Forming Faith Blog

Powerless and Powerful (March 21, 2021)

The Journey So Far
Zacchaeus up in a tree, a powerful tax collector.

Jesus is getting closer to Jerusalem. Back in the reading on Ash Wednesday, Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. After teachings on loving your neighbor, repentance, finding what is lost, and the dangers of selfish wealth, he has come to the city of Jericho. Here he encounters two men: one seemingly powerless and the other powerful.

The first man is blind. Luke doesn’t give him a name, though the Gospel writer Mark calls him Bartimaeus. In this time period, people with disabilities were often seen as dependent and helpless. On the other hand, we have Zacchaeus, a man who is almost the opposite through his wealth and influence.

Blindness and Begging

In the first-century Palestine—as in many places then and now—a person with a significant disability was excluded from the traditional ways to earn an income. Given this, many people were forced to rely on the generosity of others by begging. As generosity (almsgiving) was a strong cultural virtue, a person might be able to survive on this, but this form of support carries with it a significantly unbalanced power dynamic.

While a worker-employer relationship also has a power differential, there is still a sense of power from the worker: the worker earns their pay and the employer owes it to them. However, a person who must beg is completely dependent on the whim and conscience of those who happen to pass by. Compounding this, it is possible that this disability would require the man to rely on someone to bring him to and from his begging space. His society forced this man into a powerless situation and excluded him (on some level) as an outsider.

The Oppressive Traitor

Then we have Zacchaeus. His name is of Hebrew origin, so he is likely a local, a Jew. However, he became a tax collector, even rising to the rank of chief tax collector (in charge of a group of “street level” collectors). Nobody likes paying taxes, even today when we have some say how this money is spent through our democratically elected representatives. However, at this time a tax collector was hated. Why? A tax collector in the first-century Palestine was an independent contractor working for the Roman Empire, the empire that has conquered and occupied the region, leaving troops, officials, and client kings to keep the populace in line—violently if necessary. So, a Jewish tax collector is someone who has turned their back on the suffering of their people and works for the occupying enemy of these people for wealth. Zacchaeus is a traitor.

Then, there was how the collector earned income. The empire assigned a tax or toll amount the collector must pay. To earn income, they would collect more than this amount and could use their position (with possible enforcement by the military) to fatten their personal treasuries at the literal expense of the mostly low-income populace. You can see why people hated them.

The People React

The residents of Jericho reacted to both the man who was blind and Zacchaeus in different ways, but they excluded both. The first they seem to treat like a child, seen (maybe) but not heard. They shushed him. Then, they grumbled at the attention this great prophet/rabbi was giving Zacchaeus. I’m guessing it was only grumbling because they were prevented from doing anything worse.

Jesus Responds

Jesus treats both men with grace. He sees and listens to the man who was blind. Jesus commends him on his confession of faith and heals him. He is now able to re-enter society.

Jesus then enters the city and sees a grown man who has climbed a tree, an odd sight. He calls the man by name (probably more evidence to the people that he is a prophet, as how else would he know this man’s name?). Jesus even invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, which was not socially acceptable then or now. Zacchaeus gives a statement of repentance, and Jesus commends him as well.

Faith and Repentance

In these two episodes, we see some of Luke’s main themes continued. Jesus empowers and welcomes those people on the margins who need healing and change. Curiously, Jesus also accepts the repentance and faith of an outsider who is also a hated oppressor. Rich men have not faired well in many of his past teachings (Luke 6:24; 12:21; 16:19-31), though he does seem to have some fondness for tax collectors (Luke 5:27-32; 15:1-2; 18:9-14). Faith and repentance matter more to him than past sins or political allegiance.

Free Activity

Each week I offer a free activity for congregations to use for faith formation. This week’s activity is “Tax Collectors,” an activity that demonstrates a piece of what makes ancient tax collectors unpopular. This was written for our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) curriculum. This activity is most naturally suited for families with younger children audience, though it could be used as an illustration in worship for all ages.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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