Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He also collaborated with the occupying imperial forces to extort money from his own compatriots. He saw who had the guns — Roman legions, in his day — and he aligned himself with them to make an unjust profit. No wonder the people who saw Jesus invite himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner were disappointed and disgusted. Notorious man of the people consents to intimate meeting with noted counter-revolutionary and predatory little shit.
In Luke’s story, Zacchaeus tells Jesus, “if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19:8, CEB). I assume this was the case; otherwise, why bring it up? Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9).
And that concludes the story.
As with all the gospel stories, it is curt, and tidy. It evokes just enough of a character and a problem to launch a story. Then the main action is the character’s encounter with Jesus. Then the ending, a snapshot of restoration. Leper, Jesus, rejoicing. Woman caught in adultery, Jesus, go and sin no more. Mourning mother and dead boy, Jesus, rejoicing. Extortive tax collector, Jesus, salvation has come.
The intensity and simpleness of the stories gives them their power. They aren’t like modern novels, where the characters are convoluted and fissiparous and self-contradictory; where they go on and on through multiple sequential scenarios; where there is irresolution and gray. The stories in the gospels are silhouettes, light and darkness. They stick sharply in the memory and linger in the soul. For that reason, they’re more like a rock you can build your house on. But they also lack the give and complexity of real, sandy life, which does not usually consist in episodes of lightning encounter and radical transformation.
For example, the direction of the Zacchaeus story is clear enough. If you have stolen money from others, Jesus still welcomes you. Jesus reaches out to dine with the despised opportunist and collaborator. This is a word that warms my heart; it opens a hope of grace for those like me who stand with Zacchaeus on the benefitting side of imperial firepower. Furthermore, gratitude for Jesus’s gracious welcome moves its recipients to give back their unjust gains to the victims.
But what if it is not so simple? What if I personally did not make the theft like Zacchaeus — but a theft was made hundreds of years ago, and ever since, the stolen capital has grown and amassed, continuing to benefit the racial descendants of the original despoilers? What if the robbery is not an isolated case as with Zacchaeus, but a whole society, organized to protect the interests of the thieves and their progeny, and to ensure the plunder remains inaccessible to the plundered? What if the theft was not only an easily quantifiable asset like money, as with Zacchaeus —but included properties that cannot be commodified, like land and labor and freedom and tradition and credibility and basic human dignity? What if those robbed are not, as in the story of Zacchaeus, merely the passive objects of Zacchaeus’s actions, but their own irreducible and active subjects, who have striven for centuries to reestablish what was forcibly taken from their ancestors?
What does restitution look like in such a case, Lord?