing others. Zacchaeus’ fourfold restitution to all who have been impoverished through his profession reflects his new found determination to live henceforth, not in the cruel and unjust world of his own making, but under the just and gentle reign of God’s making. The radical reversal about which Mary sings is not a distant future hope. It is a present reality in the life of Zacchaeus and all others who hear Jesus’ call to the new reality of God’s reign.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is, I believe, the tragic alternative to the story of Zacchaeus. The nameless man in this parable never perceives the reign of God and its life changing potential for him-though for all his life it has been lying right in front of his gate in the person of Lazarus. Unlike Zacchaeus, the rich man never recognized how his bondage to wealth, power and security built a huge chasm between himself and the rest of the human community of which he was created to be a part. But this story of Zacchaeus and his transformative encounter with Jesus is in our scriptures to remind rich folk like ourselves that it doesn’t have to end that way for us. There is a way out of bondage, out of guilt and out of death on the wrong side of the chasm between rich and poor.

I believe it would take legislative action backed by political will exceeding that behind the New Deal and the Marshall Plan to begin remedying the political and economic inequality imposed on black Americans from the foundations of our nation. So also for genuine efforts to restore for indigenous peoples the life and culture we have stolen through violence and genocide. In the same way, it will take more than good wishes and intermittent acts of charity to rebuild the communities built for the convenience of corporate America and then summarily discarded and left to rot. There is not much appetite for that in either major American political party. But is it too much to expect the Body of Christ to take a different view? Is it too much to expect that white American churches make financial reparations to black churches in recognition of the historic wrongs against them and their members from which we and our members have benefited? Is it too much to expect that our larger, wealthier congregations in more propsperous communities share their substantial wealth with smaller, struggling churches in stressed communities? Is it too much to ask that the Body of Christ at least strive to be the change it keeps calling for from the rest of society in its screechy preachy social statements? Perhaps, in the spirit of Reformation, we ought to attach such questions to the door of ELCA headquarters in Chicago.

Here is a poem by Marcus Wicker that puts the lie to claims of impossibility for making meaningful reparations to the descendants of slavery in the United States.

Reparations Metric Ending in Assisted Schadenfreude

It is impossible to come up with a fair metric for recompensing slavery ten
generations after slavery’s end.
—Ben Shapiro, Fox News

What apple, which conquistador

oats? Which ruby red

moat, what filet of bartered goat?

Which glazed carrot caught your nose,

drew you into the station

w/ blinders on? Horse’s ass.

Quaffed cad. Whatdoya call a

property tax on a revolving

accessory? What’s a loan

w/o a lessor, B? Which of these

eventualities is not like the other—free

& clear from the shattering / a mast

of tears makes / when it fractures /

scalpels away / silt / clean off

a runaway cliff,

before gashing the quarry w/ after-

shot? I’ll take my safety net in breakneck

class action union wage annuity checks

from, 23 & Everybody

Who’s Made a Killing Trafficking

in Families & Trees. Run me my knot,

Money. Untie my limbs. Underwrite

the court costs, plus notary fees

to petition my change of surname.

Now multiply that expense by a modest

interest rate accrued over 154 summers,

give or take. Or strap weights

to your ankles / go float in a lake.

Source:  Poetry (November 2019). Marcus Wicker (b. 1984) is an American poet. He began writing in elementary school, beginning with mystery stories and personal journals. His Tenth Grade English Teacher introduced him to poetry and encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. Wicker earned an MFA from Indiana University in 2010. In 2011he won the National Poetry Series Prize for his collection Maybe the Saddest Thing. He also won a Pushcart Prize for his poem “Interrupting Aubade Ending In Epiphany” in 2014. Wicker currently teaches creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Memphis. You can learn more about Marcus Wicker and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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