Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Indeed God, “why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”
God’s response to Habakkuk? “Write it down, man. Literally hold the vision of justice for the people.”
Isaiah gives insight into God’s opinion of the world’s ills. God’s not impressed, admonishing the Israelites for seeking right relationship with God through worship, while neglecting right relationship with one another. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed (or rebuke the oppressor), defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” God tells the Israelites that they should embody the vision for justice.
Perched in a tree above the crowd, Zacchaeus must have been quite the vision – initially unwelcome, since he’s the embodiment of the tax system looming over the crowd. However, I think that he also functions as a prophetic example of embodied justice, despite what I learned at vacation bible school.
I still remember as a kid acting out and singing about Zacchaeus, the wee little man, who was instantly converted by making acquaintance with Jesus, with his sudden declaration generosity serving as proof.
That really doesn’t do me right anymore (praise God), especially in light of the prophets’ calls for justice and deep, systemic change. I’ve also been doing some reading regarding the injustice inherent in charity/philanthropy, which leaves an equally bad taste. (See Just Giving by Rob Reich or Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas or Decolonizing Wealth).
Great – Zacchaeus gives away lots of money and he’s going to right his wrongs, but couldn’t he just collect taxes more ethically on the front end? Surely a nice donation (or “corporate responsibility,” say) doesn’t legitimate any old exploitative business practice, right? In sum, with all of these passages paired, how do we reconcile calls for justice with a predominant interpretation of this text that lifts up charity as proof of salvation?
Maybe we should re-think the predominant interpretation. There seems to be enough scholarly opinion that Zacchaeus’ generosity is not sudden nor a response to Jesus. Rather than future tense, Luke uses present tense, so the translation would look something like this, “Look, Lord, I am giving half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated someone of something, I make fourfold restitution.” Luke Timothy Johnson suggests Zacchaeus’ giving to the poor is a “repeated, customary practice, rather than a single spontaneous act of generosity” (Sacra Pagina, p. 286).
Plus, Jesus’ pronouncement of salvation has a contingent clause, “because he too is a child of Abraham.” The contingency is who Zacchaeus is, not anything related to his past or present actions.
In a further effort to read Luke’s story in light of Habakkuk and Isaiah, I’m going to ask you to do a little thought experiment and think about Zacchaeus as a system, rather than just an individual. Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector; he is the face of Roman taxation to this community. This economic system allows those in power to enrich themselves at the expense of the crowds. This is the opposite of justice; this is economic oppression. It is a system that Habakkuk and Isaiah would lament and indict.
However, by virtue of his role in the system, Zacchaeus’ individual but regular practice of wealth redistribution and four-fold restitution for those who have been exploited IS systemic change. Maybe Jesus calls him down out of that tree to hold him up before the disparaging crowd as an unlikely but embodied example of economic justice. Zacchaeus uses his privilege, his position of power, repeatedly for the benefit of others.
The work of justice for us today is not much different than from so many years ago, which is somewhat depressing if I’m honest. Although I can’t prescriptively tell you what working for justice means for you and your congregation in your current context, Habakkuk, Isaiah and Luke give us some gutter guards to keep us headed in the right direction.
Justice is holding a vision for constructive peace and communal well-being like Habakkuk, both when our political life is acutely painful and also when the leanings of those in power are more seductive. Let it not be forgotten that no matter who is president, our current economic system exploits people and the environment to support economic viability and continues to produce a widening wealth gap plus other disparate impacts based on who people are. That’s a result of our own perverse creation: slavery and subsequent generations of racial oppression.
Justice is standing smack dab in the middle of systems you inhabit – economic, legal, healthcare, education, neighborhood watch, the PTA, criminal justice – and establishing repeated, equitable practices that make wrongs right and produce tangible economic goods for the people that concerned Isaiah’s God: the widow, the poor, the orphan, the outcast. You also have license to rebuke the oppressors. Maybe that means voting against your own economic interest in order to make sure that other people have a shot at making ends meet. If you own a business, justice may mean considering whether a criminal record necessarily precludes someone from accessing a job. Maybe it means keeping your kids in public school.
Justice is, like Zacchaeus, figuring out where you are privileged and where you hold power and deciding over and over again to wield it for the benefit of others. Given that you will likely be celebrating the saints of the church this coming Sunday, perhaps it’s worth a look to see who in your own congregation you can hold up to inspire the rest of us in this righteous work.