What Would Zacchaeus Do? image

What Would Zacchaeus Do?

It’s not a question that’s often considered, is it? After all, Zacchaeus was a Bad Thing. He stole and cheated, he was a tax collector, a collaborator, and a Very Little Man. We don’t often look to him for moral guidance. But perhaps we should.

Ben Lindsay, in his (excellent) new book (out today – buy it here) entitled We Need to Talk about Race, uses the story (with a hat-tip to Duke Kwon) to talk about that most contentious of topics: slavery reparations.

You know the story: Zach, being vertically challenged, climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. Jesus then invited himself to Zach’s house (thus conferring great honour on Zach, not being presumptuous as we might see it). Everyone else grumbled, but Zach amazed them all by saying “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).

Restitution for slavery is, as I say, a contentious topic. Long, long before we get to the nitty gritty of how to go about it and what would be just and fair, we are confronted by critics who ask why we (white westerners) should even bother. I’ve never owned a slave, neither have any of my ancestors. As far as I know, none of them have ever condoned slavery. Why should I endanger my position, power and security to make amends for a crime I didn’t commit?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that that does not sound an awful lot like Jesus. It doesn’t even sound like a scoundrel like Zacchaeus. How could anyone who has truly grasped what Jesus has done for them maintain this kind of attitude?

Zacchaeus only had to spend an afternoon with Jesus before he was spontaneously leaping up and giving above and beyond everything he had ever taken – half of his possessions went to the poor; those he had defrauded received four times as much back. Note that ‘the poor’ don’t seem to be direct victims of his cheating – they’re just the generic poor.

An encounter with Jesus was sufficient to inspire Zacchaeus to want to give far more than he owed to far more people than he was directly responsible for. That’s a kingdom response. That’s the heart of someone who knows he has been given far more than he deserves, by someone who owes him nothing at all.

The Pharisees hated this kind of response. They were the kind of people who scrutinised the law to see exactly how much they had to give and which loopholes existed to save them money (Matt 15:1-9, 23:23). They kept the Law and I’m sure many of them genuinely thought they were striving to do what was right, but they had missed the point, by a long way. Their every word and action showed that they had all the head-knowledge about what God required, but none of the heart-experience of who he is and the kind of lavish abundance with which he loves to shower his children.

You may not personally have kept a slave, run a slave ship or managed a plantation, but the historical prosperity of this nation is due in no small part to the slave trade and the profits generated by the labour of enslaved people.

And more than that, if you’re white the privilege you now hold has been bought with the blood, sweat and tears of racial injustice over centuries. If you have even a glimmer of a belief that white people are more likely to hold leadership positions than black people because they are more able, or better suited to those roles, that suspicion is the result of centuries’ worth of conditioning. And we – I’m writing here to white people – need to make amends for it.

Zacchaeus gave far more than he technically owed because he knew that the wealth he had amassed had given him disproportionate power in the society. Every shekel of advantage he had extracted from his fellow Jews had opened doors to him and slammed them in the faces of others. We see the same in our society today, where those in poverty are disproportionately affected by schemes that help the rich (eg, fuel bills are usually cheaper if you pay them by direct debit, but those with unstable incomes are unable to set up such systems (even if they trust banks, which many don’t) as they can’t guarantee having a given amount of money by a set day of the month. The bills then cost more and they are more likely to miss a payment and incur additional penalty charges…). Zach would have been able to set up all the direct debits he wanted, and to deposit his excess into high-yield savings accounts and investments. His money would have made him money, and it would have bought him access to positions of authority and power within the town.

For white people, addressing racism in our churches and our communities will require giving up some of the power and privilege we have inherited and have taken as our right. It will require humbling ourselves, seeking the forgiveness of God and our BAME friends (if indeed we have any…). For black people, it may mean summoning your courage, putting aside (many, many) past hurts and disappointments and trying, once more, to help us understand how we have wronged you and how we can begin to put it right (apparently not asking to touch your hair is a simple first step!). It will be costly all round, but it is the cost of discipleship. As Lindsay puts it:

“Jesus requires his Church, his followers, to imitate him. Jesus stepped off his throne, where he was worshipped and adored and came to a place where he was despised. Jesus came into the discomfort of this world in an act of radical solidarity. The question for the white majority churches in the UK is this: is there ‘a fierce urgency of now’ to do the same for your black brothers and sisters?”

I highly recommend this excellent, thought-provoking, helpful book. It contains some ideas for ways to begin the long journey of repentance, reconciliation and repair that is urgently needed. And it offers hope in its reminder that just as “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” neither is it fought by flesh and blood, but first and foremost by the power of prayer:

“We must power the fight against racism with prayer. … Prayer gives the battle over to Jesus. Prayer fuels our action. Through prayer, Jesus will give us strength, truth, wisdom, peace, insight, love, forgiveness and power. Through prayer, God wins the main battleground – the human heart. … Let’s combine prayer and action to rid the UK Church and our own hearts of prejudice and racism.”

It has taken courage for Ben to write this book. It has cost him emotional energy, and will doubtless earn him a backlash from many quarters. But it is a timely call to prayer and action. Perhaps your first act of radical solidarity will be to buy and read the book, and allow yourself to listen with your heart to what God has to say through it.


We Need to Talk about Race by Ben Lindsay is out now. Buy it from SPCK or any good book retailer.

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