A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” Luke 19:2, 45-46 (NIV)
In Jesus’ day corruption was everywhere. I realized as I read this morning that today’s chapter is bookended with a fascinating parallel. It begins with the story of Zacchaeus.
Zac was a “chief tax collector.” In the days of Roman occupation, the empire broke up territory into tax regions. The tax collectors were locals who knew their neighborhoods, local businessmen, and had first hand knowledge of where the local money was. Tax collectors had a base amount of tax that the Roman Empire demanded they raise and send to Rome. There were, no doubt, others in the regional political machine getting their cut, but beyond that the tax collectors could keep whatever they could extort from their own people. The more money they squeezed out of their neighbors the richer they became, and Zac was a very wealthy man. As a “chief tax collector” Zacchaeus would not only have extorted his own share, but he was likely getting a piece of the action from other collectors in his territory. He was a extortionist and racketeer, the first century equivalent of a local mob boss.
Contrast this with the Pharisees and religious leaders who ran the temple. They judged Zacchaeus as a traitor and a sinner and they would look down their ecclesiastical noses at the extortionist. But, the religious leaders were total hypocrites. They had a thriving racket of their own. Good Jews were required to make regular pilgrimages to the temple to make sacrifices and offerings for their sins. Jews regularly came from all over the known world to make their annual sacrifices. To take advantage of this, the Pharisees in charge of the temple minted their own currency and the priests demanded that people buy the supplies for their offerings from the approved temple merchants. Of course, the temple merchants only took temple currency, so people would have to visit the temple “money changers” to exchange their local currency at exorbitant exchange rates. At least with Zac and the money changers there was no pretense about what they did with their money. The high priest and the religious leaders were corrupt extortionists, but they cloaked their racket in pious religiosity. They used God to launder their public image and both social and religious leverage to line their own pockets.
Jesus visits Zacchaeus’ house (creating all sorts of gossip, whispers and condemnation from all the good religious people). By the end of the visit, Zac’s heart and life had changed. He agrees to give away half of his wealth and make amends with all whom he’d cheated (the list was likely to be very long).
Jesus visits the temple. Unlike the sinner, Zac, the Pharisees and religious leaders refuse to repent of their extortion and racketeering. They choose, instead, to plot to have Jesus killed. His teaching, and his driving of the money changers from the temple were a threat to their power and their income. They would have none of it. Jesus needed to be rubbed out.
God’s Message teaches that sin is common to all. Both the tax collectors and the religious leaders were infected with the same appetite for greed and power. There was no difference in their sin, only in their response to Jesus. The traitorous “sinner” Zacchaeus opens his heart to Jesus’ words and turns away from his racketeering ways. The good religious people close their hearts to Jesus’ words and sink to even lower into corruption in order to safeguard their wealth and power.
Today, I’m thinking about the contrast in these two stories. I’m aware some people think of me as a good, religious person like the Pharisees, but I don’t ever want to be like the temple leaders who played a religious game to hide their lust for wealth and power. I’m also aware that some religious people think that I am not being religious enough and I don’t tow the line on their religious standards. I am divorced, I have tats, I don’t hide my love for a pint of good beer and an occasional cigar. And, I hang out with those sketchy artists and theatre types.
I am admittedly not perfect, but I hope that, like Zacchaeus, my heart and soul will always be open to Jesus’ teachings and that my life will always be enthusiastically responsive to Spirit and Truth.