What is salvation? I suspect this could be the biggest and most personal question we bring to our reading of the Bible, and it leads to lots of little ones, calling us to a sometimes threatening specificity. Will I know when I’ve got it? Can I lose it? Is being saved an all-at-once kind of thing? What do saved people look like?
In the Gospels, we have an account of a dying thief whom Jesus assures of a blessed inheritance seemingly in exchange for a sentence or two spoken aloud in his final moments. Jesus Himself tells stories of people receiving the whole salvation shebang—everlasting life—by showing up for the last hour of a long workday, by feeding or clothing the least of these, and, in the case of Lazarus, by living a life of destitution and beggary. In the parable of the prodigal son, all the younger brother does to get unlost is to show up looking for food and servant accommodations. He barely gets a word of apology out before he’s taken in his father’s arms and thrown a party. What’s up with that?
I love the way these stories upset my tendency to reduce salvation to a formula. Like so much within the Bible, they challenge what I presume to know about what God’s up to. Even when I’ve pieced my presumption together with various verses that seem to yield a solid doctrine of what’s what, there’s always something that doesn’t fit. I have my ideas of what is biblical, but if these ideas aren’t regularly tripped up by what I find there, it could be that I’m reading the Bible only to have my ideas reconfirmed—in which case, maybe I’m not reading the Bible deeply (or salvifically) at all.
But concerning salvation, we have one account of Jesus proclaiming it directly—concerning one wee little man, or more specifically, that one man’s entire household, which of course encompasses the whole life of the man himself. Think house, as in, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). In an effort to think biblically, we can recall the imagery of the 23rd psalm and note that salvation requires a house, a context, in which to occur. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves by skipping to the end. Back to the wee little man. We know him, in song and Sunday school lesson, as Zaccheus.
His appearance in the 19th chapter of Luke’s gospel as a rich man trying to see Jesus is especially wonderful, because we’ve been told, in the preceding chapter, that it’s exceedingly difficult for a person of wealth to enter God’s kingdom at all. In exasperation, Jesus’ hearers wonder if salvation’s possible for anyone. Jesus responds by insisting that the seemingly impossible is, in fact, possible for God. And now, in the case of Zaccheus, we’re about to be shown how.
As much as we love conversion stories, I don’t think it’s right to think of Zaccheus as someone who went immediately from a horribly unsaved person to a suddenly transformed and now righteous man. As soon as we encounter him in Jericho, he’s already trying to see Jesus. And most savingly, he’s more interested in seeing clearly than he is in maintaining decorum and self-respect. He’s willing to cast appearances aside so he can climb a tree to behold the wise storytelling healer who speaks as one with real authority. Zaccheus may be a tax collector, but as students of Luke’s Jesus, we’ve learned by now that prejudging who’s righteous and who isn’t is a losing strategy. And besides, he already looks to be a closet philosopher (one who loves wisdom), because his desire for truth outweighs his desire for respectability. What’s more salvific than that?
Zaccheus is certainly on his way, but there’s more to discuss. If we assume he’s been up to that standard business practice (a standard then and a standard now) of squeezing people for all they’re worth, true salvation will require a rearrangement of resources—whether time, money, or something else. Getting saved, after all, isn’t just a matter of intellectual assent to disembodied truths. And similarly, Zaccheus’ otherwise detached curiosity concerning Jesus will have to literally hit home. Rather beautifully, Jesus invites Himself over against the grumbling of haters (Luke 19:5).
From there, Zaccheus testifies concerning his intention to follow Jesus by undertaking, in his own life and the lives of others, the work of restoration, and—very crucially—Jesus takes him at his word. He will restore, in abundance, the wealth he’s extracted from his neighbors and pursue right relationship in all his dealings. Does the average human being’s conception of wealth often take a turn for the tragic? We all know it does. But here’s Zaccheus with a new vision, and he’s acting on it. He’s actively abandoning the hoarding and leveraging that perhaps marked his interactions previously. And now he’s taking up a sense of common wealth, not unlike the vision of the early church community in the book of Acts, a communion who hold all things in common.
What does Jesus have to say about this state of affairs? “Salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9, emphasis added). It’s a life’s work, of course, but the call of salvation is being answered here by this wealthy tax collector of small stature who’s been brought to a better understanding of his own perceived assets. Jesus’ vision of full body-and-soul salvation isn’t a spiritualized, divorced-from-what-we-do-with-our-resources gospel. It addresses our harried and anxious relationship habits, our sad and screwy understanding of career, vocation, and—to risk an oddly unexamined word—our impact. We often fall for the most unimaginative and individualistic understanding of success, but Zaccheus models the more excellent way of openness that Jesus calls us to in all our dealings. On paper, Zaccheus will arguably be poorer by taking on the joy of the lived repentance that is lived salvation, but the yoke, Jesus tells us, is easier than the greed and the pride which can’t and won’t be sanctified.
Salvation isn’t just something I carry around in my heart, some formula I claim to believe. According to Jesus, it leads us to pursue right relationship with other people, especially the people I’ve wronged. Salvation gives rise to the deep desire to share, to help, to give, and to know that if the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, your wealth isn’t exactly yours to begin with. If it’s to be a currency at all, it will have to flow as a current, as a gift, not held or hoarded as yours and yours alone. This is the way of salvation embodied in our brother Zaccheus. Now, knowing all this, here’s the question: Do we want to get saved? If we desire the whole of salvation in everything we’re up to, the question is ever before us. No one can answer it for you.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft