Did Jesus favor the down and out? Did Jesus give preferential treatment to the poor? Would Jesus approve of government sponsored wealth redistribution? Did Jesus think the rich should pay their fair share? What does Scripture say about these things?
This is a link to another “what would Jesus do” article. This time it has to do with the Occupy Wall Street crowd. The author concludes that Jesus would stand with them since he gave preferential treatment and was friend to the down and out. Presumably, Jesus also disliked the rich because they were rich and was for the redistribution of wealth. The author does not give scriptural evidence for his views and instead taps into the class envy that many Americans apparently feel toward the well-to-do. In essence, he uses Jesus to justify class envy.
But is there an example or two in Scripture where Jesus interacts with the wealthy. Yes, there are. Luke 18 and Luke 19 each feature Jesus interacting with a rich guy.
We’ll look at the story in Luke 19 first.
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. Lk. 19:1-2. ESV
The “he” who is entering Jericho is Jesus. In Jericho we have a man named Zacchaeus. He was employed as a chief tax collector and was rich.
The tax collectors were hated in Jesus’ time, not because they were rich (the Pharisees were wealthy too and admired because it was thought that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing for a person’s piety) but because they worked for the Romans. The tax collectors were recruited from among their fellow Jews so their fellow Jews thought them to be traitors and collaborators. The apostle and gospel writer Matthew was also a tax collector (Matt. 10:3). The fact that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector meant he was probably in charge of a tax district which meant he was wealthier than most tax collectors. Zacchaeus would definitely correspond to the millionaires who the left want to pay more and more in taxes so it can be redistributed.
But why were tax collectors wealthy?
The tax collector’s received their pay from the Romans but to enhance their income package they often shook down their fellow-man for more than their fellow-man actually owed Rome (see Romans 13:1-7). This is how, men like Zacchaeus became rich. The tax system was corrupt as were many of the individuals within the system.
What makes this story unusual is the fact Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus just like the rich young ruler in the previous chapter. Jesus remarks about that incident that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Lk. 18:24). Jesus’ disciples are astounded that the rich have much difficulty entering the kingdom of God and Jesus replies that “with God all things are possible” (Lk. 18:27). Luke moves on in Chapter 19 to illustrate the point with a second rich guy seeking Jesus.
And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. (Lk. 19:3-4, ESV)
Luke says that Zacchaeus was seeking to see who Jesus was, but could not because he was a small man and was blocked by the crowd who also wanted to see Jesus. Zacchaeus would not be deterred so he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up into s sycamore tree. (I love the detail of the sycamore tree. It’s not just any tree, but a sycamore tree.)
And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”( Lk. 19:5, ESV)
Jesus reaches the sycamore tree, sees Zacchaeus perched in it and tells him to come down and then invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. This is the only place in Scripture where Jesus invites himself into a person’s home and he does it with a hated rich guy!
Jesus knows Zacchaeus is hated but invites himself over anyway. In the mind of the crowd Jesus is the friend of tax collectors who cheat their countrymen! They are shocked. In our culture it would be like Jesus inviting himself over to a drug lord’s home or a Mafia don’s house.
So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Lk. 19:6-7)
Zacchaeus does as Jesus asks him and he does it with joy. The crowd does not like it and they grumble. Jesus has committed quite the scandal by hanging with a hated a tax collector, a sinner is what the crowd calls him.
This is not the first time Jesus is accused of hanging with sinners. Scripture frequently reports Jesus was criticized for hanging out with sinners whether they be tax collectors or prostitutes (Matt. 9:10, 11:19; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:30-32, 15:1-2). Tax collectors in particular were thought of as being the worst of the worse.
The crowd thinks themselves better than the rich tax collector. They do not realize that they too are sinners and need Jesus and so all they can do is grumble about this Jesus guy who hangs with a rich guy they consider the worst of the worst. The crowd in fact demonize tax collectors just as the left demonize the wealthy in our culture.
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Lk. 19:8, ESV)
Zacchaeus does something quite unexpected. First he recognizes Jesus as Lord. Zacchaeus’ heart has been prepared to recognize Jesus for who he is. The crowd on the other hand does not. Scripture gives examples of the crowd following Jesus for the wrong reasons. (See John 6 for an excellent example.)
Zacchaeus receives Jesus into his home gladly and recognizes him as someone very special-Lord! And because his heart has been prepared he repents of his sin. His sin is not the fact he is rich. His sin is because he knows he has defrauded people.
This is important. Zacchaeus’ sin is not the fact he is rich. His sin, is how he became rich. In our culture it seems that the rich are demonized first because they are rich and second in how they became rich. It’s assumed that the wealthy became wealthy at the expense of someone else which is why you see signs at OWS protests that say things like “people over profits” as if it were sinful to earn a profit.
Jesus makes no such judgment about the rich young ruler (Luke. 18) or Zacchaeus. This is because Jesus is concerned about the heart, the inward man and wealth status is no barrier if God wants to change a heart (Jn. 6:44, 65).
Luke 19:8 is a key verse because it illustrates what genuine repentance looks like. To repent means to see things differently and to turn away from sin that formerly enslaves a person. In Zacchaeus’ case it was defrauding people by shaking them down for more than what was owed in the Roman tax system.
Zacchaeus’ selfish stingy heart has been replaced by a heart that gives away half of what owns! He does not have to, but wants to! A sure sign of repentance is a generous spirit that gives willingly. In our culture Zacchaeus’ act would be called charity as opposed to government sponsored income redistribution.
Keep in mind that when the Romans collected taxes it did not go to feed the poor (in Rome some did but it was not social welfare as we know it, it was to placate the mob who were largely jobless having been displaced by slaves).
In Palestine the poor relied upon the generosity of others and here the rich man gives half of what he has because his heart has been changed from a heart of stone to heart of flesh (Eze. 36:26). What we see in Scripture as a pattern are encouragements toward charity, not mandated income redistribution.
The verse also speaks of restitution in addition to charity which is another sign of repentance. Zacchaeus says that if he has cheated anyone he will repay four times what he stole. Zacchaeus is going well beyond what Jewish law required in a fraud case. (See Lv. 6:5; Nu. 5:6-7; Ex. 22:1)
Zacchaeus judged his case more severely than the law required and sought to make restitution to those he had defrauded. This is another powerful evidence of a changed heart.
The crowd who resents Zacchaeus and now Jesus was most likely following him for the wrong reasons as I already noted. The town of Bethany is only 15 miles from Jericho and it was in Bethany where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ fame as a healer had no doubt spread so many were looking for a “healing type” salvation and that’s why they were shocked to see Jesus go to Zacchaeus’ house.
Jesus seeks to correct their misconceptions and makes it crystal clear to the crowd and to us exactly what his mission was:
And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19:10, ESV)
Jesus tells the crowd that salvation has come to Zacchaeus house! Jesus is salvation and he has arrived! Jesus reminds the crowd that the rich tax collector is a fellow Jew-a son of Abraham and not beyond salvation. This announcement must have astounded the self-righteous crowd who though themselves righteous on their own merits. Jesus though wants to illustrate that even the self-sufficient rich need a Savior and with God all things are possible (Luke 18:27)
Then Jesus explains his mission and it is not a social gospel. Jesus says that he comes to seek the lost. He does not come to redistribute wealth although some wealth will be redistributed through the generosity
of Zacchaeus, nor does he come to over through the Romans. No, Jesus says he came to seek the lost and by implication, the lost who realize they are lost and need a Savior. People like Zacchaeus.
The terms “social justice” are tossed around a lot these days and the fact is “social justice” means different things to different people. The liberal thinks that social justice includes the government forcing the rich to pay more and redistributing their wealth; “spreading the wealth around” as President Obama put it to Joe the Plumber during the 2008 election. Some will cite some Scripture to make their point.
Conservatives on the other hand support charitable giving as an aspect of social justice and will cite Scripture on occasion to support their view.
Nevertheless, income redistribution or charity are secondary issues when compared to Jesus’ mission. In his own words he said he came to seek, the lost regardless of their social economic class. Social justice is not the gospel. Social justice can be an effect of the gospel but it depends on what is meant by the terms social justice.
- Zacchaeus means pure (churchtalkers.com)
- The Wee Little Man and the Son of Man by Mark D. Roberts (trinityspeaks.wordpress.com)