A Feast of Faith

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Meals with Jesus were not simply about the food. They were the conduits for spiritual and life transformation.

Jesus loved to eat. At least that’s what the Gospel of Luke tells us. Throughout Luke’s narrative, Jesus is often coming and going from meals. Interestingly enough, Jesus is often eating meals with a very sundry cast of characters. Early on in Luke’s narrative, Jesus is thrown a banquet by tax gatherers—some of the most unsavory folks in Jesus’s day.

Meals with Jesus were not simply about the food. They were the conduits for spiritual and life transformation. One dramatic example of this transformation occurs with a chief tax gatherer, Zaccheus. And unlike other accounts of meals with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel where he is the invited guest, Jesus invites himself over to dine in Zaccheus’ home. As a result of this dining experience, Jesus gives Zaccheus a new identity as a “son of Abraham,” a title that inflamed the religious leaders of his day. How could Jesus count a scheming, conniving, tax-collecting outsider as a “son of Abraham”—which meant he was a son of the faithful patriarch and a true Israelite? And how did Zaccheus demonstrate faith that garnered Jesus’ commendation?

Understanding his place in society as a chief tax collector provides a necessary backdrop for Zaccheus’ feast of faith. Chief tax collectors contracted with the Romans to collect taxes in a particular town or region. It’s as if he purchased a franchise from the Roman government at a substantial price, and then subcontracted the actual collection of the taxes to a group of men who worked under him. His profit was the difference between the fee paid to the Roman government and the amount of taxes he collected. The system was prone to abuse and rewarded tax collectors for excessive collections.(1) Thus, the Jews saw tax collectors as mercenaries and thieves, and for one of their own to be in business with the Romans meant utter ostracism from the Jewish community.(2) Is it any wonder why all who heard Jesus invite himself over to Zaccheus’ house reacted with grumbling?

Yet, hearing the news of Jesus’ arrival, this much-maligned man pushed his way through the crowds, hoisting up his garments in a most undignified manner just to get a glimpse. Zaccheus had heard the stories about Jesus—his healings, his eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, and his remarkable, authoritative teachings. Now his curious faith compelled him to see for himself if all that he heard was really true.

Even knowing all of this, how surprising it must have been when Jesus invites himself over for dinner! Jesus wants to dine with this one who is despised. In response, Zaccheus overflows with generous gratitude. “Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor” (Luke 19:8). Jesus has asked for nothing but hospitality from Zaccheus, and in response, Zaccheus willingly surrenders half of his wealth. The tax collector’s willingness to let go of half of his wealth demonstrates faith—a faith, just like Abraham. The hospitality of Jesus prompts his faith-fueled donation.

But his faithful response goes beyond gratitude as he seeks to restore justice to those whom he has defrauded. It wasn’t enough for Zaccheus to give away half of his wealth in response to Jesus; he insists on repaying those he has defrauded. The Old Testament requirement for restitution is for the amount defrauded plus one-fifth.(3) But Zaccheus doesn’t simply meet the letter of the law; he offers to repay four times as much as he has defrauded others! Four-fold restitution will impoverish Zaccheus, as he’s already committed to give away half of his wealth. Yet in response to Jesus’ gracious invitation, Zaccheus parts with his wealth as a sign of his saving faith. Jesus declares, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Like Abraham, Zaccheus responds with faith that prompts action. Voluntarily impoverishing himself, Zaccheus shows that he, too, will live by faith—faith that demonstrates its true character in action. Thus, Zaccheus’ faith also benefits the community around him. At some point after Jesus invites himself to the tax collector’s home, Zaccheus rises—uncoerced, unadmonished, and unprompted—and commits himself to doing justice. For Zaccheus, justice rolls down like waters from the hospitality of Jesus, and it flows into his own faithful demonstration of hospitality towards others: he shares his wealth and restores what was ill-gotten. “Salvation has come to this house”—all in response to a meal. Imagine that. Hospitality—giving both emotional and physical nurture—proves the vessel for transformation. Let’s eat!

(1) Research from the website www.lectionary.org/luke.
(2) The Tosefta Toharoth notes, “When [tax] collectors enter into a house, the house [is considered] unclean.”
(3) See Leviticus 6:5 and Numbers 5:7.

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