Jesus and Restitution 101

There has been a lot written lately about privilege, power structures and wealth, but I am not sure (maybe I have missed it) whether there has been much on social media for Christians specifically and how and why we can approach the topic of restitution through the lens of our faith. There are, of course, the broad sweeping narratives through the bible of God’s heart for justice and the poor, the laws in Deuteronomy which protect against unshackled accumulation of wealth and perpetual poverty, and the entire New Testament which ushers us in to a new Kingdom and a new way of being – no dividing walls of hostility, no difference between slave and free, a body where, if one part hurts, the whole part hurts.

But, for an active way to start engaging, I thought it would be helpful to put together some thoughts which have come through various conversations at the Warehouse. These reflections on, and practical guidelines around, Zacchaeus’ story have helped me, and so I offer them to you. Have a read quickly if you have forgotten the story: Luke 19: 1-10.

1. Nurture a courageous curiosity for who Jesus is
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector (not the person who would actually collect the taxes from people, but the one who would collect from the collectors) – a very important man in the system which ruled the land at that time. He had clearly heard something about this Jesus and the bible says “he wanted to see who Jesus was”…the rest is made famous by the Sunday School song. But, before you gloss over that familiar strain, think about how counter-cultural that move must have been: he didn’t demand to get to the front of the crowd (perhaps he was a bit scared of some well-timed elbowing), he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up a tree! Clearly, his status and reputation were not as important to him as his urgency to see this Jesus. I wonder how counter-cultural our curiosity actually is: how eager are we to see, to know, to experience Jesus that we would be willing to look plain silly to do this. Are we running ahead of the crowd, or are we in the middle of the jostle, OK with just seeing the tip of His head as He walks past, and perhaps hearing what He is saying and doing via a broken-telephone of passed-down reports?

2. Acknowledge and accept the identity Jesus calls out in you
There are (at least) two points around Jesus using Zacchaeus’ name:
Firstly: The meaning of the name Zacchaeus is “pure, clean, innocent” – not a terribly good description for those who knew him and what he had been party to. BUT, if we are Jesus-seekers and followers, this is perhaps the most important starting point we could ever have when examining our possessions, power and privilege, where we have perhaps benefited from unjust systems, and working to rectify this: we start from a point of innocence, of purity, of having been made righteous through Jesus. We need to accept what Jesus says about us and our relationship to Him and our relationship with God through Him. This is a starting point of freedom and joyful abandonment, not one of guilt, fear and shame. Our actions need to be in response to this, first and foremost. Secondly: Zacchaeus was called by his individual name – not as part of a crowd, not “the chief tax collector of Jericho”. Where do we need to acknowledge that we, as individuals, are being addressed – not just as a part of a general narrative or in our roles in a greater system of injustice, but as individuals who seek to be responsive to Jesus calling us out by name?

3. Know the deeper meaning of Jesus inviting Himself to eat with you in your house
This relates somewhat to the point above. In Jesus’ time, to eat with people meant full acceptance of them – it meant community, knitted-in-ness and equality. That’s why people were so upset that He ate with tax-collectors and prostitutes: because He wasn’t eating with them in order to “win them over” – His act was one which said they were already won, they were already acceptable to Him. Zacchaeus was accepted by, and precious to, Jesus before he had done anything to make right. Again: we need to know this deeply before we engage with generosity & restitution – if we act out of guilt or coercion, rather than the joy of belonging to Jesus and being citizens of His Kingdom (on earth as it is in Heaven), then our actions will only lead to more hurt and injustice. KNOW you are accepted, loved, that you belong.

4. Accept the invitation for Jesus to come right in to your home
Allow Him to come in to the deepest parts of your sanctuary. Allow Him to give you new eyes for looking at your life, your choices, your priorities and your actions.

5. Be humble enough to listen to the mutterings of the crowd
Can you imagine the commotion as the crowd heard this and passed the news down through the jostle? It must have been difficult for Zacchaeus, in this time of affirmation, to hear it. A white, Afrikaans, male friend who is passionate about restitution told me, “I have to love the person enough to listen to their perceptions of white people, even if it is really difficult to hear”. A LOT has been written about those of us in places of power and privilege learning to listen to the anger, to the pain, to the daily struggles of people who have endured generations of systemic and personal oppression – without getting angry, defensive or fragile in the face of it, or telling people that their way of expressing their pain is not in keeping with what we think protest or expression can look like. Zacchaeus must have been deeply humbled by Jesus’ act of acceptance: he didn’t lash out at the crowd, and nor did he hold back on his actions because it would be “giving in” – he was all in with a radical commitment to allowing Jesus to transform every part of his life.

6. Acknowledge the multiplying nature of (your) privilege
I remember reading the story of Zacchaeus when I was younger and wondering how on earth he was able to pay back four times the amount of money he had stolen! I wondered where he got the extra money from. This is before I understood the multiplying nature of wealth and privilege. Again, there has been a lot written about it, so I won’t go in to that here, but it is so important – after continuing to develop courageous curiosity for finding out more about Jesus, accepting that we have already been made righteous, already been fully accepted, being humble enough to listen to others’ perceptions of us, and accepting Jesus’ invitation into the fullness of our lives – that we grow in our consciousness of where our privilege, power and wealth comes from and that we get to grips that we had much BECAUSE other people didn’t. (I know – it is hard to think hear that, but think of South Africa’s education system alone: I was able to go to a school with all sorts of incredible advantages BECAUSE the money was not being distributed fairly to all other children of my age – my school would not have had the state budget allocation it did if all people of South Africa had been treated fairly).

I want to point out that Zacchaeus didn’t actually personally collect any taxes – he was not responsible for physically taking money from the poorest of the poor while looking them straight in the eyes. But he knew he was part of system which did this. And acknowledged that he had been part of the theft. He also gave away half his wealth — even the wealth he had gained “legitimately” (not stolen), he realised was far more than others had, and that this needed to be remedied.

7. Act: Just. Do. It
(relationally, humbly, with love, with Holy Spirit-breathed creativity, from a place of true identity and acceptance…but just do it!)

Now: Imagine with me what the world would look like if all of us, operating in our true identity and acceptance in and through Christ, would allow our lives to be transformed in this way! Imagine what a witness the global church would be to the transforming power of Jesus – power to transform our hearts, our relationships, our systems and structures. People would look and see that truly Jesus came to seek and save all that has been lost, and put their hope in Him.

By Wendy Lewin

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