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Homily at the final ceremony of "A world without violence" in Naples

A homily by REv. Dr Samuel Kobia at the concluding ceremony of the interfaith dialogue "A world without violence" in Naples, October 2007.

23 October 2007

Luke 19:1-10

1. With Jesus comes the truth

This text tells the story of Jesus coming to Jericho. A large crowd has turned out to catch a glimpse of him. Among these is Zacchaeus. He tries to push through the crowd to get a better look, but is not allowed to move to the front row. So he has to run ahead and climb a sycamore tree in order to get a good view of the wandering rabbi who is talked about too much.

The fact that the crowd turns its back to Zacchaeus is revealing. He is the chief tax collector and the text underscores that he is a rich man. Hence he is an important figure in Jericho. Today such a man would claim a front seat - and would probably get it - for, regardless of how it was acquired, wealth is accepted and demands privilege. We see in the text that in Jericho the ordinary people do not accept wealth as such. They see that Zacchaeus accumulated his wealth by collaborating with the enemy, the Roman Empire. He bought the privilege to collect taxes and his success depended on how ruthless he was in collecting them from his fellow human beings.

He is rich, but he is an outcast. The people of Jericho say: "He may be rich. He is cheating us. He is exploiting his power. But one thing is true. We may be poor, but we are Abraham's children. He is rich, but he is lost." When Jesus comes, he reveals the truth. The truth about human contempt and envy, about human hopes and hidden despair.

2. Jesus opts for the Lost One

Jesus invites himself to the house of Zacchaeus. "I must stay at your house today". Why this urgency? There were many others in Jericho who would have wanted Jesus to come to their house. The others around him find it very disturbing that he should prefer the hospitality of a well-known sinner! Does he not understand the kind of person Zacchaeus is?

This is a very peculiar "preferential option", not for the rich and the affluent. It is his preferential option for the one who is lost, regardless of his or her earthly possessions. It is unmerited grace that comes to the house of Zacchaeus. This grace does not worry about the potential of being misunderstood and reviled. Genuine grace has its own results.

3. Conversion and Reparations

That Jesus should go to Zacchaeus is a remarkable turn - indeed a scandalous "diversion" for the self-respecting citizens of Jericho. But the story does not end there. His friendship for Zacchaeus provokes another drastic turn: a conversion that is good news indeed!

Zacchaeus announces that he will give half of his goods to the poor. He adds: "and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold." This sounds spectacular and completely unrealistic to us , that a man would deprive himself of all his belongings!

Now, it must be understood that according to the laws of those times, a fourfold restoration was required. The explanation is that the interest that was demanded by tax collectors and money lenders was often so excessive that it amounted to up to 100%, or more. This may sound exorbitant to us since we - many of us living in richer nations already complain about much lower rates in our own countries. However, if you look at the inflation of debts imposed on so many countries in the so-called Third World, the practice of the Roman tax collectors does not look extraordinary at all. One could easily give examples of debts that have risen so steeply because of inflated compound interests. A fourfold forgiveness of the original debt would not appear to be exaggerated at all. Again, the goal is to restore the full business capacities of the defrauded parties, not to give them alms. Justice is something radically different from charity. Does the story of Zacchaeus, then, have a lesson for contemporary policies regarding debt relief?

The really new thing that Zacchaeus announces is his decision to give half of his goods to the poor. This was not in the laws or practices of his time, and it is not in the laws of today. We can see this as a practical example of the basic law of the Torah: love your neighbour as yourself. So you share with that neighbour half of what you have.

The story of Zacchaeus is remarkable because it talks about reparations - reparations as a consequence of God's grace, of sincere repentance and a complete change of heart. Hence this is a story of costly grace.

4. Salvation has come to this house

As Jesus hears about the plans of his host he says: "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." After the announcement of the reparations scheme Jesus talks about salvation. Salvation encompasses the whole life, a wholehearted change of attitude and a new practice.

"You have done the right thing", Jesus says to Zacchaeus: "You are also a son of Abraham. Of course you are! You are part of the covenant. Who would dare deny you that?" So this story has a happy ending.

But some questions remain: what will the people of Jericho say to this? Will they be glad to receive Zacchaeus back into their community? Will they be ready to receive his money and to change their attitudes? Or will they prefer to stay poor and hold on to their contempt?

For receiving such a generous gift, without the feeling of being humiliated even further, is also an act of grace. "Salvation has come to this house", says Jesus. Has salvation also come to Jericho? The story does not tell us anything about it. It is the open end of the Gospel. It is where we come in. What role will we pay? That of Zacchaeus? Or are we Jericho?


held by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

at the international encounter "A world without violence" in Naples, Italy.

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