One can hardly escape the infectious Bible school song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, / And a wee little man was he” (I’m sorry if it’s stuck in your head now). Likewise, I don’t think I have gone more than a year without hearing a (sometimes clickbaity) sermon or short talk about the “one thing you still lack,” referring to the downcast departure of the rich ruler. These two stories share much more than being ingrained in Christian pop culture.
Luke juxtaposes these episodes in his account of the Gospel. We read about the encounter with the rich ruler in Luke 18.18-30 and about the encounter with Zacchaeus in 19.1-10. Their subjects are the same: wealthy rulers who meet Jesus and respond to Him. Comparing these two rulers will help us understand them both.
Both stories are concerned with the hereafter. The rich ruler of Luke 18 approaches Jesus to ask Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Zacchaeus story ends with Jesus saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” These eternal concerns bookend the stories.
Jesus’ response to the rich ruler seems brusque and perhaps too aggressive, like the man who demands “Did you die for that church?!” when you have the temerity to identify a congregation as “my church.” “Why do you call me ‘good’?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” What does this have to do with the rich ruler’s question? Why treat a seeker so roughly? A close reading of this text alongside the Zacchaeus text will show us why.
Both rulers are superficially measured by their obedience to the Law. Jesus’ first substantive answer to the rich ruler’s question is, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” In his own estimation, the rich ruler has passed this part of the test with flying colors: “All these I have kept from my youth.” This kind of faithfulness (or rather the illusion of it) inclines us favorably toward the rich ruler. Again, we ask, “Why has Jesus been so hard on him?” The answer will present itself.
Zacchaeus does not fare so well by this standard. The people of Jericho object to Jesus entering his house, as Luke tells us, “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’”
In neither case does this superficial measuring against the Law have as much bearing as the people around Jesus seem to think it should. I say “superficial” because it becomes apparent by the end of both stories which of the two men is the more faithful.
This leads us to perhaps the most obvious contrast between the two: their treatment of their wealth. Jesus directs the rich ruler to sell his goods for the poor; the rich ruler is unwilling. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, has voluntarily sold half of everything that he owns on behalf of the poor—far more than the tithe that the Law demands of him. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold,” he says; the Law only requires double (Exd 22.4, 7-9).
In this regard, Zacchaeus has been faithful to the spirit of the Law, whereas the rich ruler has only been pretending. I think this explains Jesus calling the rich ruler out on his “Good Teacher”; not that Jesus is not good but that the rich ruler is too flippant in calling people “good”—most importantly himself. Jesus invites him to consider the true standard of the Law: the character of God, who is Good.
The greatest contrast comes at the end of both stories, when Jesus reacts to both men. “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says of the rich ruler, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Despite thinking he had passed, the rich ruler failed. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, receives Jesus’ blessing, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Jesus’ judgment is consistent with a final, subtle difference between these two men. The Law often decrees that a criminal be “cut off” from the congregation of Israel. Our modern practice of excommunication preserves only part of what is meant by it. More than being condemned and shunned, the guilty party was forgotten. A man who died without heirs shared this fate, which is why children and land were so important in Israel. Boaz spells it out when he explains his decision to marry Ruth: “Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place” (Ruth 4.10). As a sign of his eternal condemnation, the man who was cut off from Israel had no name.
Who are these stories about again?
Image: Jesus and Zacchaeus, Soichi Watanabe