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Coming Down from That Tree

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Christ and Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns (1913)

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Learning from Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore‐fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:1–10

People express surprise when I share that this is one of my favorite stories about disability justice; often I get quizzical looks and curious questions. I have had different types of disabilities my entire life, and I find that not only do I relate well to Zacchaeus and other “unclean” figures in the Bible, but I also find that my relationship with Jesus and my call on my faith path follows the patterns in these stories.

Because the Gospel is written about a very different culture and time period, this story offers us an opportunity to understand disability as a social construct while not dismissing the challenges of navigating the world with impairments (disabilities). It also shows the kind of community that Jesus calls us to engage in with one another and what forms of community ethos we might consider rejecting.

In this story we have Zacchaeus, who is a short man and a tax collector, climbing a tree to see Jesus. First, it is significant that Zacchaeus is a short man. I think the writer included this detail in order for us to understand why he ended up in the life position he was in. Tax collectors were considered unclean in this society; Zacchaeus had a sinful job. Perhaps, because of his size or height, other jobs were not open to Zacchaeus, and he had to take this position because it was the only way to support himself.

Zacchaeus’s body size in first‐century Israel could have kept him from a position that required size and strength to complete. Being short was likely an impairment in that culture. I have some impairments (disabilities) that have come as a result of some trauma experiences I have had. For me a standard 40‐hours‐a‐week job had been difficult to maintain while healing from trauma, because my energy and focus shifted. Zacchaeus worked as a tax collector perhaps instead of as a laborer or fisherman. I have been able to work 40‐plus hours per week, but in the past few years, some of those hours are chunked into shorter segments than a typical worker. Also, I may have found myself more productive at 3:00 a.m. than at 10:00 a.m.

Zacchaeus may have been short and perhaps he was limited in the jobs he could take, but that is not the problem he faces in this story. He had access to a job and was reported as being wealthy. As a tax collector, however, he was considered unclean and could not touch others. He needed to climb a tree to see Jesus, but it is understood in this context that he could not make his way through to the front of the crowd because he was unclean. Like Zacchaeus in the tree, my disabilities have kept me from housing, employment, community, and ministry not because of limiting impairments but because of the stigma and judgments that are associated with the kinds of disabilities I carry.

Jesus did not call Zacchaeus to accept the narrative applied to him by the people in the crowd. When Jesus called Zacchaeus to serve him and he accepted, they both rejected the narrative that was created about tax collectors. I feel that Jesus has called me in a similar pattern.

 

Narratives are sometimes created about people with my kind of disabilities. I will not be stuck in some metaphorical tree for “unclean” Quakers.

Jesus has different ideas about unclean people. He tells Zacchaeus to come down from that tree—and to host him in his home! Jesus also tells me to “come down from that tree.” Despite some unfortunate and unfair things that have happened to me, I still feel called to Quaker community. I feel called to Quaker spiritual practice, to share the truths of my experiences, to worship with Quakers, and to develop and share a ministry.

Although I don’t feel a call to be a member of a regular Quaker meeting, I do feel called to co‐create an alternative type of Quaker community with Friends who have a commitment to go deeper into our faith than a typical Quaker church or meeting can support. The hope is to one day have a Quaker meeting that has a collective economy; an expectation that all gathered Friends will be released into ministry; and a commitment to using the Gospels as a framework for moving ourselves as individuals, as group members, and as members of the larger society toward collective liberation.

Jesus calls Zacchaeus to come down from where he was and to be of service from the center. He doesn’t demand a ritual cleansing before accepting Zacchaeus’s hospitality; he doesn’t demand that he stop being a tax collector, or become taller.

Jesus does not call me to be a non‐disabled, middle‐class, straight person in order to serve him, share a ministry, be in worship, or co‐create a Quaker community. I do not aspire to be a non‐disabled, middle‐class, straight woman. I have maintained all of those identities in the past, and I have the connections to do so again. I want to be me; I want to be fully me. I am called to serve fully from where and who I am. The desire to be fully me is what drew me to Quakerism. The fact that I am a disabled person and have had to navigate and remove access barriers in my faith journey has prepared me to bring a perspective to the community we are creating that otherwise would not be present.

Quakerism isn’t a faith in which some people plan a spiritually themed program and  others come in as mere spectators or participants. No one should be designated a passive recipient of others’ work at a Quaker meeting. In the community we are co‐creating, our vision is that all Friends will be released for ministry. In this model, privileged Friends don’t minister to disabled people who come to meeting. I don’t want to be in a community in which some people think I need help. Ideally, we are co‐creating a community in which we will strive to remove access barriers for every gathered Friend so that the ministries of all can be released.

Zacchaeus was a son of Abraham. In our faith, everyone has a direct experience of the Divine and can be guided on a path of faith and righteousness. In the meeting we are co‐creating, our model of inclusion consists of listening to everyone, supposing that everyone’s needs are equally important, and identifying and removing access barriers. We understand that when people with marginalized identities change the dynamics of a meeting, this isn’t “out of Spirit.” It is the Spirit breaking through. When we keep to this tenet and strive to release everyone into ministry, we have our salvation.

 

I feel called to be in community with Friends who treat each other as Jesus did Zacchaeus: active solidarity with those who have been marginalized. This entails giving my time and energy to Friends who endeavor to be aware of and reject ableist, racist, classist, or heteronormative narratives. It means giving less time and energy to Friends and Friends organizations that put maintaining forms before nourishing loving relationships.

My desire to serve Jesus from who I am is what is drawing me to co‐create a Quaker meeting that rejects oppressive patterns arising from mistaking social privilege for spiritual authority. On more than one occasion, I have heard Friends dismiss or completely ignore the ministry or input of disabled Friends. When we follow the example of the Gospels—Jesus calling Zacchaeus down from the tree—then our relating to one another in difficult or conflicting situations is transformed. Disability justice is focused on removing barriers, not people. Everyone can be included because everyone’s needs can be met. Collective liberation is possible.

Yes, people muttered about Jesus, but he doesn’t appear to be concerned enough about this to stop his ministry. If you are called to dismantle oppression, people will mutter about you, too. Subversive ministries aren’t supported by the status quo because they don’t please those who have maintained the center. Disability justice doesn’t please people with privilege; it moves them from the center. If privileged people aren’t muttering about you, you might not be in solidarity with the oppressed.

What I like about this story is that it doesn’t end when Jesus calls Zacchaeus into service. Zacchaeus repents and makes changes, too. Zacchaeus was a tax collector and he became rich by collecting much more than was owed. He takes account for this by giving half his possessions to the poor and by repaying anyone he cheated four times what he owed them.

I think it is an important lesson for me to understand this story not just from a disabled perspective but also from a place of privileged race and class that impacts my understanding, response to, and support for oppressive systems and patterns.

The Gospel shows me that the goal of disability justice work is not to regain white privileges I have lost but to dismantle systems of oppression. I need to find a balance between not internalizing a shameful ableist narrative about myself and, at the same time, releasing myself from privileges that I have as a white woman.

In this story, Zacchaeus recognizes his wealth as a problem. He knows that he cannot serve both God and money. He serves as a model to me by releasing himself of his wealth and thus his privilege. There is a lesson for me in this as a white, disabled, queer woman from a middle‐class background. I can work to dismantle favoritism shown to the able, knowing that my Spirit‐led empowerment can never come at the expense of people with less privilege than mine. Just as the goal is not for Zacchaeus to be seen as “clean,” my goal shouldn’t be to regain white privileges that I lost to stigma.

Zacchaeus also states that he will repay anyone he may have cheated four times over. My unfortunate path in and out of internalized ableism and white privilege is not a story of unblemished gracefulness. As I strive to be with Jesus, my path isn’t always simple and clear. The line between not accepting shame and stigma and graceless, proud, white, privileged attitudes has been fuzzy at best. Looking back, I can see I have asserted myself in situations where grace was required. And I have assumed pretentious grace in situations where I was really just too afraid to “come down from that tree” and assert myself against a narrative favoring privilege. It is always hard to know what to do. But this story is telling me that if I have wronged someone—even when I was just trying to survive—I still need to repair any hurts I have caused.

 

In the community we are imagining, we hope to do disability justice work by affirming diversity and promoting interdependence. We hope to be focused on dismantling barriers and releasing the ministries of all Friends.

This is the model of disability justice demonstrated in this Bible story. Jesus calls a short man who is excluded from society to open his home to him and serve him. The people mutter about this, and Jesus calls Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham,” interrupting the societal basis for that stigma. Zacchaeus repents and makes changes in his life that release himself from wealth and privilege. He puts the needs of anyone he may have cheated at the center.

As Quakers who choose to release ourselves of wealth, power, and privileges, our understanding of inclusion is turned upside down. No longer are we trying to include or draw others into a privileged center, but we are refusing to take up too much space there in the first place. In a Quaker community, if we aren’t striving for complete interdependence through supporting the faithfulness of all Friends and the release of all ministries, then we are working against our shared belief that divinity exists within every person.

Kitt Reidy's interest in disability justice was inspired by her mother’s advocacy for her during childhood. Later, Kitt became a special education teacher. She is currently writing a biblical fiction novel. She experiences worship and fellowship with other Friends who consider themselves post-Quaker in Portland, Ore.

Posted in: Disability and Inclusion, Features

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One thought on “Coming Down from That Tree

  1. Laura Lewis-Barr says:

    City & State
    Glen Ellyn, IL
    Thank you for this challenge to grow my heart and expand my mind. Thank you for the courage you have to withstand the muttering and be true.

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