There is no crime in possessions but there is a crime in those who do not know how to use possessions. For the foolish wealth is a temptation to vice, but for the wise it is a help to virtue. Some receive an opportunity for salvation, but others acquire an obstacle of condemnation. — Maximus of Turin
There is a story in the Apocrypha of Maccabaeus laying siege to the Idumeans and leaving three commanders in charge: Simon, Joseph and a man named Zacchaeus. Simon’s men loved money and entertained bribes from the besieged army and let them slip away. Maccabaeus had the elders hold trial and he had the guilty executed and immediately he was able to conquer the stronghold. His charge against them was that these greedy ones had sold their own by setting their enemies free to make war against them.
In biblical lore, this is the only other Zacchaeus mentioned and this story is from 2 Maccabees 10. The name has meaning as well as many biblical names do. In this case it is: “clean, pure, innocent.”
Some have looked at the Greek in 19:8 that is in the present tense. That, coupled with the meaning of the name, has led them to say that Zacchaeus was not converted here but was merely showing that he was righteous and indeed a son of Abraham and that the revelation of that was the true salvation that had come. Verse 16 speaks against this, as does 5:32, as does the simple fact that one cannot give away half of what one has for long.
Yet, the name might point us in a different direction, namely to verse 18:17: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Immediately after that in verse 18 begins the story of the Rich Ruler. In a way, there are two rich men here: The unnamed one in 18:17ff and Zacchaeus. One comes for intellectual debate the other comes in amazement just to see and in childlike exuberance climbs a tree to be able to see. Somehow being able to see Jesus is important, something that the blind man by the road (18:35-43) attests to. Both these latter men say in word and deed: “I want to see Jesus.” Both have their longing rewarded. Simeon agrees: “My eyes have seen the salvation that you have prepared in the sight of all the people.” (2:30-31)
“Let me see, let me see! I wanna see!” You can just hear a five year old voice say that sentence. In the blind man, we see the persistence that has annoyed parents for millennia. In Zacchaeus we see the sometimes amusing lengths to which kids go to make things happen, yet here it is a man of means who goes to those lengths.
Somehow, “kingdom happens,” when Jesus is present. Just recall the thief at the cross and the centurion at the foot of the cross. But then there is the Rich Ruler and there are the Pharisees who are somehow impervious to the presence of God in Jesus. Their resistance might well be addressed in the parable that follows the Zacchaeus story. Theirs is rebellion against God. (The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves — 7:30) The parable is a reuse of history. Herod’s son Archelaus (4BC-6AD) had gone to Rome to be confirmed as king but a Jewish delegation had traveled after him to oppose the appointment. The parable simply says: It will not be well for those who rebel against heaven.
The Pharisees are also portrayed as “lovers of money.” (16:14) In that they were much like Simon’s men in the Maccabaeus story. Their actions release mayhem on their neighbors and their presence prevents the conquest of evil. Being weighed down with many a care will prevent appreciation of, any fascination with, the presence of Christ. Just ask Martha (10:41)
The question the story asks the church is simple: The kingdom is received by those who have their eyes not on the worldly things, where then are your eyes? On cathedrals? On admiration in the public squares? On being the authoritative voice in the public discourse? On numbers of hind ends in the pews? On power and influence over the thoughts, actions, and souls of those who “belong?” On power to bring conformity?
All these are not really directed toward heaven, are they? Please, don’t respond by telling me of how many prayers your congregational members have said in your last “Prayer Quests Program,” and I really don’t care how many you claim have found “purpose.” The fact that you kept tabs illustrates the problem. Even the good can be made into an earthly ambition and we know it.
No, the church is only “church” when the words and direction are: “I want to see. I want to see! Let me see,” and does not compromise until everyone indeed sees. We can’t settle for less.