Luke 18-19: If you only knew

Who are the heroes, and who are the villains? Who are the seekers, and who are the sought? What does peace require?

We’re entering the home stretch of Luke – literally, as Jesus enters Jerusalem and cleans up the temple in Luke 19 – and there are some big questions to answer.

Heroes and villains – if you are like me, the story of Zaccheus, the little tax guy who climbs a tree to see Jesus, is one you have known since you were a kid. In fact, if you were a VBS kid, you may be hearing a song in your head even now, “Zaccheus was a wee little man…”

So I never realized that Zaccheus was the last encounter Luke chronicles before Jesus enters Jerusalem. And I also didn’t connect that in the chapter before, Luke encounters the (unnamed) “rich young ruler.” In fact, Luke uses the same word (the Greek one for “rich”) to describe both the guy in Luke 18 and Zaccheus.

That guy, the unnamed rich guy, was a hero. He was rich, popular, probably good-looking even, and he could go toe-to-toe with Jesus in citing the law. The stuff Jesus asked him to do, the commandments? That guy said “check, check, check.” 

Zaccheus was a villain, for sure. I mean, he was a tax guy! And not just a run-of-the-mill auditor (like Matthew); he ran the regional office! Collecting taxes for a pagan empire was (and for many still is) villainous business. Zaccheus may have been rich, but nobody was going to lift a finger to help him see Jesus. He was bad news. 

Except when Jesus asked the unnamed guy to give up his possessions and join him, he walked away. And we know that he was seen as a hero, because when he walked away, the disciples all said, “Well, shoot, if THAT guy can’t get into heaven, how do WE have a chance?”

And except when Jesus told Zaccheus “I’m coming to your place for dinner,” Zaccheus made a statement that my former (unrelated) teacher Luke Johnson pointed out: Zaccheus didn’t suddenly have a change of heart (like I always thought) and announce what he was gonna do; instead, what he told Jesus was, “Hey, so you know, I give half my possessions to the poor and pay back anyone who got scammed by me or my people four times over.” This isn’t Ebenezer Scrooge, and Jesus isn’t the Ghost of Christmas Future. Zaccheus was just a guy who had been pegged as a heel but kept taking care of those who were more outcast than he was, even if nobody noticed.

Who seeks whom? – Luke uses the same verb at the beginning and the end of the story. Zaccheus was seeking Jesus, but in the end, Jesus says he was coming to “seek and save the lost.” In my limited experience, this is exactly how it works. We may think that we need to go find God, but we’re being silly. Especially if we feel like we have a ton of baggage that God won’t accept, we’re going to be surprised to find out, eventually, that it’s GOD who has been seeking US, not to straighten us up but to wrap us up in mercy and acceptance.

“If you only knew what it takes to have peace!”

Jesus says that (a loose translation) in Luke 19:42, about Jerusalem, on the approach to the big entry into town we mark at Palm Sunday. And I’ve been thinking a little bit about what peace requires.

We live in a time of retributive justice. I talked a while ago about my former colleague who liked to bellow “You’re off the list!” when someone crossed him. It is definitely the ethic of the day, both among Christians and in the world at large. When people sneer about “cancel culture,” this is the grain of truth they are surfacing; the fact that, if someone does wrong, so many of us judge them as irredeemable comes from a place of seeking peace through retribution.

Whether we are talking about personal relationships, or political fights, or legal battles, or military actions, surely we have figured out by now that retribution is not what it takes to have peace. You can keep doing that stuff until we are all eye-less and tooth-less, and it will not bring the peace you need in your gut; it just sets up the next fight.

Jesus doesn’t say what it is, exactly, that Jerusalem didn’t realize they needed to have peace. The gospel writers make the obvious answer to that question Jesus. But if we really buy into that – if we let peace in like Zaccheus let Jesus come to dinner, instead of walking away like the rich guy who didn’t want to share his stuff – maybe we have to realize that retributive justice is never going to work, and we start to work towards restorative justice. And – this is the hard part – we begin to realize that none of us are heroes or villains, just lost folks being sought.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: