Bible Studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
"Acting in Justice as Jesus Taught Us" (Luke 19:1-10)

by María Eugenia León*

The text

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Justice is a topic widely discussed in different disciplines, and it nearly always includes an adjective that accompanies or complements it and helps us make sense of the type of justice under discussion. Some examples include retributive justice, punitive justice, restorative justice, transitional justice, etc. But beyond this theoretical discussion, what does it mean to act in a just way in daily life? In our path as Christian women and men, what does it mean to be just?

Recognizing ourselves as Christians implies the conscious decision to want to follow Jesus, that is, to put his teachings into practice in our daily lives. In the Bible, we find many stories that illustrate how Jesus understood and practiced justice. The Gospel according to Luke includes one of these stories: the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. In this story, we can see practical elements to help us live according to the teachings of Jesus and to try to act justly in situations where various offenses have taken place.

Contextual Interpretation

In daily life, dealing with injustices and offenses is not an easy task. The temptation to take revenge always arises in situations where oppression is a factor. In places in the world where armed conflict has devastated the civilian population, it is common to hear stories of revenge, to hear of a desire to take justice into one’s own hands; these are stories that lead to an endless spiral of violence. Talking about justice in contexts affected by violence in this way is always a challenge, because it is not only a matter of the cycle of violence not being repeated. Instead, it also involves reparation for damages, non-impunity and other issues. At the moment, in Colombia we are familiar with this situation, because we find ourselves in a moment of transition from armed conflict to the possibility of being at peace; this transition involves discussing and taking action in relation to what we want and what we understand as justice.

The passage found in the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10 never uses the word “justice,” yet the text gives us some clues about Jesus’ actions when faced with people who have been unjust and have committed offenses. It encourages us to understand that justice necessarily implies acting in a creative and unexpected way, when the obvious response seems to be only violence.

The story has three key parts: a first part, in which we see Zacchaeus preparing to meet Jesus; a second part, when the meeting takes place; and a third part, in which Jesus gives a message intended not only for Zacchaeus but for all those who want to follow Jesus.  In each part of this passage the common denominator is action, which leads us to think that tasks such as peace and reconciliation require that all parties that at one time were in conflict take action, in this case, creative action—leaving our comfort zone.

Zacchaeus was the head of the tax collectors in his region. Being Jewish, he collected taxes for Rome. In those days, tax collectors had a very bad reputation, as many charged more than what was required by Rome, and with that money they became rich at the expense of those who had less. But Zacchaeus was doubly hated for being Jewish and nevertheless collaborating with the oppressive power and leading to the impoverishment of his own people.

However, in this passage, Zacchaeus surprises Jesus and the people of the town with his attitude. Zacchaeus puts himself in an uncomfortable position in order to fulfill his desire to meet Jesus. The biblical text reads: “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.” Regardless of what people might have said, Zacchaeus ran, got ahead of the crowd, and climbed a giant tree from where he could at least see the Teacher.

For his part, Jesus initiated an encounter with Zacchaeus at that time, asking him to come down from the tree and take him to his home. The people were upset and murmured about it, because they disagreed with Jesus’ visiting the house of a sinner, such as Zacchaeus. This unexpected act by Jesus is followed by another unexpected act by Zacchaeus. We do not know if what he felt was regret, but he did show a desire to repair the damage he had caused to those he had cheated or those to whose impoverishment he had contributed. Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’”

Jesus never pressured or demanded of Zacchaeus that he make this decision. He simply looked into Zacchaeus’s heart, and the effort Zacchaeus had made to meet him, and responded to that. It could be precisely that gesture of generosity and compassion on the part of Jesus that motivated Zacchaeus to make the decision to return what he had usurped. With this action, Jesus teaches us that we all have the power to transform a situation with an act of love when it is least expected. Although it may not seem so, we have much to offer, even to those who have hurt us. Jesus invites us to use our creativity.

The passage ends with Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’s decision, announcing that salvation has come to his home, and that Jesus’ mission is precisely not to seek those considered perfect but rather those who are lost. At this point in the story from the Gospel of Luke, it is important not to ignore the people who gossiped and became angry because Jesus went to stay with Zacchaeus. Jesus was also sending them this message: those who are willing to follow me must be willing to forgo their desire for revenge and to forgo repaying evil with evil. This is a message that, even to this day, continues to challenge those of us who follow him, and one which has perhaps not been fully understood in the Christian world yet.

In light of Jesus’ example here, what does it mean to act justly? In this short but powerful story, Jesus offers us some ideas to help us reflect and use our creativity when we want to see justice done. With each of his actions, Jesus shows us again that the way is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. His idea of justice confronts us, makes us question ourselves, and surprises us as much as it surprised that crowd when Jesus asked Zacchaeus to come down from the tree. He is telling us that to act justly is to take actions that encourage the restoration of relationships and of people. We are to win others over in order to have them work justly for the repair of damages and so that the offenses are not repeated. It is a process that requires a lot of creativity and love toward those who have wronged us. As in this encounter, it is recognition of the dignity of the other that allows restorative justice to become a reality.

In contexts that are in a process of reconciliation, such as the Colombian context today, the discussion around justice determines the success or lack of success of the chances of such a reconciliation. It is for this reason that, as Christians, it is important that we ask questions about justice and how we are acting around it. To be followers of Jesus today is to choose to be active agents of peace and reconciliation, with an understanding of justice as Jesus taught it, beyond the parameters of revenge that the world promotes, an understanding that is closer to being aware of the humanity of the other and recognizing their dignity.

In conclusion, it is important to point out that Jesus did not ignore the suffering of the people who had been robbed by Zacchaeus. He simply encouraged others to look beyond that, to recognize that an act of compassion can often transform the actions of the offenders by turning them into repairers, and responding in a real way to what the victims need. It is not a matter of letting the cause of the damage go without consequences. It is a matter of opening a dialogue with the reality of the other, of trying unconventional ways to experience the restoration of humanity in the long term. And this is a task that Jesus encourages us to undertake on a daily basis in the different aspects of our life, however challenging and difficult it may seem.

Questions for reflection

What do we need to build relationships based on justice?

What does it mean to be creative as we strive for a more just world?

Ideas for action

First try a memory exercise: remember the last time you decided not to take revenge in a situation of injustice, but rather to take some creative action that led to the well-being of all parties involved. After this individual reflection, share this experience in a space you often find yourself in: at home with your family, at work, in your church. Encourage others to recognize the power they have to transform unjust situations using creative action, as Jesus taught us.

Resources to learn more

Andrés Rincon, “Zaqueo: un modelo para el desarrollo de una ética profesional cristiana”  (Zacchaeus: A Model for the Development of a Professional Christian Ethic), in Ventana Teológica, Seminario Bíblico de Colombia-Fundación Universitaria. Available online at: professional-christian.

See the video of Ingrid Betancourt reflecting on “What Six Years in Captivity Taught Me about Fear and Faith”:

* María Eugenia León is a Colombian Mennonite and a political scientist. She is part of the committee promoting the Ecumenical Group of Women Peacebuilders (GEMPAZ), a collective of women of faith (Catholic and Protestant), that began in 2007 for the purpose of reflecting on ecumenism from a biblical-theological-spiritual foundation, directed toward peace-building, dialogue, and reconciliation in Colombia.