“Zacchaeus was a wee little man / And a wee little man was he / He climbed up in a sycamore tree / For the Lord he wanted to see.”
Thus begins the popular children’s song, based on one of the most memorable stories in the Gospel of Luke, the conversion of Zacchaeus. But for its popularity, there is a great deal this story has to teach everyone, not just children. M.Div. senior at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Matthew Zemanick, delves into some of these layers in this post – explicating how Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus brings justice to the world by transforming those with power and privilege. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I believe the praxis of deconstructing the role of white supremacy in the life of white people is a doxological – a praise-filled – response to Jesus’ call for repentance. In the context of the ELCA, it is a faithful contextualization of Article XII of the Augsburg Confession, which understands repentance as a two-fold process. The first is the feeling of remorse (contrition) for violating God’s teaching. The second is accepting, by faith the gospel, that through Christ sins are forgiven and out of this faithful consciousness of God’s grace, one’s repentance bears fruit in the form of good works.
One of my favorite Bible Stories is demonstrative of repentance and salvation (healing) for those in positions of power – the salvation of Zacchaeus. As Jesus and his crowd of disciples were approaching Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus better, and to hide from the crowd. He was scared of the people whom he had extorted as a tax-collector, and he knew Jesus had criticized the accumulation of wealth. But a part of him was curious because Jesus dined with the tax collectors too. Perhaps Zacchaeus thought that it would be the highest honor to dine with the Messiah, the one who would restore the Davidic Splendor of Israel.
As Jesus approached Jericho, he saw Zacchaeus hiding in the tree. Jesus hollered up to Zacchaeus, “Come down from that tree! I will be eating dinner with you tonight.”
The crowd was incensed that Jesus would dare eat with the man who had robbed them of their livelihood; a man who had taken even food from their children. They yelled, “Sinner! You have violated God’s command to love your neighbor, and blessings to the poor!”
Once, Zacchaeus had climbed down, and greeted Jesus, repented saying, “I have indeed defrauded my community. I will return four times the amount than I had taken. Moreover, I will take half of what I have left and give it to the poor.”
Jesus addressed Zacchaeus and the entire crowd, “Amen! Healing has indeed come to this community! I have come to seek out, heal, and save the lost.”
Interpreting this story from my multi-unal identity in the United States, I can see myself in the crowd and as Zacchaeus. However, if I am specifically speaking from my white identity within the white Christianity of the ELCA, I must see myself as Zacchaeus. My silence has affirmed disembodied, overly spiritualized, Christian discourses because I feared the consequence of challenging the theology of those in power. My silence has contributed to ELCA structures which economically, socially, and theologically marginalize people of color, and LGBTQ+ community operating outside of homonormativity. White complacency with the ELCA means continued divestment from economically depressed communities and a radical embrace of white supremacist corporate business models.
Repentance (literally ‘turning’ in Hebrew and ‘transformation’ in Greek) happens when one encounters the embodied Christ in the world, just as it happened with Zacchaeus once he listened to Jesus’ compassionate call, and responded despite his shame and the crowd’s heckling.
Zacchaeus had to give up living as a thief with Roman credentials, and restore the community’s abundance which he had privatized.
Through the lens of Article XII of the Augsburg Confession, Zacchaeus expressed contrition, the feeling of guilt, when he climbed up the tree. Zacchaeus sought the forgiveness of sins offered by the Messiah, but could not stand with his community. His sin (missing the mark, straying from the path) had damaged his connection with the people in the crowd. Climbing a tree to see the Messiah, Zacchaeus acknowledged he could not authentically stand with the crowd, but indicated his desire to encounter Jesus and his disciples.
This indication that Zacchaeus desired to see Jesus was a faithful response to the role of the Messiah – grace incarnate – to grant the forgiveness of sins. His faith that Jesus would forgive his sins (participation in the oppression of his community), and thereby reconcile his relationship with his community, allowed Zacchaeus to be “delivered from his terror” of retribution and respond to Jesus’ call. By faith Zacchaeus did get down from that tree and encountered the Gospel embodied in Jesus the Christ. By faith the Gospel was materialized in the form of redistribution of communal property so that all may live in God’s abundance. By faith Zacchaeus’ repentance – contrite, faithful, turning to God’s embodied presence – bore fruit: restoration of privatized creation to abundant communal life. The souls of Jericho were not the saved at the expense of their bodies; the salvation of their souls was embodied in their community.
So how can a white church like the ELCA repent?
What will the fruit of our repentance look like?
First we must ask ourselves, “are we terrified?” There is a lot of reason to be terrified. White supremacy led to the election of a man who ran on a xenophobic, overtly white supremacist campaign to the US Presidency. The ELCA’s white supremacy produced Dylan Roof. The more we deny the terror of our own sin, the more we will produce terrorism.
The oppressors have fear, hiding like Zacchaeus. They (I, speaking from my whiteness) wonder, “where will we meet Jesus, the Gospel?” It is not in theories or sophisticated theo-philosophy, where we risk the idolatry of our own ideas. Rather, Jesus meets us, embodied, in the suffering of the world. The Incarnate God calls us down from our fear and our encounter will change the way we live. For those of us whose privilege, wealth, and comfortability are reliant upon the exploitation of our neighbors, an embodied response to God’s call means giving it up for the sake of abundant community. The deconstruction of white supremacy may begin with understanding its history and becoming contrite. However, it ends, as James Cone puts it, with “repentance,” which bears “reparation,” in order that “there [can be] hope beyond tragedy.”
 Here I have changed “law” to “teaching” to better honor Jesus’ tradition of understanding of Torah as a divine teaching rather than a divine legal (nomos) code.
 Article XII Augsburg Confession
 Credit is due to Dr. Westhelle for his exegetical work on the story of Zacchaeus, which he has imparted onto me and many in his lectures and writings.
 Augsburg Confession, Article XII.
 Vítor Westhelle, Transfiguring Luther: The Planetary Promise of Luther’s Theology (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 56.