Zacchaeus: A Lost Sheep, not a Lynched Sinner…

A reflection on Luke 19:1-10 given by Eric DeBode

In today’s reading we have the story of Zacchaeus, which sums up many key themes from Luke’s gospel: the high are brought low, the lost sheep is gathered, justice happens outside of court by repairing harms done, the “child of Abraham” is welcomed back, and the outsider and unclean is recognized as key to the project of salvation.

Zacchaeus was Chief of the tax-collectors which meant that he got really rich by running a shady business; he collected taxes for the occupying Roman state, and he was despised by his fellow Jews.

He loaned money at exorbitant interest rates, disenfranchised family farmers by foreclosing on their loans and seizing their lands. He ruined people’s lives in pursuit of more wealth. He was hated and despised for lots of good reasons!

It is no surprise that the crowd reacts with anger when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. There is probably no one else they would rather see lynched from that sycamore tree than Zacchaeus. It’s really no surprise that the crowd turns against Jesus very soon after this story.

Even though Zacchaeus is arguably an awful person, it is to his credit that he wants to see Jesus, and that’s how he ends up a tree.

Jesus is aware that rich people often bark up the wrong tree to seek him out. He calls Zacchaeus down to level ground, he calls the mighty to a lowly place, humbling this self-exalted tax-collector. This is Luke’s Magnificat being played out right before our eyes. It is at this moment that Zacchaeus concretizes his conversion – he says, “I will give half of everything I own to the poor and four times what I have defrauded from people.” Only after he publicly acknowledges his wrong, commits to change, as well as stating how he will make things as right as possible does Jesus say, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he too is a child of Abraham.”

In Jesus’ justice system offenders are allowed to live and are called to conversion. They are encouraged to rehabilitate, and are held accountable. In Jesus’ justice system, Zacchaeus doesn’t get hanged from the Sycamore tree. There is no death penalty because the death penalty is an act that says, “There is nothing more that God can do with this life.” And we all know because of our faith in the God who brings life out of death itself that the death penalty is a lie! It is a lie told to murder victim’s family members that killing this person will bring you healing. It is a lie told to society that killing this person will reduce crime and make you safe. It is an act of revenge carried out in the sight of God who is above all else, Love, Compassion and Mercy. It is blasphemy.

But people think it will deter other murders. Here are a few facts:

All the studies show that murder is overwhelmingly a crime of passion, done without reflection on any of the consequences, least of all whether or not your state has the death penalty. Studies show that rather than deter, violent crimes actually increase during the 6-months after an execution. Killers don’t identify with the death row prisoner. They identify with the executioner who can kill without reproach.

Further, of the 4 regions in the US, the South continues to have the highest murder rate by far even though in 2001 and 2002 over 80% of all executions happened in the South. No other region has executed more than 100 people since 1976 – but the South has executed 722 people in that same amount of time. If deterrence worked, they should have the lowest murder rate in the country.

84% of our nation’s top criminologists reject the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent. Police chiefs polled around the country rank the death penalty last in what helps reduce violent crime.

It costs LA County almost $700,000 more per case to prosecute a capital offense instead of a permanent incarceration case. Los Angeles County has successfully sent 194 people to death row in the past few decades, which means we have spent over 120 million dollars on death when we could have spent it on schools, health care, family supports, housing and crime prevention (the main factors that lead to criminal behavior in the first place).

Many more African Americans are executed in proportion to their numbers than whites. The racism of the death penalty is most apparent when you look at the race of the murder victim. Although blacks and whites are murdered in almost equal numbers, 80% of all people executed since 1976 have been executed for murders involving white victims.

So, the facts show that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it’s bad fiscal policy, and racist. It’s also something we do almost exclusively to the poor. It’s the single most common variable on death row – they’re all poor.

Let’s look at Church teaching:

The Pope, the US Bishops and Cardinal Mahony have all publicly stated that the death penalty is immoral and must be abolished. The logic is cogent: One of the main responsibilities of the justice system is public safety. So, if public safety can be maintained by incarcerating someone rather than killing them, then that is more moral course. Since, in the US, we do have the ability to appropriately incarcerate violent offenders and protect public safety, then the death penalty is immoral.

We need to end the death penalty. We don’t have a weak criminal justice system. We have 3 strikes (which I hope you all help to fix by voting yes on Proposition 66) we have mandatory minimum sentencing, and Life Without the Possibility of Parole. The US has over 2 million people incarcerated across this country, and another 3 million people on probation and parole. We have more people incarcerated per capita than in Stalinist Russia; one fourth of all people in the world who are behind bars and behind bars in America. All this in a nation where the majority of the people follow a savior whose opening address was a call to set the captives free!

Many people have quoted scripture to justify all kinds of hateful acts, everything from war, to the death penalty, racism, and the subjugation of women, to name a few. I don’t think any of us can seriously argue that the message of scripture is about revenge and the death penalty. So we the faithful must hold to the truth that the overarching message of scripture when it comes to the question of God’s fundamental character and the call made to each of us about how to be in this world, is to be loving, compassionate and merciful.

That love and compassion ought to be extended to victims as well. Our churches should be places where victims and their family members can find solace and comfort. Often hidden in our midst, victims’ family members go unrecognized and uncared for. They deserve our prayers and public support as they carry with them loss and sorrow.

Jesus says, “Let those without sin cast the first stone.” His critique of the death penalty continues to echo throughout history. “Let those without sin…” Take the log out of your own eye, take care of your own offenses and sins instead of self-righteously pointing at everyone else but yourself…God alone is the judge of life and death.

Christians in favor of the death penalty often say, “An eye for an eye,” thinking they are making a good point by quoting scripture. But the full quotation in Matthew 18 has Jesus say, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I say to you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And the next paragraph is on loving your enemy and doing good to those who harm you. Jesus is definitely not in favor of an eye for an eye. It is good to remember that Jesus turns the prevailing, “Do unto them as they did unto you” ethic on its head.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to believe that any Christian can be in favor of capital punishment when Jesus himself was executed. He was murdered by the state, a victim of the death penalty. They killed the Son of God after an arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing. We are not supposed to support the death penalty as if it were part of God’s ongoing plan of salvation. One of the main lessons of the crucifixion is that we are supposed to always be suspicious of any claims and pretenses the state and religious authorities make about their power.

We gather around this altar every week to remind ourselves that the God we follow is a servant, a footwasher, with nowhere to lay his head, the last, the least, poor and powerless. The story of Jesus is the story of the execution of an innocent person, dedicated only to the power of love and service. Our lives are supposed to testify to that. People are supposed to be able to look at your faith community and be moved by your message of compassion and your track record as a community that does something good in this broken world. Let us humbly pray for God’s blessings as we try to promote all life issues, and be a concrete sign of life in our community by reaching out to victims, trying to change unjust laws, and working to end the death penalty.