Jesus and the Economics of Empire

[A sermon preached at Wine Before Breakfast on Luke 19.1-27. Feb. 9, 2016.]

Zacchaeus had a problem.

Everyone who ever went to Sunday School knows that
Zacchaeus had a problem.

You see, the dude was short.

Now being short isn’t in itself a problem,
unless you’re playing basketball
or trying to get a look at someone in a crowd.

And that was Zachcaeus’s problem.
He was a short dude in a crowd.

He was also not the kind of guy for whom folks were
going to go out of their way to help.

No one was going to say, “Hey, let shorty Zach get to the front so he can see.”
Nope, not for Zach.

You see the dude might have been short but he was also very rich,
and his riches were all at the expense of his neighbours.

Zach was a tax collector who knew how to squeeze folks.
So he wasn’t exactly a well respected member of the community.

Zaccheaus had a problem. He was short.

But after he met Jesus,
after he had met the rabbi
who had been spreading an alternative economic vision
throughout the land,
after he had been embraced by this Jesus,
and after he had embraced this radical economic vision
by repaying all that he had ripped off, at a 400% return,
and then giving away another 50% of all of his wealth,
… well … good old Zach had another problem.

In fact, it was the same problem, but different.
You see, once again, Zach was short.
Yes, he was still short in his physical stature,
though tall in his stature as a child of Abraham,
but now he was short in another way.

After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus was now short of cash.

You see, Zacchaeus still had to give an accounting
to both his Roman and Temple overlords.
Zacchaeus has to deliver to his own masters,
cash that he no longer has.

Yep, Zach clearly has a shortness problem.

But so does Jesus.

You see, Jesus came preaching Jubilee.
Jesus came preaching good news to the poor.
He called the rich to give away their wealth
in radical acts of redistribution.

And here, in the town of Jericho,
spitting distance from Jerusalem,
on the eve of Passover Week,
in the house of Zacchaeus,
it looks like everything Jesus was preaching
was actually coming true.

Zacchaeus has practiced Jubilee!
The poor have good news.
The kingdom is surely at hand.

And now Jesus has his own problem with shortness
because the folks of Jericho, and undoubtedly his disciples
figure that the writing is on the wall.

If a fat cat, cheating, gouging tax collector like Zacchaeus
is repenting and enacting Jubilee,
then surely the time is very short before the Kingdom of God
will be fully established.

Heck, most likely this week!
Jesus is going to walk into Jerusalem,
and the exodus will happen all over again,
the oppressors will be overthrown,
jubilee will be declared and all debts will be forgiven!

And Jesus has to deal with this problem of shortness.
He has to somehow settle the folks down,
give them a reality check,
and help them to understand that the timeline
isn’t as short as they are expecting it to be.

In fact, he’s got to help both them and Zacchaeus
come to grips with the fact that Zach’s act of economic justice
will come with consequences for this tax collector
in the real economic world in which he, and they, still live.

So Jesus does what he usually does in situations like this.
He tells them a parable.

And while the traditional interpretation of this parable
as being a call to stewardship of God’s good gifts to us
might seem to make the story a little more palatable,
it does not do justice in any way to what Jesus is actually saying.

Remember that the point of the parable
is to settle them all down and make them realize
that the time is not short at all,
and, Zach’s example notwithstanding,
the economic revolution that is the kingdom of God,
will not come this week.

So he tells a story about a nobleman going to another country
to get royal power,
who is followed by a delegation that will plea with the royal authorities
to not allow this man to be king over them.

And everyone in the room immediately caught the reference.
This is, of course, the story of Archelaus, son of Herod,
who went to Rome to ask for his father’s throne,
only to be opposed by a delegation of Judeans.

This nobleman is not God.
His name is Archelaus.
And, like his murderous father,
he is well known as a harsh man
who takes what he did not deposit
and reaps what he does not sow.

But while he’s away, he still has to remain open for business.
So he brings ten slaves before them,
gives each of them a mina (or pound),
which is about three months wages,
and tells them to go and make money with his money.

And that is what they do.

In fact one guy makes a 1000% return on the master’s investment
and another brings in 500%.

1000%! Even 500%!

Who gets that kind of return on investment?
How do you manage to make money multiply like that?

Now I suggest to you that everyone in the story and listening to the story,
as well as anyone outside of the modern capitalist culture,
knows that those kinds of profits are only possible
at the expense of someone else.

These guys likely gave loans to farmers for their seed,
and then when the crop failed and the loan wasn’t paid back with interest,
the land was expropriated,
thereby multiplying the investment by as much as a 1000%!

This is the exploitive economics of Archelaus.
This is the violent economics of the family of Herod.
This is the rapacious economics of empire.

And then the nobleman comes to the third slave.
And the third slave says,
I refused to play your game.
I know who you are and what kind of a person you are.
a harsh man who takes what he does not deposit,
and reaps what he does not sow.
I know what you want me to do with this money.
But because I was afraid of you,
I decided to take your money,
wrap it in a snot rag
and bury it.

Here’s your dirty money back,
no cleaner than when you gave it to me,
and no more or less than what you gave to me.

Now notice that the king doesn’t dispute
how this slave described him.
“You got that right, sonny, and You are fired!”

“Take his pound and give it to the guy with the ten pounds!”

And the crowd replies, like a Greek chorus,
“but that’s not fair.”

To which the king replies,

“To hell with your sentimental notions of fairness!
Here’s how it works in the real world.
To those who have much, more will be given,
and to those who have nothing,
even what they have will be taken away.
Now bring those who opposed my rule,
those who came to Rome to appeal against me,
bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

Economic injustice and violence.
An economics of inequity and murder.
They will always, always, always go together.
The rich get richer … and the poor? … they get deader.

My friends, there is no way that this parable
can be sanitized, domesticated, and tamed
to be about something as benign as stewardship over our ‘talents.’

That’s not what this is about.

This is about bringing the radical economic vision of Jesus,
together with the amazingly repentant generosity of Zacchaeus
face to face with the real economics of the world of the 1st century,
and, clearly enough, the 21st century as well.

Zacchaeus is likely to face the same fate as that third slave.
But both Zacchaeus and the third slave,
exemplify what the economics of Jesus looks like in real life.
And they will suffer the consequences of their faithfulness.

So what about us?
How is this good news to us?

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how this parable
is in radical tension with the dynamics of much unfettered capitalism in our day.
It is clear enough in the new gilted age in which we live
that those who have much are always given more,
while those who have nothing descend ever more deeply into abject poverty.

So where is the good news?

Well, Zacchaeus and this third slave refused to play by the rules.

Zacchaeus knew how to play the game
and how to produce ever more revenues
for both himself and his masters.

How liberating was it for him to change course?
How healing was it for him to stop playing by the rules of the system
and live by different rules?
How restoring was it for him to replace injustice with justice,
to embrace a life of generosity while abandoning a life of greed and acquistion?

So can this be good news for us?

Isn’t there something liberating about abandoning
the rules that will have us compete with others
in a zero sum game of winners and losers?

What happens if we replace that game with neighborliness?
In the academy.
In the workplace.
In the neighbourhood.

What happens if we give up on the anxiety to ‘get ahead?’
In our careers.
In our investments and retirement plans.
In our net wealth and possessions.

What happens if we decide that being ‘short’ isn’t such a bad thing
when it comes to our money?

And what happens if we seek economic lives
in which the rich in the world actually get less,
and the poor get more?

I know, I know. It’s crazy.

But then again, so was Jesus.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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