American Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He also collaborated with the occupying empire of Rome to extort money from his fellow-countrymen. He saw who had the guns — Roman legions, in his day — and he aligned with them to make an unjust profit. No wonder the people who saw Jesus invite himself over to Zacchaeus’ place for dinner were disappointed and disgusted. Notorious man of the people consents to intimate meeting with noted counter-revolutionary and predatory little turncoat.

In Luke’s story, Zacchaeus tells Jesus, “if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19:8, CEB). I assume this was the case (the cheating); otherwise, why bring it up? Jesus says to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9).

And that concludes the story.

As with all the gospel stories, it is curt and tidy. It evokes just enough of a character and a problem to launch a story. Then the main action is the character’s encounter with Jesus. Its ending is nothing but a snapshot of restoration. Leper + Jesus = rejoicing. Woman caught in adultery + Jesus = go and sin no more. Mourning mother and dead boy + Jesus = rejoicing. Extortive tax collector + Jesus = salvation has come.

The simplicity of the stories gives them their power. They aren’t like modern novels, where the characters are convoluted and the plot is unresolved and there’s lots of gray. The stories in the gospels are silhouettes, light and darkness. They stick in the memory and linger in the soul. For that reason, they’re more like a rock you can build your house on. But they also lack the give and complexity of real, sandy life, which does not usually consist in episodes of lightning encounter and radical transformation.

For example, the message of the Zacchaeus story is clear enough. If you have stolen money from others, Jesus still welcomes you. Jesus reaches out to dine with the despised opportunist and collaborator. This is a word that warms my heart. It opens a hope of grace for those like me who stand with Zacchaeus on the benefiting side of imperial firepower. Also: gratitude for Jesus’ gracious welcome is then supposed to move its recipients to give back their unjust gains to their victims.

But what if it is not so simple?

What if I personally did not make the theft like Zacchaeus — but a theft was made hundreds of years ago, and ever since, the stolen capital has grown and amassed, continuing to benefit the racial descendants of the original despoilers? What if the robbery is not an isolated case as with Zacchaeus, but a whole society, organized to protect the interests of the thieves and their offspring, and to ensure the plunder remains inaccessible to the plundered? What if the theft was not only an easily quantifiable asset like money, as with Zacchaeus —but included properties that cannot be commodified, like land and labor and freedom and tradition and credibility and basic human dignity? What if those robbed are not, as in the story of Zacchaeus, merely the objects of Zacchaeus’ actions, but their own irreducible and active subjects, who have striven for centuries to reestablish what was forcibly taken from their ancestors?

What does restitution look like in such a case, Lord?

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