St Luke 19: 1 – 27
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.’
As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading.
The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” He said to him, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.”
He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”’
Occasionally I wonder why Luke made the point that Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore. Was it merely a passing comment or is there some symbolism there? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Sycamore figs in Israel are a bit of an oddity – they are figs! – but are native to tropical Africa and lack the wasp which would normally pollinate them. It was known that people, such as Amos describing himself as a dresser of figs, had to do something to them so they produced fruit.
Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham but somehow lacks something and has become a tax collector. Effectively, he became a collaborator with the Roman invaders. Meeting Jesus he is introduced to a new experience, the missing understanding, and comes face to face with an ethic far more satisfying.
As Luke tells the story, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach. This parable is usually taken as an explanation for Jesus’ not immediately overthrowing the Romans and the Day of the Lord starting or as an explanation for the delayed second coming or … Or do we have here a radical story of wrong demands by a bullying nobleman? In the story, bullying elicits an unexpected response from one person. There is no compliance with an instruction to do business, as Zacchaeus had been doing for his Roman masters, but a complete refusal to take part in something distasteful. The reason is given in a blunt character description. That leads to the nobleman’s grab to get the initial amount back and the punishment of seeing it handed over to another combined with the threat (reality?) of slaughter. Is this reassurance to Zacchaeus that now he has made Jesus his master the threat of summary execution by a Roman overlord is averted?
It is hard, difficult work being a disciple especially when it might seem easier to go with distasteful demands even though failure can be seen lurking in the background.
When we are pressured to take part in dubious practices give us the clear sight to understand and deal with what is distasteful to us and unacceptable to you.