We had a guest preacher today: Dr Janice McRandal. Janice is a public theologian working out of Wesley Central Mission, Brisbane.
In April 1940 the DC Comics Batman strip introduced to the world the now well-known nemesis of their great American hero: The Joker. Always depicted as the dark otherside in the battle for good and evil, the Joker, with his warped and whacky humour and relentless attempts to cause chaos and destruction, played a crucial role in moving the Batman stories along. He was dark and twisted, and a villain who approached crime and weaponry with great creativity and flair. The Joker’s backstory was scant: indeed, for the longest time, we were told that the Joker was an ordinary man who fell into a vat of chemicals, bleaching his skin white, reddening his lips and, fatefully, driving him insane. It’s the kind of fantastical comic book origin detail that does just enough to create a villain and nothing more. The Joker was a plot mover slim on relatability and high on homicidal rage.
But the Joker story has shifted significantly over the last 30 years, and in 2019, the most controversial film of the year is a re-telling that throws everything we know up in the air. Entirely dedicated to the Joker backstory, the 2019 Joker is brought into a real world as a real-life character that might even make sense. In this psychologically heavy retelling, the chillingly plausible origin story of the Joker humanises this character in ways never thought possible. And suddenly the Batman and Joker story is not at all what we thought. It requires a different approach, a different way of thinking and analysing of the story. Something else is going on here.
I want to offer to you, this morning, what might be a different way of reading the Gospel story. One in which our assumptions, our plain readings, or our previous learnings from the text may be thrown up into the air. Perhaps in this story of Zacchaeus something else is going on. Perhaps this, too, requires a different approach, a different way of thinking and analysing of the story.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Accompanied by his disciples and gathering crowds of seekers, spectators, and tormentors, wherever he goes, he now passes through Jericho. As an important trade centre, the civic officials of Jericho would have been somewhat powerful, influential, and wealthy. Among those, tax collectors. And the chief tax collector was none other than a Jewish man named Zacchaeus. It’s a colourful story that nearly always lands well in Sunday schools: a man who are told was short in stature is so excited to see this Jesus everyone is talking about, that he runs through the crowds to a large sycamore tree just so he could see Jesus pass. And Jesus, being the attuned prophet that he is, notices Zacchaeus up that tree, and not only does he call him down to him but invites himself over to dinner! WOW. But we know a story is no good story without tension, and so we have the crowds now expressing their disappointment and disapproval. How could this prophet go and eat with a dirty, rotten, traitor of a tax collector? A servant of the Roman Empire! No rabbi or priest should do such a thing!!
And then the crucial final two verses, which in the NRSV read,
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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
So much rises and falls on verse 8 (let me read again): ‘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.”’
The language used here, that is the koine Greek that Luke is writing with, is quite ambiguous. It is very unclear as to whether Zacchaeus says, ‘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.’
if he in fact says: ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I DO give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I DO pay them back four times as much.’
This is a classic example of how all translations are interpretations. English translations have gone with the future tense, but the Greek does not simply imply that. In fact, there are a growing number of scholars who read this the second way, suggesting that the story and the following story of the ten pounds, make much more sense read against the grain, read as far more difficult stories than our common analysis. And in this translation, Zacchaeus becomes a far richer, more interesting and troubling character. In this translation, Zacchaeus is seen to be a servant of the subversive kingdom.
Go back to the story and imagine it again. Zacchaeus’ ‘short stature’ is likely connected to a dwarfism ‘that is identified among a list of disabilities disqualifying priests from offering sacrificial food’ or approaching the Holy of Holies in Leviticus 21, the kind of congenital physical issues said to be the result of sin in the ancient world. Already marked by birth as a sinner and outsider, Zacchaeus goes on to become a tax collector, a servant of Rome, betraying his own people. He is doubly despised, and doubly rejected. But he sees in his role an opportunity, a way to do Yahweh’s work of justice from outside the community that rejected him from birth. And so, as a tax collector he can build wealth to give to the poor, and he can provide tax returns that make a mockery of the Roman system, giving back four times more than might be required. He’s already doing the work of the Kingdom, and when Jesus passes through town, who he has heard to be a prophet of Yahweh’s mercy and justice, Zacchaeus goes out of his way to see this servant of the Lord. And knowing Zacchaeus to be likewise a servant of the Lord, Jesus calls him out, and places him among the faithful lineage of Abraham. Here is a sign of Salvation. Here is a servant of the subversive kingdom.
This is, no doubt, a more difficult reading that the easy ‘here was a sinner and Jesus saved them’ interpretation, but it is also not unlikely. As I said, taken with the following story of the ten points told from verse 11, Jesus’ ‘triumphant’ entry in to Jerusalem in verse 28, is seen as more clearly as a subversive movement in which the climax of this upside kingdom is about to be revealed. And telling, too, is the name Zacchaeus, meaning innocent or pure. This is not the case of a name change to come, Zacchaeus enters the story as the innocent one. He is despised as a tax collector and rejected for his stature, and he is servant of the subversive kingdom.
What might it mean for us to learn from Zacchaeus and learn to subvert the very systems that seek to oppress?
We can draw a number of instructive points from this retelling of the story, ways in which we likewise be servants of the subversive kingdom.
Where we are: For Zacchaeus this was under Roman rule in the Roman empire. He could not overturn his known world himself, but it certainly did not mean he could do nothing. Right where he was he saw an opportunity. Christians interpreting ‘not of the world’ as some sort of segregationist clause are of no help to the subversion kingdom. They’re simply refusing to be where they are, to live in their time and place, and find ways to serve God. We are resident aliens, to be sure, but right where we are today, wherever that is, we can serve God though creative and assertive acts of subversion.
With what we have: For Zacchaeus this was tax collection. Tax Collectors had relatively free travel and could enter towns and civic places with ease. His tax collecting practices and monetary dispossession was an artful and assertive way to subvert the unjust structures as he moved about. He looked at what he had and thought creatively about it. Many critics would say that movements of justice, advocacy, and activism stall when we lose that creativity. But what has always worked is when folk look at what they do have and think creatively about it.
Without affirmation: Until that day, Zacchaeus had been going about his business, a son of Abraham despised among his people, seen only as a sinner, but working to subvert the world order and serve Yahweh’s kingdom. It’s a very common theme in the bible—a prophet unwelcome in their own town. But harder in practice than literature. Subversive acts are costly. Sometimes we are called to support those institutions we love best, or the intentions of friends and family. What do we do then? Do we have the courage and conviction to serve without affirmation?
Nothing is what it seems in the Kingdom of God, and all of our right readings must be given over the God who interrupts and transgresses anything and all we think we know. Even today’s reading. But perhaps we can pause a little and stay with this Zacchaeus for a moment, remembering our own calling, too.
To be servants of the subversive kingdom.
West End Uniting Church, 3 November 2019
Dr Janice McRandal