I always loved the opening story of Luke 19, where Jesus meets the tax collector Zacchaeus. But I’ve struggled with its how the story is read, and also how the characters are recast today when applied to the lives of gay persons. Are even my own readings of Luke, as a gay man, shaded by internalized homophobia? And if so, how does one rise above such readings and discover new life in the Gospel? Here, I will examine common interpretations of the story of Zacchaeus, looking at how readers treat sinfulness and the embrace of Jesus. Then I will look at how readers might cast gay persons in relation to the Church when reading Luke 19. In both of these, I will invite the reader to see both the story and themselves anew.
In chapter 19 of Luke’s gospel, Zacchaeus, a tax collector who has presumably committed fraud against his neighbors, wants to see this man, Jesus, who has come into town. Because of his small size, Zacchaeus climbs into a tree to see Jesus in the crowd. Jesus, seeing Zacchaeus in the tree, invites Zacchaeus down and says he will stay in the house of the tax collector. Then Zacchaeus says he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and offering restitution to those he has defrauded. The story ends by Jesus saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house [of Zacchaeus], since he is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
I’m gay, which means when I read this story, I’m conditioned to see myself as Zacchaeus. I see myself as the sinner needing mercy, someone akin to a cheat and in need of an invitation from Jesus to come down from the tree. For much of my life, I had this idea that in the casting of biblical narrative, my sexuality made me Zacchaeus in the tree, the woman caught in adultery, a thief on a cross by Christ crucified. And the cleanliness of my straight Christian friends and community made them Jesus. I needed their acceptance to be saved.
In conversations about sexuality and the Church, we often talk about the Church needing to exercise mercy, compassion, and openness towards the gay community. We talk about the Church being Christ to gay persons and recognizing and affirming our dignity. Setting aside the presumption in these conversations that “the Church” is comprised on non-gay persons, we might wonder whether we could benefit from a reconsideration and recasting of the story of Zacchaeus.
Women in Adultery, Zacchaeus in the Tree
One exegetical trope comes from the careful framing of Jesus’ relationship to sinners. For example, in reading about the woman caught in adultery in John 8, many latch onto the departing words of Jesus as the primary mode of relationship: “Do not sin again.” That is, many readers consider the condemnation of sin to be the first and primary action in Jesus’ relationship to marginalized persons who have sinned. Such readers suggest that salvation through Christ is conditional upon the woman no longer sinning (or, they go beyond the text to make the condition an esoteric abdication of sin).
Thus, when reading John 8 in relation to current contentions over the Church and homosexuality, many Christians cast gay persons as the woman caught in adultery and say that a welcome into the Church and an invitational engagement requires first the gay person’s rejection of sin. In the context of John 8, this is chronologically false. The call to turn from sin comes only at the end, as a departing thought. Likewise, when transferred onto the story of Zacchaeus, these readers might be tempted to say that Jesus’ primary act is to get Zacchaeus to reconsider his sinful lies while working as a tax collector. These readers miss the actual story.
One way of examining Luke 19 is to read it as a passage about how to relate to society’s sinners. People don’t approach Jesus because of His moral dictates. The sinful Zacchaeus goes to Jesus, first, because Jesus draws up curiosity. Jesus, as a person, is compelling enough that people just want to go and see what he’s about. Zacchaeus didn’t know much about Jesus, and he was just “trying to see who Jesus was.” He climbs into the tree to see over the crowd.
Jesus sees Zacchaeus in the tree, and he knows the man by name. He looks up, and the first word makes a personal call to the man: “Zacchaeus.” Then, knowing Zacchaeus and what he has done, Jesus does not give a moral dictate or teaching. Jesus just says to Zacchaeus, “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Then, you learn that he “received him joyfully.” Notice who is receiving whom here. Jesus is not the one receiving Zacchaeus. Rather, Zacchaeus receives Jesus. And Zacchaeus is the one with joy. It is Jesus’ longing to enter the house of Zacchaeus which cultivates joy and then–eventually–moves Zacchaeus to declare he is giving away half his possessions and paying back those from whom he has unjustly taken (in the Greek it is unclear whether Jesus’ encounter results in these actions or Zacchaeus has been doing these things already and is simply telling Jesus about them).
Here, Jesus gives us the first three steps in responding to one whom the crowd might call a “sinner” (indeed, only the crowd identifies Zacchaeus as such). First, be the sort of person that a tax collector would want to go to and see what you’re about. Second, call the person by name. Third, go and stay in their house. When we encounter a “sinner,” our calling as Christ is to go and stay with them in their homes. And, if we are Christ, our entrance into their homes will create joy.
Who is Who?
Let’s return to the question of casting. Growing up, I would have seen myself as Zacchaeus, one waiting for a visitor to come into my home and who can bring me joy, casting out my sin. I would have seen other Christians as the Christs who will invite themselves over so that I can be saved.
I now realize why I was stuck on this casting: I was conditioned to believe that, in relationships between gay persons and other Catholics, being gay is an ugly thing, a thing needing mercy. I needed other Christians-–those good Christs–-to save me. But as I’ve encountered homophobia in the Church and come into my own more fully as a Christian, I’ve realized that I was telling myself the wrong story. As I have matured as a Christian, I have had to consider new casting, taking on new responsibilities demanded by my vocation and my call to be like Christ.
Gay Christians are not just called to be Zacchaeus. If we want to fully participate in the life of the Church, we must also learn to see ourselves as Christ. By failing to do so in the past, I have placed myself in an excessively passive place in the Church. I can only take up my cross if I become like Christ, if I see Him within me. And it was precisely my inability to cast myself in Christ’s shoes that revealed both the prejudices of much of the Christian community and also my internalization of those prejudices. I do nothing wrong by simply being a man who experiences attractions, and I must question the relationships which make me feel otherwise, which make me fail to cast myself as Christ.
In these relationships, it’s the gay person who is called to be Christ. And it’s the homophobic person, the closed-minded and hard-hearted person person, the person of unjust exclusionary practices, the person who makes gay persons feel dirty, the person who compels gay persons to always cast themselves as Zacchaeus, who needs an invitation out of the tree. Gay Catholics are not just called to be Zacchaeus. If we want to fully partake in the life of the Church, we must see ourselves here as Christ.
We cannot be mere passive victims. Doing so has vast implications for the moral life. It makes us helpless, without agency, and trapped within narratives ruled by others. Only when we can find narratives of our own agency, where we see ourselves as good, as those bestowing respect, compassion, and sensitivity on others, can we fully live out our vocations as Christians. We don’t need other Catholics to heal us of our sexuality. Rather, we must be emboldened to heal the Church of prejudice and unjust discrimination.
For the mature gay person in the Church, then, the calling is simple. Be such that others might seek you out of curiosity. Call them by name. And stay in their homes. We don’t have to always be Zacchaeus in the tree. We are called to be Christ to the world. We can be Christ in the crowd. We can welcome those others down from their trees.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.