Continuing our sequential progression through Luke’s gospel, we’re using texts assigned by the lectionary on the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time: Isaiah 1:10-18 and Luke 19:1-10, part of the Lord’s opening diatribe against the people of Judah and the story of Jesus visiting Zacchaeus’ house, respectively.

Where are we?

This part of Isaiah is set in the kingdom of Judah, which was the southern part of what had been a unified kingdom under David and Solomon. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered, and now the people of Judah worried that their defeat was near. (Side note: when the northern kingdom was conquered, the people remained where they were; only the inhabitants of the southern kingdom went into exile in Babylon. This difference in historical memory became the split between Jews and Samaritans.) Isaiah was likely a priest in the Jerusalem temple, and this passage seems to be an outburst in the middle of worship. We join the prophetic frothing already in progress.

In Luke, we have followed Jesus from Galilee, past the border of Samaria, almost to Jerusalem. Jesus has been telling parables that anger the religious insiders and talking about how high the cost will be for following him. He arrives now at Jericho, about 30 miles from Jerusalem. Jesus’ next journey will take him to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

What’s going on here?

Sodom and Gomorrah were terribly sinful cities in Genesis: when visitors came to Abraham’s nephew Lot, the townspeople insisted on raping them, but Lot sheltered them in his house. The visitors, who were angels of God, had to strike the townspeople blind to protect Lot. He and his family were led out of the city before God called down heavenly fire to burn the place to the ground. Into the New Testament and beyond, the sin of denying hospitality (in such a grotesque way) made the long-dead towns infamous.

The prophets routinely spoke against ritual worship when it came at the expense of the oppressed, orphans, and widows.

“Now, let’s settle the matter…” in v. 18 begins a new thought, but as a verse out of context it goes well with Zacchaeus.

In the previous chapter, Jesus has told a parable about a tax collector being justified through repentance, encountered a rich man who can’t bear to give up his money for the Kingdom of God, and healed a blind beggar. Money, sight, justification are all in this story too.

Zacchaeus’ short stature is usually understood to have had social/moral overtones as well; think Napoleon.

As David Lose notes, it’s not clear whether Zacchaeus is making a promise that he will give his money away in the future or if he’s saying that he’s already doing this. How we think about that order of events affects how we imagine repentance and forgiveness to work here.

Alyce McKenzie cites E. J. Tinsley, who sees in the Zacchaeus story a foreshadowing of the salvation Jesus brings to the whole house of Israel (“this house”).

Peter Woods reminds us that Israel was conquered territory, so when Zacchaeus collected “taxes,” what that meant was tribute to the occupying power. He also suggests that perhaps the trip up the tree was an attempt not only to see Jesus but also to hide (from him? from his neighbors? both?). And the tree, a sycamore-fig, symbolizes Israel; the invitation offered under it recalls Zechariah 3:10.