Let’s consider these words from Luke chapter 19 verses 1 through 4: Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way.
As I’ve shared on several occasions, I grew up in church. And when you grow up in church, certain stories (passages, parables) become quite familiar. The pericope above is one such passage that I’ve heard expounded upon many times. Even recently, I came across a short video on my Instagram feed. Not surprisingly, the person’s perspective on Zacchaeus was similar to what I’d heard my entire life. The emphasis was placed on verse 4: So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree… In other words, the focus was on what Zacchaeus did to overcome his situation and ultimately see Jesus. But while it’s okay to celebrate Zacchaeus’ effort, this also leads to unintended consequences.
When we only highlight what Zacchaeus did, we’re also saying, If Zacchaeus could do it, so can you. Want to get ahead in life? Study harder and earn an advanced degree. Want to purchase a home in a neighborhood that has well-funded schools and a lower crime rate? Work harder and save your money for a hefty down payment. While diligently studying to earn advanced degrees that increase our earning potential is important, we can’t overlook the systemic factors that limit meaningful access and opportunity. Whether it’s racism or redlining, poverty or police violence, or homelessness and lack of affordable healthcare, numerous systemic obstacles are placed in the path of racially and ethnically minoritized (REM) and other marginalized individuals, which often makes achieving their (our) goals substantially more difficult. Returning to Zacchaeus, when we only focus on his effort, we ignore the circumstances that prevented him from seeing Jesus.
How often do we expect (require) people to jump through hoops while looking past the systems that are obstructing what they deserve? How often do we celebrate individual exceptionalism rather than critiquing what makes such inordinate effort necessary in the first place? How often have we thought to ourselves, Like Zacchaeus, if they really want it, they won’t let anything stand in their way?
The inspiration for this blog was an epiphany I had while speaking with a group of administrators in Illinois about the popular equity vs. equality images. And as I’ve shared previously, more than the height of the individuals in the images, or the amount of support (boxes) that they were given, the fence was the fundamental problem. And so it is with Zacchaeus: more than his short stature and individual determination to see Jesus, the crowd was the problem.
A word that simply means perspective or the lens through which we see or understand the world around us, our hermeneutic influences how we read, hear, and interpret scripture. If we only value individualism and self-determination, we’ll likely perceive Zacchaeus as exceptional—a resilient person who rose above his circumstances and beat the odds—at the expense of ignoring systemic obstruction. But if we’re sensitive to the structural injustices that plague society, we’ll recognize the significance of metaphorical fences and crowds before admonishing others to be like Zacchaeus.
Even when reading scripture, always focus on the fence.