The Company We Keep

My mother had a saying she employed on my two siblings and me. Well, she actually had a lot of sayings, but one was about how our actions and who we hung out reflected on the rest of the family. It was the whole guilt-by-association syndrome.

It seemed ridiculous at the time, and I probably opined that it was no longer the McCarthy witch hunt era, but there continues to be some truth to what she said. The current hunt may not be against communists and those “associated with” communists, but the “terrorism” waters are very murky. “People of interest” are constantly monitored because of the people and groups with whom they’re affiliated. Books, online sites, music, tattoos are part of the guilt-by-association arsenal used by authorities watching these people of interest.

I have no doubt that Jesus would be a person of interest today. Sadly, I’m not sure many of those who invoke his name for their political/religious/economic causes would welcome him into their fold. Jesus had a way for piercing through hypocrisy, judgmental attitudes, and institutional bullying. He wasn’t at all interested in the transaction. It was all about the transformation. We only need look at the company he kept to get an idea of just how revolutionary this was for his time.

Jesus was notorious for the things he said and the people with whom he hung out. The Who’s Who in his inner circle were not the powerful, the upper class, the well educated. He regularly associated with people on the fringes of society and railed against the hypocrisy of the very religious institution in which he was raised. He made people around him uncomfortable, including his own family. He was not at all popular with the ruling elite and he was constantly challenging others to drop their judgments about others and widen their circles to care for those less fortunate. There was nothing easy about his message.

One day Jesus was passing through Jericho. Zacchaeus, who was the chief tax collector, rich, and of small stature was intrigued and wanted to see this person Jesus. The rest of Jericho had also turned out to see Jesus and Zacchaeus, being the resourceful person he was, climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he walked by.

If we think today’s Republicans hate taxes, they had nothing on how the Israelites hated tax collectors in Jesus’ day. There were taxes for everything. There was nothing straightforward about their tax code AND tax collectors added their own fee structure to ensure that their efforts remained profitable. Zaccheaus was not only a tax collector, he was the chief tax collector. He recruited and managed all the tax collectors in his region. Because taxes were collected on behalf on the occupying empire, namely Rome, tax collectors were seen as having made a pact with the devil against their own people. The tree was probably the safest place for Zaccheaus.

In typical Jesus fashion, he notices Zaccheaus up in the tree and invites himself, and his fellow travelers, to Zaccheaus’ house! By this time, people are used to the types of people with whom Jesus associates: lepers (think HIV/AIDS today), prostitutes (think sex slaves), people with unclean spirits (that would be the mentally ill), tax collectors (he had one in his inner circle), women, children, fishermen (they range from the working poor to the middle class), Samaritans (treated with suspicion like Muslims are today), you get the point.

Here’s how the writer of Luke describes it:

He 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).

What’s so remarkable about this story is not that Jesus singled out Zacchaeus or even that Zaccheaus welcomed him. What’s so remarkable is that Zaccheaus’ transformation includes his budget! He commits to giving half of his possessions to the poor and repaying those he defrauded (which is probably most of the people from whom he collected taxes) four times what he collected!

Nothing is said about Zaccheaus changing professions or living a life of austerity as a result of his encounter with Jesus. What is does imply is he becomes concerned with social justice and being honest with his money. It’s as radical as the Tea Party saying they will balance the budget without completely gutting education and social programs that benefit everyone. It’s like the financial institutions regulating themselves instead of extracting fees hidden in the small print on page 79 of some legal document.

Yep. Jesus would be a person of interest today because of the company he’d keep and the issues about others that would concern him. Thankfully, there are pockets of people today who are interested in puzzling through that transformation in their own lives and expanding the company they keep.

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