CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Downward Mobility - Reframing the Direction of Success
Pentecost 21, Proper 26 | November 3, 2019
By Kristen Leigh Mitchell
CAMINANDO WITH JESUS is a series of reflections on the Sunday Gospel by clergy and laity from across the Diocese.
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Jesus 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
Have you ever noticed how people nearly always speak of success in vertical terms? For some reason, success is always imagined to be a movement from the bottom to the top. This way of thinking may seem so natural and ingrained that it may strike us as odd to even question it. Power is at the “top,” and a successful person is one with “upward mobility,” someone who moves from a lower class to a higher one. Social success is measured not in terms of the quality of one’s relationships, but in terms of how many of one’s friends are perceived to be in the “upper” echelon of society. In terms of career, successful people are those who are “climbing the ladder” or moving “up” in their field, from entry level to middle management to CEO. Academic success means moving from bachelor's to master's to doctorate to tenure. There is even a version of this that sometimes plays out in the church. The unique ministerial roles of laypeople, deacons, priests and bishops are mistakenly perceived to exist along a continuum of success, and those who work in ministry are often pressured into moving “up” the supposed “ranks.”
Consider also how common it is to associate tall buildings with political and economic power. In the book of Genesis, one of the first things human beings do after being cast out of the Garden of Eden is to try and build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. Trina Paulus’ book Hope for the Flowers brilliantly encapsulates this vertical configuration of success with the image of a caterpillar pillar: thousands of caterpillars crawling over one another in order to follow their instinct to move upward... not understanding the deep kind of transformation necessary in order to fly. A young caterpillar fights his way to the top only to discover that there is nothing up there! “Quiet, fool!” a fellow caterpillar whispers: “We’re where they want to be. That’s what’s here.”
Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness with precisely this kind of vertical, top-down power, taking him to “a high place” and offering him authority over all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus rejected this top-down approach, ascribing all true power and authority to God alone. Jesus takes his place as an equal alongside the rest of humanity, modeling for us a different kind of power, one that Paul would later call kenosis—meaning “self-emptying.” Others have called this kind of power “servant leadership,” or “power-with.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus challenges the vertical frameworks of power, status and authority to reframe the direction of “success” in horizontal terms.
On the surface, the story of Zacchaeus appears to be a fairly straightforward tale about Jesus inviting himself over to dinner at a rich man’s house (a somewhat subversive act in and of itself). But if we pay close attention to the details of the narrative, we recognize the prophetic core of Jesus’ teaching at work here. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a “climber” in more ways than one. He was someone who wanted to get ahead, someone who had figured out a way to get “above” the rest of the crowd—not just in his effort to see Jesus, but in his life as a tax collector.
Tax collectors were Israelites who had achieved a kind of upward mobility for themselves by working with and for the Roman Empire. They collected taxes from their own people on behalf of the emperor, skimming a little off the top in order to earn a higher place for themselves. They were considered by many to be traitors, and so while Zacchaeus may have had a higher economic status, his fellow Israelites maintained the moral high ground, judging him a “sinner.”
Jesus dismantles both claims to superiority when he calls for Zacchaeus to “come down” from the tree. More than just a practical suggestion so that they can get on with their dinner, this symbolic gesture puts Zacchaeus on a path of reconciliation and salvation. For while climbing may have allowed Zacchaeus to see Jesus, from this height he could really not be in relationship with Jesus. For that, Zacchaeus would have to come down and be on the same level with Jesus and the rest of the people. In other words, he must abandon the vertical strategy for success that involved climbing over others, instead adopting a horizontal vision of salvation characterized by a redistribution of his wealth.
For Christians, “salvation” is the truest form of success, and it doesn’t come from our movement upward, but from God’s movement downward. Jesus called Zacchaeus to stop looking for ways to climb over others and instead to take his place at a table that has been prepared for everyone.
What tree might Jesus be calling us to climb down from?