Think of the person you see as being a spiritual guru, someone you look to when seeking spiritual advice on Christianity. Now imagine that you’ve invite that person to your home for dinner, but instead of choosing to dine with you he or she instead chooses to dine with Bernie Madoff. In fact, the more you learn about this person, the more you learn that he or she is often around people like Bernie Madoff. You notice a repertoire boasting of CEO’s, politicians, and people who have cheated their way into riches. What do you think of that person?
The feeling you get might be akin to the feeling people had about Jesus. Even now we conveniently ignore the fact that Jesus hung around tax collectors. Of course, this term is far more palatable to us today because “tax collector” doesn’t have the same ring that it used to. To get a sense of what a “tax collector” was back then, we need look no further than Wall Street. The operators of Enron, the various companies that gouge prices, the people buying multi-million dollar yachts – those are the tax collectors.
Luke 19 seems a bit starker when read in its proper historical context. Zacchaeus was a rich man and his riches were gained by cheating people out of their money. While being a tax collector would bring in quite a bit of money to begin with, the position left him open to cheat people, and he took advantage of that.
Imagine Jesus sitting at the table with the head of a union, with the CEO of a company that just laid off 300 people, but the CEO never took a pay cut, or with two men involved in price gouging. Not only that, but He chose to go have dinner with them than to go have dinner with you.
It is important to remember that Christ reached out to the tax collectors as well as the prostitutes and the poor. For one, this eradicates both liberation theology and liberation theology light; the idea that Christ came to earth for the fiscally oppressed must face up to the facts that Jesus befriended tax collectors, who were the furthest thing from fiscally oppressed. They were spiritually oppressed, but it was by the Pharisees who believed that tax collectors were unspiritual due to the methods in which they gained their money (think of that next time you label someone a Pharisee).
The other reason it’s important to remember Jesus’ ministry to the tax collectors is so that we understand that everyone needs Christ. All are worthy of our service (though in different ways) and our love. It doesn’t matter if it is the poorest beggar on the streets of Calcutta or the richest man in the United States – both are oppressed by sin and both need the liberator of Jesus Christ.
What we should also take away from Luke 19 is that after meeting Christ, Zacchaeus is changed. He offers to give some of his riches to the poor and to pay back all of his income that he has made through cheating people. This is another important thing to remember; all are welcome at the foot of the cross, but Christ doesn’t leave us there. Christ will change us. We come to Christ in whatever condition we are in, but He will move us and cause us to change. The prostitute ceases to be the prostitute, the tax collector ceases to be the tax collector, the liar ceases to lie, and the list goes on. When sinners encounter the real person of Jesus Christ they come to repentance.
Next time you feel you need to judge the rich for being rich, or quote [out of context] the passage saying it’s difficult for a rich man to enter Heaven, keep in mind that just as Jesus showed love to the prostitutes, He also showed love to the tax collectors. He showed love to the Donald Trumps and the Bernie Madoffs of His time. Just as He showed love to the rich, so too should we.