In Luke’s gospel the rich do not come off especially well. The rich young man is told to sell all that he owns and, unable to do so, he goes away very sad. In the Magnificat, Mary looks forward to the day when God will fill the poor with good things and send away the rich with empty hands. Jesus pronounces woes to the rich, he portrays them as fools, calls them callous, and in general finds them incapable of responding to the call of God. Remember the story from luke’s gospel about the two men who die, one named Lazarus is sent immediately to heaven. The other because he was rich and did not care for Lazarus is sent immediately to hell.
Even in today’s story the rich do not have an easy time of it. The crowd grumbles at the rich man Zacchaeus. He, a very wealthy man, is forced to run along side the crowd gathered to see Jesus. His wealth does not get him a luxury skybox but instead he’s forced to climb a rather small tree so he may see Jesus pass by. His wealth offers him no advantages and in the eyes of the crowd his wealth is a tremendous disadvantage. They roll their eyes at him.
It may seem we are faced with yet another gospel that forces us to ask the question: am I rich or not? I know when I hear these stories of wealthy people from Luke’s gospel I ask myself: do I fit into this category of the rich. Will I be put down while the lowly are lifted up? I think the logic goes something like this: If I’m rich then this gospel applies to me. If I’m not rich I can sit by the wayside and watch the event unfold between Jesus and the rich men he puts down. The question of whether I’m rich or not is a very difficult question:
In one sense, if you have a roof over your head and fresh potable water running through your home you are already richer than many people on the globe. If you have wages over $2 a day you are already richer than many people on the planet. I live in a brand-new Jesuit community that would be the envy of many who like myself, go by the name of poor.
In a sense, when compared with the rest of the world, we in this church are all somewhat rich. And thus have a vested interest in the plight of the little man Zacchaeus. All of us might consider leaving behind half of our income. The pastor will be standing at the back of the church in case anyone feels moved to do so.
However this story about Zacchaeus is not about wealth and income, strictly. This is a story about a quest. Instead of thinking Bernie Madoff and Walls St. versus Main St. think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, even The Catcher in the Rye, or the recent novel, the Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is a story of quest, so we should think about it in terms of other quest-like stories. We have a deeper connection with Zacchaeus than being rich. We are connected to him because we are all potential heroes. We are all heroes.
According to Jospeh Campbell, quest stories have a Hero, a journey, and an object of the quest.
The hero, who commonly resides in a “village,” is characterized by comfort and passivity, he receives a “call” to adventure from some sort of “herald.” The hero, if he accepts this call, leaves the village and, crossing over the “threshold of adventure,” enters into a dark, forbidding forest (or its metaphorical equivalent.) There he is tested and purified by terrifying dangers, monsters, villains (some of whom may look a lot like him); many of these he overcomes only through the assistance of unexpected “helpers”—wise old men, “earth mothers,” or beautiful maidens associated in some way with water. If he survives these harrowing trials and succeeds in his quest—whatever it may be—he (or she) then has the option of returning to his native village with his “boon,” his prize. If he does return, the village is magically revivified, born again, so that all its inhabitants come to share in the hero’s victory. In a sense, therefore, the hero undergoes his quest so that we (the villagers) don’t have to; his sacrifice is on our behalf.
What, precisely, is the hero questing for? The answers to that question are as various as the “heroes” themselves. But in terms of the original quest story, however, we can say that the hero seeks some way to redeem his society. His village may be comfortable—in the same way that a personal neurosis or the grave itself may be said to be “comfortable”—but in other ways it is an awful place. Commonly the hero’s home environment, as in the title of T.S. Eliot’s poem, is a Waste Land, an area where crops won’t grow and where people are stifled, blocked. The hero’s quest is therefore to make his community vital again; it is toward this goal that he willingly confronts the perils of the forest, the journey, the Road. The ultimate redemption of his village may in fact necessitate the death of the hero; in any event, he will surely “die” to his old way of life and will therefore seem to have died from the perspective of his fellow villagers. Just as the sun rises and sets, just as spring follows winter and autumn follows summer, just as a woman passes through her predictable cycles of fertility and barrenness, just so the hero dies and is reborn, re-enacting thereby the ancient myth of the “dying and rising god” who, through his sacrifice, atones for the faults of his people and revitalizes the village from which he has sprung.
I hope this brief outline of quest stories helps us to better see the Good News of Jesus in this story of Zacchaeus.
In this story, we meet Zaccaeus after he has set out on his journey. But we are assured that his former way of life—chief tax collecter and wealthy man—was not a morally good one. Tax collecters were notorious for skimming off the top and they worked for the Roman occupying force. He was a very wealthy man, indicating just how much he had taken from his own countrymen. He came from a life of comfortable wealth. However, we don’t know exactly what caused him to go on this journey after Jesus. Something makes him curious about Jesus and he sets out on his journey—a very unlikely and humorous hero. Luke stacks the odds against him—he’s short, rich and everyone hates him.
HE crosses over the threshold of adventure and sets out on his journey to find Jesus. He has many obstacles to overcome—the crowd on the roadside is onerous and contentious. You can imagine them pushing and shoving one another. Then here comes the rich little man who cheats them out of their hard-earned wages. Even more reason to close ranks and not let the little guy jockey for position. They force him to become industrious. He could have gone home, but our little hero has heard the call and takes up his adventure into a tree.
His efforts don’t go unnoticed. He draws the attention of the wise man, the helper in our hero’s quest, walking down the road. Jesus, the wise man, helps our hero. Offers to come to his house, thus inviting the crowd to see Zacchaeus in a different light.
The crowd begins to grumble, offering another potential obstacle. Will our hero and his teacher abandon the adventure? No. They hang in there and go to dinner together at Zacchaeus’ house. Man obstacles are overcome.
What is the object of this quest of Zacchaeus? At first it seems to be Jesus? But like the typical quest story the real object is the redemption of Zacchaeus’ family and village. Jesus serves as the facilitator.
Like a typical hero, Zacchaeus has died to his former way of life. We see that he gives half of his earnings in an attempt to rectify the disparity between the rich and the poor in his village. And he gives back fourfold the money he has taken illegally from his fellow villagers. Things in the village are set right again on account of our hero taking up his quest and following through to the end.
What do you and I take away from this quest story?
The good news is that Jesus is the teacher, the sage, the wise person, the object of our quest who will show us the way to redemption—the way to set things right in our community and our family. We make restitution where needed. If we are among the jeering crowd, we offer forgiveness. We can be the heroes here in our village with the help and redemption offered by Jesus.
The good news is that we are all heros. We, here in this church, have all heard the call from Jesus to cross the threshold of adventure. We by virtue of being here today have set out on our path of redemption. The path that will restore order and goodness to our society. Perhaps we have many obstacles in our way: jeering crowds, shame, sin, the need for forgiveness. Perhaps we need to die to our former ways. Luckily for us, God overlooks our sins and our failings, as we learn in today’s first reading. The good news is that on this our quest we are not alone. Jesus wants to come to our homes and eat with us. In fact he supplies us with the very food that is most helpful to our journey here in the eucharist.
Let us continue our prayer today, that our encounter with Jesus the wise teacher and guide will assist us in our quest for healing, reconciliation, and a just society. Let us leave here today as heros.
Jeff Johnson, S.J.