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The Politics of Scripture

Taxes and Stewardship: Zacchaeus’ Economic Model

True stewardship is about the shift in perspective from climbing up a tree to serve one’s own ends to climbing down to serve others.

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 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.

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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:1–10 (NRSV)

Money is ubiquitous in today’s world. Although the currency and value may differ across cultures, the use of money is and has been a driving force in not only the economic development and prosperity of a nation, but also on the development of social classes and their interaction.

To highlight this point, although there is no officially recorded origin, a prominent theory for the origin of the current US dollar sign ($) proposes that the two lines striking through the “S” shaped banner are patterned after the Spanish dollar, representing the two pillars of Hercules, which marked the boundaries of the known world in antiquity. The symbolism suggests that money both demarcates and holds up the world. Or, to quote Liza Manelli in the 1972 musical, Cabaret, “Money makes the world go ‘round.”

In the first-century Roman world, money may have looked different and purchased different things, but it was just as central to the economic and social structure of the empire then as it is now. Jesus (or his disciples) would have used money to purchase food and clothing, and potentially even to arrange lodging or places to dine (such as the upper room in which they shared their last supper).

Even when Jesus disparages excessive wealth, he acknowledges the general need for money, instructing his disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (Lk 12:33; cf. 18:22). Money not only makes the world go ‘round, it also supports Jesus’ own ministry (Lk 8:2–3). Nevertheless, Jesus insists, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk 16:13). 

Zacchaeus, as a wealthy tax collector, personifies this tension. While money is necessary for the smooth function of all trades (e.g., shepherds trading wool in the market), money is central to a tax collector’s trade. Zacchaeus does not trade in goods or services, he trades in money. His entire livelihood is earned through the collection of money from fellow Judeans and the payment, in turn, of a portion of that money to Rome. As a result, one could only grow rich as a tax collector by collecting more funds than the Empire demanded. This collection was not extortion in its own right, as the collection of some excess funds was necessary for a tax collector’s survival, but the fact that Zacchaeus’ neighbors speak of him as a “sinner” (Lk 19:7) suggests that they experienced him as leveraging his role unjustly for his own gain.

Although we cannot know Zacchaeus’ interior motives, we may speculate that his desire to see Jesus (a well-known teacher and miracle worker) and even his eagerness to welcome Jesus into his home came from a similar desire for personal gain, even if in this case the gain would have been measured in social honor and prestige for having hosted Jesus as his guest, rather than in monetary currency.

Nevertheless, when Zacchaeus actually hosts Jesus, something changes. Having welcomed Jesus, Zacchaeus declares, “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” (Lk 19:8).

Zacchaeus does not abandon the use of money. Indeed, in contrast to those whom Jesus calls to sell all of their goods, Zacchaeus does not even divest himself of his wealth. He retains enough surplus that should he be found to have cheated someone, he might be able to pay them back fourfold what he stole. Zacchaeus retains both his job and his wealth, but having encountered Jesus, he now sees his wealth in a different light.

Now, Zacchaeus pledges to use his money to aid the poor (Lk 19:8). He also pledges to conduct his business dealings honestly and atone for any unintentionally dishonest dealings of the past (Lk 19:8). Whereas before, Zacchaeus marshaled his occupation as a tax collector to the service of money (both for Rome and for himself), now he marshals his resources for the service of his neighbors—and, by extension, the service of God (cf. Lk 10:25-28).

Unlike the apostles who sell all that they have to follow Jesus, Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus parallels more closely the female disciples (Lk 8:2–3) who retain their financial resources in order to support Jesus’ ministry. The message seems to be that while money may make the world go ‘round, the true value lies in the axis upon which it rotates. Zacchaeus and the women use money as a worldly means to achieve God’s good ends, even when that means putting their own comfort and wealth at risk.

Churches talk about stewardship as giving 5% or 10% of one’s income, but stewardship in the Bible is never so simple as that. In truth, treating giving as such a matter of simple mathematics is not so different from extracting a church tax. But true stewardship, both in the first and second testaments, is about reorientation. It is about the shift in perspective from climbing up a tree to serve one’s own ends to climbing down to serve others. Taking a small portion away from one’s wealth does not reorient a person from service of wealth to service of God. Zacchaeus encounters Jesus and is transformed. He does not simply atone for past wrongs or give the right percentage back to the poor, he reorients himself and his use of his money away from the service of himself and toward the service of his poor neighbor, in whom Jesus promises we will meet God.

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