Zacchaeus and his City

zacchaeusThe French thinker René Girard has argued that since the dawn of humanity, we have tended to solve social tensions through persecuting a victim who absorbs these tensions and suffers for them. Girard has also argued that the Gospels unveil the truth of this scapegoating mechanism in their narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection where Jesus opens up new possibilities for humanity to gather through the forgiveness of the Risen Victim. It happens that the Gospels show Jesus unveiling these very same dynamics in his earthly ministry. I analyzed our such stories in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire. Here is what I have to say about Zacchaeus:
When Jesus came to Jericho, he was famous, or notorious enough, that something of a hubbub arose as a result of his passing through the town. People gathered and crowded one another to gawk at the man and his followers. Why the stir? The mayor wasn’t exactly giving him the key to the city. Throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was set upon by Pharisees and scribes and questioned in front of the crowd. Such questioning, of course, was made with the intention of publicly discrediting the freelance itinerant preacher who was becoming famous for his clever retorts. The result was bound to be entertaining. The scribes and Pharisees were surely on the prowl in a town that large. Zacchaeus’s act of climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus need not be taken as an indication that he was inclined to have his life changed by this stranger. His eagerness to see and hear the duel is enough to account for his action. And yet the anticipated debate does not occur. Why? Because Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree. The signs that Zacchaeus was a rich man hated by everybody in town were there to be seen by a person with eyes to see.
That Jesus had discerned the social matrix of Jericho rightly was immediately manifest when Jesus called out to the tax collector and invited himself to that man’s house. St. Luke says that “all who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” (Lk. 19:7) Here is another example of Luke’s astute anthropological insight. It isn’t just the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Zacchaeus. Everybody grumbles about him. Like Simon when confronted with the Woman Who Was a Sinner, (Lk. 7:36–50) the people of Jericho were thinking that if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of man this was who was sitting up in a tree—that he was a sinner. One doesn’t have to be a demonically possessed man or a sinful woman to be a communal scapegoat. A rich man who is a traitor to his people can hold the same position. And deserve it. After all, he was treading down the downtrodden. For scapegoating others, he deserved to be scapegoated. As it happened, Jesus did know what kind of man Zacchaeus was. It is through showing us that anybody can be the scapegoat and anybody can be a persecutor that Luke shows the communal scapegoating phenomenon for what it is. Given the fact that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem with a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen to him there, it behooved Jesus to give his followers every opportunity to see how collective hostility against one person works, in the hope that they would learn to recognize the process when it happens in the Holy City, and that is what he has done here.

As with the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus performs an exorcism of the communal scapegoat, a quiet one this time, but just as effective. The result is that the homeostasis sustained by the scapegoating process is destabilized. There is some ambiguity as to whether or not Zacchaeus is actually converted by his encounter with Jesus or if he had repented earlier but nobody believed it. Bible scholars disagree as to whether the verbs used by Zacchaeus are in the present tense or the future. That is, Zacchaeus may be saying that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anybody he has defrauded, but he could be saying that he is already doing these things. If Zacchaeus is using the future tense, then he is announcing a change of heart. If Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense, then he is claiming that he is better, or less terrible, than he has been made out to be. I think our best bet is to look at the implications of either interpretation of the verb tenses.

If Zacchaeus has been converted on the spot by Jesus, and we assume that Jesus did not zap people with a magic wand to override their free will, then we may ask ourselves how this conversion happened. The information in Luke suggests two possibilities. As the communal scapegoat, Zacchaeus had “the intelligence of the victim” and perhaps that intelligence led him to understand what it meant to other people to be the victim of his tax collecting. The other possibility is that an undeserved commendation from Jesus freed Zacchaeus from the necessity of acting in such a way as to justify his designation as communal scapegoat. It is more than likely that both factors played their part here. On the other hand, if Zacchaeus was speaking in the present tense, the implication is that the collective attitude of the townspeople was unjust, which would underline the arbitrary aspect of scapegoating. Generous actions on the part of a rich person who has drawn the collective resentment of the community often do not diminish resentment against him or her. It is also possible, of course, that Zacchaeus is trying to make himself look better than he really is. That is, he is boasting of his good deeds while overlooking the unjust means used for gaining the wealth that he uses for his acts of largesse. If I am right in taking this story as being primarily concerned with communal scapegoating, then the ambiguity enriches the story and there is no need to solve the grammatical problem once and for all.

The challenge of this story, however, is not limited to the possible conversion of one person. It extends to the possible conversion of the whole community. Whether or not Zacchaeus needed to be converted and, if so, whether or not he did change his life, is immaterial for the greater challenge. Either way, by singling out Zacchaeus and inviting himself to that man’s house, Jesus has already robbed Jericho of its scapegoat. The unanimity has been irretrievably broken. That everybody turns to grumbling at Jesus for going to the house of a man who is a sinner suggests that Jesus is well on the way to becoming a unanimous object of hatred. Since Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he would, once again, become the object of hatred, it is no surprise that it should happen in Jericho, while he was on the way to the Holy City. This development does not bode well for Jericho becoming a social climate of healing.

Mimetic Desire and Truth (5)

???????????????????????????????????????????In my last post, I showed how the premiere place for perceiving truth, the place of the victim, has been distorted. The problem is, if a person in in the place of the victim deals with it by making victims of others, as so many abused people have done, then that person is no longer in the place of the victim and has lost “the intelligence of the victim.” Unfortunately, such people are so caught up in feeling entitled to make victims of others and with the mimetic rivalry I mentioned as to who is the greatest victim, that do not know that they do not have the victim’s “intelligence.”

The revelation of the true victim in the Gospels is very different. Jesus was not only the innocent victim; Jesus was the forgiving victim. No wishing for the limbs of his enemies to tremble or shake or that they be swept away, greenwood or dry, as the Psalmist wished for him! It is Jesus’ forgiveness which gives him a true view of humanity so that he saw the potential for Matthew and Zacchaeus and, after his Resurrection, of Paul when nobody else did. The place of the victim, then, is the place of truth when the victim is forgiving.

When the victim is forgiving, as Jesus was, is, and will be forever, then mimetic desire takes a sharp turn away from rivalry and moves again in the expansive direction of sharing. The forgiving victim does not pose as the greatest of victims; the forgiving victim only wants healing for everybody, including and, especially for the victimizers. The desire that the forgiving victim shares is a desire for the well-being of all, a desire that does not allow for rivalry as rivalry would undermine this desire of universal healing.

In a sense, we have come full circle from where I started with expansive mimetic desire that initiates young people into food and games and art and many other things that are good and desirable. This original mimetic desire, if we wish to call it that, is akin to the good of creation. We were created with mimetic desire for precisely this purpose. The universal fall into mimetic rivalry and its ensuing social crises is Original Sin. (Note the mimetic rivalry between Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and humanity’s rivalry with God by building the Tower of Babel.) The recovery of expansive mimetic desire through Jesus the forgiving victim is restorative and redemptive. St. Paul said repeatedly the Christ’s redemption did not return us to original good creation; it brought us to a whole higher level of well-being that is grounded in forgiveness.

Since truth is grounded in creation, it follows, as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated, that the truth of things resides in the mind of God. That is, God sees what God has made and knows the depths of all that God has made in all truth. Insofar as we humans see things as God sees them, we see them truly. Our growing awareness of mimetic desire, however, shows us that seeing the truth is not a solitary endeavor; it is a corporate matter. Only through the expansive mimetic desire of sharing what is desirable can we, together, have a reasonably accurate apprehension of truth. Since truth is grounded in God, God becomes a partner in this corporate effort. Given the fallenness of humanity through rivalrous mimetic desire, it is through the forgiving victim that we can recover a vision of the world as God sees it in all its profound desirability.

See Mimetic Desire and Truth Series

See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry for all posts on this topic