Monday, November 3, 2008

Biblical Socialism Continued! Luke-Acts (part 6): Zacchaeus were are up to the sixth installment of biblical socialism, or, to be more accurate, the question of biblical socialism in Luke-Acts.

Until now, we have seen a rather radical redistribution of wealth by Jesus (and in Acts) in which to follow Jesus and ultimately enter into the kingdom of God (or to create the kingdom of God), one must sell everything and give all of the proceeds to the poor. In Acts, this shifts to giving all the proceeds to the community, a clearer version of communalism rather than merely radical redistribution of Jesus (which presumably included any poor person, whether an insider or outsider).

But now we come to a different story, the story of the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19:2-10:

And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, "He has gone in to be a guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half o fmy goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost."

This account appears to depart greatly from Jesus' previous pronouncements of selling ALL you own and giving it to the poor. Why does he not ask the same of Zacchaeus, who, like the rich young ruler (from the preceding chapter!) or the rich man who died and went to Hades, should have sold everything and given everything to the poor? Zacchaeus is, as the passage points out right at the beginning, very rich.

Much hinges upon Zacchaeus' position as a tax collector. It is this position that makes him a "sinner." Tax systems in antiquity worked differently than today. Political leaders would "farm" out the tax collection to "tax farmers." These farmers would compete for the ability to collect taxes by saying they could collect so much. The winner got to collect the taxes. Any additional amounts the collector got over and above the amount promised, he could keep. If he came up short, he would have to pay out of his own pocket. Thus, you can see how gouging, or in terms of the passage defrauding, could occur. Even though the tax collector was of the same background (in terms of ethnicity, religion, etc.) of the people he would extort, this position and the tendency to gouge, built into the system itself, would lead people to think he was not on their side, was a lackey for the government (in Jesus' time, the Romans), and, thus, a sinner.

Jesus says he has come to reach the sinners rather than those who do not need extra assistance. His is a message for outsiders. Yet, the shock of this passage is that, although Zacchaeus is rich, he is already, on his own, starting the way down Jesus' economic distribution program. The startling reversal of expectations is Zacchaeus' fair dealing! It would be more shocking than an honest politician! Zacchaeus, without Jesus asking him to do so, already gives HALF of everthing to the poor. And instead of extortion, if he has dealt with anyone unfairly, he gives them four times the amount he over-taxed. This is, in fact, quite startling. If anyone was the greedy money-hungry capitalist in antiquity, it would be these tax collectors. That such a person gives away half his money and is so honest is quite shocking for an ancient audience, a shock perhaps lost on modern audiences. Another question arises, though. How capitalist is Zacchaeus? How, in fact, does he make money? If he collects taxes, and his revenue is based upon collecting more than promised, and he never collects more than expected, he cannot make any money! His giving half of everything to the poor and paying back four-fold any defrauding holds the system in tension: it reinforces the system by participating in its taxation policies, but undermines its logic of tax farming to gain a profit at the same time.

Be that as it may, by only giving HALF of everything to the poor and doing the reverse of extortion (meaning not only will he not make money, but he may lose some by giving back four times the amount of extortion or defrauding), he still is not as radical as Jesus is earlier. That Jesus announces that salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house for this on the one hand seems a slight departure, or at least variation, on his earlier message of selling everything and giving it to the poor. Indeed, the mention of "son of Abraham" immediately evokes the earlier story of the rich man who went to Hades while the poor Lazarus went to the bosom of Abraham. Has Zacchaeus taken (only?) the first steps toward Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God? Or does Jesus compromise his earlier vision for some reason? On the other hand, what terminology is missing here? Precisely the terminology of the kingdom of God, which picks up again in the subsequent parable. Yet he receives, or his house receives, salvation nonetheless.

Is this a departure of the earlier message of giving up everything, or is giving half of everything just another variation of the theme of the radical economic redistribution program of the Lukan Jesus? In fact, how might Zacchaeus square up to Annanias and Sapphira in Acts 5, who sold their land and held back part of the proceeds from the community, and died for it? Inconsistency in the Lukan narrative? Or is something else at work here...a commonality of redistribution in general and disrupting the logic of the economic system itself?

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