Keith Reeves, professor of biblical studies, Azusa Pacific University
Note: This is the second part of a two-part article.
As we have seen, rich people and their often-foolish lifestyles are an important theme in Luke. Having looked at the story of the rich fool and the story of the rich man and Lazarus, we will now look at two more stories: the rich ruler and Zacchaeus.
The Rich Ruler
Why is this man sad?
A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’ ” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:18-25)
Some use this story to suggest that the call to discipleship requires complete divestiture of wealth. Yet the story of Zacchaeus reveals that this is not true. Rather, Jesus called the rich ruler to leave behind what consumed his attention – in this case, his wealth. Jesus calls us to focus on the kingdom and to turn our attention away from that which would enslave us, whether that would be a promiscuous lifestyle (John 4:1-26), an adulterous relationship (John 7:53-8:11) or even a productive endeavor (Mark 1:16-18).
The story of the rich ruler is also used to indicate that a Christian should not be involved in commerce. Yet, Jesus does not tell the man simply to abandon his possessions. He tells him to sell all he owns and distribute the proceeds to the poor. He is to sell – to engage in an act of commerce – rather than simply discard or even give away his possessions.
The story shocked its original audience, for they saw wealth as a blessing from God. How could you be called to give away God’s blessings? Yet Jesus doesn’t just leave the audience in their confusion; he explains the parable. It is hard for those with wealth to enter the kingdom. Wealth is power. It is easy to depend upon our own resources. In fact, Jesus notes, overcoming wealth to enter the kingdom is impossible for men – but it is possible with God. Jesus’s explanation makes clear that God can save the wealthy; this is illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus.
Jesus and Zacchaeus
Why is this man saved?
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)
The story of Zacchaeus is well known. Zacchaeus was a tax-collector and was rich. The terms “rich” and “poor” often have a figurative meaning in Luke. Those who are “poor” are open to Jesus. Those who are “rich” are those who believe themselves to be self-sufficient and are not open to Jesus.
Zacchaeus is “rich,” but he is looking for Jesus. The verb tense Luke uses indicates that Zacchaeus’s act of seeking was not a single event, but a series of actions. Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus. It was these actions which prompt Jesus to invite himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. This pattern of seeking eventually leads to Zacchaeus’s confession: “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” (Lk 19:8).
In contrast to the rich ruler, Luke presents Zacchaeus after his encounter with Jesus as a model of how a rich man should live. He doesn’t hoard his wealth, thinking only of himself. He gives generously to the poor and pays back those he has defrauded. But he is not commanded to give all his wealth away. With his salvation, Zacchaeus is called to be generous with his wealth and scrupulous in his business dealings. Luke presents many examples of rich men behaving badly. In the story of Zacchaeus, however, we see how a rich man should live.
The story of Zacchaeus also immediately precedes the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27). This parable communicates how a faithful use of wealth involves using it productively. So, while Zacchaeus presents one model of how to use wealth, this is not the only model. Generous giving and productive investment are both valuable. Wealth is powerful and should be used wisely for the kingdom in a variety of ways. Luke’s lifestyles of the rich and foolish (including one fool who found a better path) should not be set up as one-dimensional, cookie-cutter answers to the challenge of wealth. The basic imperative is to use wealth for God in all of the many ways this can be done.