Zacchaeus in Tree by William Hole, 1908, via Wikimedia Commons

This is about shame and reconciliation. It is an edited version of a sermon I gave last Sunday. It draws on two stories: the biblical story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and a modern comparison with a conversation I had with a sex worker.

All societies praise some people and despise others in a system of honour and shame. Modern societies don’t emphasise it as much as earlier societies did, but we still have systems of honour and shame.

They are incentives given by society. Some actions are honourable, some are shameful. To be shamed, or to be considered shameless, is to earn social disapproval. Different societies treat different actions as honourable or shameful, but all societies have their versions.

The theme of honour and shame comes across very strongly in Luke’s gospel, but for an unusual reason: Jesus inverts it. He criticises the honourable and praises those who have been shamed.

Zacchaeus is only known from this one story in Luke’s gospel, where he is described as a rich man, the head tax collector at the important road centre of Jericho. The Latin word for these tax collectors was publicanus, which is why some older bibles and commentaries refer to them as publicans. They didn’t sell beer.

Judea was governed by the Romans, who were completely unscrupulous. The process of collecting taxes was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Whoever won the auction was then obliged to provide the amount they bid. They would collect the money by employing local tax collectors, and their own income would be whatever else they could collect on top. You couldn’t invent a more extortionate system.

Because the Romans were such aggressive rulers most Jews hated being occupied by them, just as most French people hated the German occupation. So any Jew who collaborated with the Romans would be hated too. This is why the gospels often refer to tax collectors in association with sinners. As far as your fellow Jews were concerned, to get a job as a tax collector was shameful.

On the other hand it was quite common for Jews to starve to death, so being a tax collector did at least mean you had enough money to eat.

Jesus is approaching and a crowd gathers. Zacchaeus climbs his tree to see him. What Jesus did must have been absolutely deliberate. He invited himself to tea at Zacchaeus’ house. It was an absolutely unmistakeable way of saying ‘I accept you as you are. I am not treating you as shameful’. We are told that the crowd grumbled. Of course they did.

All this is pretty straightforward. All the commentaries say the same thing. What happens next is a different matter. Zacchaeus says

half of my possessions, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

Jesus responds

Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.

And then, by way of explanation, Luke adds:

For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.

Some of the commentaries interpret this to mean that if you repent, God will forgive you. It was a common theme in Luke’s gospel. The trouble is, it isn’t what the story says. Jesus invites himself to tea before Zacchaeus has shown the slightest intention to repent, and when Zacchaeus announces his new-found generosity Jesus doesn’t say anything about repentance.

And then commentaries often say Zacchaeus did give away all this money and become a follower of Jesus. They are making it up. We don’t know anything about what Zacchaeus did for the rest of his life. For all we know, there he was, surrounded by a hostile crowd, and he might have made his generous offer just to avoid getting lynched.

Still, his offer of generosity may have been influenced by surprise at the way Jesus accepted him. You might like to ask yourself how you would feel if you were in that position, hated by everyone and then suddenly accepted as you were with no strings attached. When you are used to thinking of yourself as a shameful person, to be treated as if you are not shameful is to be relieved of a big burden.

My other story is as follows. About 10 years ago I was going home from the university and I went to a nearby bus stop. On this occasion, a bus must have been cancelled because I waited three quarters of an hour.

There was another person at the bus shelter, a young woman. She asked me whether I was waiting for a bus. In my naivety I thought it was a funny question and said yes, wasn’t she waiting for one?

‘No, I’m working.’ ‘What work do you do?’ ‘I’m a prostitute.’

She was drinking a can of beer. She said she drank it because she was shy.

I don’t usually socialise with sex workers. However I used to teach ethics, and I know what the books say about them. So here was a chance to get a first-hand account. I was keen to make the most of the opportunity. I wanted to know how she gets her clients, how much she charges, where she takes them to do the deed, whether she has been subjected to violence, how she relates to the police, what is the likelihood of being arrested, how she gets on with the other sex workers.

During the course of this conversation she twice borrowed my mobile phone to call her boyfriend. She asked him whether she could go home because she wasn’t getting any custom. Both times the answer was no, she had to bring home at least £10.

A young man approached and hovered around. She left me alone in the bus shelter and went to talk to him. She came back saying it was no good, he only had £5. It did cross my mind that I could give her the other £5 and then, putting the two together, she could go home. But I didn’t. Should I have? Maybe you can tell me.

Eventually the bus came. I got on, sat down, and looked out of the window. What I saw amazed me. She was jumping up and down, her arms going all over the place, waving me goodbye. As though I was a much loved old friend.

Why did she do that? If you know more about sex workers than I do you can put me right, but I guess it was like Zacchaeus. I guess she was drinking the beer not because she felt shy but because she felt ashamed. Because it didn’t cross my mind to express disapproval, I had unintentionally done to her what Jesus had done to Zacchaeus – except that he had done it intentionally and publicly.

So: how can we create a society that distinguishes between helpful and harmful lifestyles, but does not impose a heavy burden of shame on deviants?