As a former CPA, the Bible story of the tax collector, Zacchaeus, always bothered me. In my mind, when Zacchaeus decided to mend his ways, he could not possibly have enough money to honor his commitment to repay those he had cheated. I would read this story with a “but” missing the implication for my life.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in the region. He was despised for his job and he was despised for how he did his job. He likely was also despised for how he prospered from his job. According to the story in Luke, one day, Zacchaeus had climbed a tree to see Jesus go by because he was too short to see him over the crowd. Jesus called out to him by name and invited himself to dine at Zacchaeus’ home. Zacchaeus’ immediate response was to promise to give half of all his wealth to the poor. And “if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much.” Since it was my perception he had acquired most of his wealth through directly cheating many people, the accountant in me would think, “This math doesn’t work! If he gave half of his wealth away, he would not have enough to repay by four times all he had cheated.” But then, I realized I had missed the point in this story relevant to all of us!
Zacchaeus likely started as a lowly tax collector who had direct contact with taxpayers. He used his position to charge them a higher tax than was required and pocketed the difference. At some point in his career, Zacchaeus was promoted up the ranks to Chief Tax Collector. It was in then Zacchaeus accumulated most of his wealth. How did he do this? Through the use of positional power.
It is obvious Zacchaeus had no personal power and no commanding presence. He was clearly described as short in stature. Nor did he charm his way to wealth. Unlike the sick man whose four friends lowered him through the roof to be healed, Zacchaeus had no friends. In fact, the people were displeased and grumbled when Jesus had gone “to be the guest of a notorious sinner.” He had obviously made a good number of enemies in his line of work. So how did he accumulate all of his wealth? Zacchaeus used his positional power as chief tax collector to become rich. Perhaps as chief he took a piece of the ill-gotten gain of all of the tax collectors under him. Perhaps people came and cultivated relationships with him, offering him sweetheart deals so he would exert his influence to provide them with fair tax burden. Perhaps they offered him land at a discount. Perhaps they gave gifts of wine and other valuables. Over time, Zacchaeus became wealthy because of his position. Those who observed these acts were displeased and grumbled to see this man, who had leveraged his position over them, receive preferred treatment once again from this man named Jesus with whom everyone wanted an audience.
At the moment of Jesus’ invitation, Zacchaeus took stock of his life and decided to make amends and share his wealth. He declared sharing half his riches with the poor and repaying four times over those he had cheated. Perhaps he realized he had accumulated more than he could possibly use and he couldn’t take it with him. Perhaps he realized there were more important things in life than wealth. Perhaps he finally had enough of the grumbling.
I recently watched a video entitled “Why Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek. He states no one would have a problem if we gave Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela exorbitant amounts of money, but we do have a problem when those who break the social contract make exorbitant amounts. Zacchaeus had broken the social contract and was despised for it.
The question for each of us is: how have we used our positional power? Perhaps we are not despised, but have we used it primarily for our own benefit? Have we accumulated only for us? Some look at the acquisition of wealth as a game, enjoying the pursuit, using their position and their wiles to add to their treasury. Others accept the sweetheart deals, the gifts, and the information to which others are not privy to line their coffers. They use their influence to put people on their board who will agree to their golden parachute, bonus, pay package and benefits even when they are accumulated at the expense of customers or workers. And those who obtain position on the board and agree to these excesses many times are doing so to gain themselves.
Then there are people use their position to write or pass laws favorable to themselves, not necessarily in the best interests of those they represent. Those with “special interests” cultivate their position of access. Too many business people, politicians, public workers and even clergy use their positional power for their own benefit to the detriment of those with less positional power.
If you are in the place of having “less positional power”, you are likely grumbling like those who observed Zacchaeus. You are grumbling about those who use and sometimes abuse their power to gain at the expense of others. You may say, “It’s not right.” And yet all of us reside somewhere on that scale of positional power. We are all higher than some and lower than others. And the question for all of us is: have we used our positional power selfishly? We need to honestly examine whether we have used our positional power primarily for our own gain or have we used it to benefit others. If you used it for the benefit of others, is the benefit more than gratuitous, or have you genuinely used a substantial amount of it to benefit your fellow man? You may want to ask whether people are grumbling about you either to your face or behind your back. Perhaps it is time for each of us to rethink what is really important. What sort of legacy will we leave behind? How will we use our positional power?
Lois is the Founder and Executive Director of Feeding Hands, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization working to develop a groundswell of individuals, churches and businesses involved in addressing the issue of poverty while building discipleship through engagement in our local communities.