The rich man, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the talents: a study in salvation

One of the political left’s favorite stories in the Bible is the one in Luke 18:18-29 regarding the rich ruler who wants salvation. He asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life, and Jesus says, in summary, keep the commandments. The man says he has done this. Then Jesus says (NIV version): “sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.” The man then “became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.” Jesus then says: “how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

In the simplistic view of many people, the message of this scripture is: “rich people are evil and don’t go to heaven.” This scripture has been used by generations of the avaricious to justify forcefully taking money from the rich to spend on various government projects.

I will argue in this post that one cannot understand this story without taking into consideration two other stories that immediately follow: the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, another rich man who does find salvation, and Luke’s version of the parable of the talents.

You can read about Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. He is a wealthy tax collector (the worst kind of sinner), who climbed into a tree to see Jesus passing by. Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus and says he should come down so Jesus can stay in his house. The people with Jesus muttered that Jesus was going to stay with a sinner, but then “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 then says: “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 what was lost.”

How are we supposed to understand this contrast? In the first case, the rich man lived an apparently good life and was told he needed to sell all of his possessions to inherit eternal life. In the second case, the rich man lived a bad life and was saved after saying he would voluntarily give half of his wealth to the poor and pay back the people he had cheated.

Well, the first lesson I take from this is: you don’t need to sell all your possessions to be saved, no matter how rich you are. These stories are more about the state of your heart. The first man was told to follow Jesus to be saved, but he concentrated on his wealth first, and because of this he was blinded from the obvious solution: follow Jesus with faith, and things will take care of themselves. This is Jesus’ lesson when he says: “what is impossible with men is possible with God.” Jesus then says: “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” (see note 1 below).

Now consider what happened, in contrast, with Zacchaeus. He took the extra step of climbing into a tree just to get a glimpse of the Savior. His heart was already changing. He was in effect reaching out his hand to the Savior. Jesus recognized this and called out to him. Zacchaeus then spontaneously responded with earthly acts that showed his changed heart: he would voluntarily give half what he owned to the poor (Jesus did not even have to ask him) and he would also pay back four times the amount to anybody he had cheated. Jesus then said he would be saved.

So, the second lesson I take from these stories is: reach your hand out to the Savior. He will reach back, and he will begin to help you change into a more Christ-like person. As you do, you will voluntarily decide to help the poor and make restitution. But note that even with half his possessions Zacchaeus was plenty rich. It was not the wealth itself that made him a sinner, but instead his manner of acquiring it (extorting it from others and presumably taking a large cut for himself). If the rich need to give away all their possessions to be saved, why didn’t Jesus tell Zacchaeus to go do this?

The third story drives home the point that Jesus did not see wealth itself as evil. Immediately following the incident with Zacchaeus, Luke gives his version of the parable of the talents, which is very similar to Matthew’s. Three different servants are given money (talents or “pounds” in Luke). One took 10 talents and created 10 more. He is praised. One took five talents and created five more. He is also praised. The one servant who was given only one talent did nothing with it and is called a wicked servant, and his one talent is taken away from him.

Jesus then says: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 19:26).

What?! How can Jesus possibly be saying this? Just a while ago, he had told the rich man he could not inherit eternal life unless he gave everything he had to the poor, and now he is saying that the people who have many good things and riches will be given even more?! And not only that, but the poor will have the little they have taken away if they don’t do anything with their talents?! And why didn’t Jesus tell the person with 10 extra talents to give some to the layabout who only had one talent?!

It seems to me the placement of this story is not accidental. Either Jesus or the people who recorded his sayings knew that there would be many who misinterpreted the story of the rich man. Rich men are not evil because they are rich. They are evil if they let their riches control them and become their idols (which, admittedly, does happen to a lot of rich people). Zacchaeus shows us the path forward: reach out to the Savior, put your faith in him, go out on a limb to serve him. Once you do, your heart will begin to change and you will see that earthly riches are nothing compared to the riches of eternal life.

But the other message is: being poor or having fewer talents is no excuse for not acting. You cannot sit and expect others to take care of you. If you do, you are a wicked servant. Instead, you must do the best you can with your lot in life, better yourself and, of course, serve the Master. Is the poor person who does nothing with his life and rejects God worse off spiritually than the rich man who works hard and reaches out his hand to the Savior? The answer appears to be yes.

Note 1: I am assuming for the sake of this post that “eternal life” and “salvation” are all part of the continuum of drawing closer to God. There are those who would see the rich man and Jesus’ reference to “eternal life” as an argument that the rich man was farther along in his spiritual journey and may have already received “salvation.” But he could not move on to the next step without selling everything he had. I find this argument problematic for a variety of reasons, but if you want to insist on this reading, you must also recognize that the rich man was certainly not evil because of his riches if he had already received salvation.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

17 thoughts on “The rich man, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the talents: a study in salvation

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention New post: The rich man, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the talents: a study in salvation #mormon #lds --

  2. After reading the first two paragraphs, I thought, “Okay, it shouldn’t require any analysis at all to show that the simplistic view presented in paragraph 2 does not follow in the slightest from the scripture.” I mean, it’s good to analyze the scripture, of course, but it’s unnecessary if all one wants to do is refute the “simplistic view.”

    My second thought was, “Odd use of ‘avaricious.'” I know a lot of liberal left people, and not one of them is avaricious—at least in this context. Most are quite the opposite, actually.

    Now on to the analysis:

    I’m confused by how you write about Zacchaeus. Craig touches on one issue in #1. But throughout your post, I’m not clear whether you read Zacchaeus as someone willing to give half or all of his wealth to the poor, or someone who already regularly gives half his wealth to the poor. It’s a minor point, I suppose, but it’s still confusing to me.

    I’m also not clear why you refer to Zacchaeus as a sinner. Yes, many of Jews would have viewed him as such, but I don’t see any reason why Jesus (or the Gospels—least of all Matthew!) would. Perhaps you’re writing from the perspective of the crowds at the time? Also, I don’t believe that publicans were viewed as sinners because of the way in which they earned money (such as collecting taxes), but rather because they were doing so in service to the Roman Empire; i.e., Gentile oppressors of God’s holy people. (As above, I realize that this isn’t essential to your conclusion.)

    “…now he is saying that the people who have many good things and riches will be given even more?!” Why do you think the parable of the talents is about “good things and riches” and not something else—like spiritual gifts, or to use your words, the “riches of eternal life”?

    I think a good alternate interpretation for the placement of the parable of talents/pounds here is that it illustrates that whether born into the house of Israel (i.e., someone with many talents) or out (someone with few), what matters is how you act. This interpretation doesn’t differ from yours in its conclusion. Where we differ is in what we think the intended contrast was meant to be. My interpretation is strengthened by Jesus’ use of the phrase “forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham” to conclude the story of Zacchaeus, indicating that the Jew/Gentile distinction was on Jesus’ mind. Furthermore, the parable is introduced as referring to when the kingdom of God would appear, which to me has nothing to do with earthly wealth, rich/poor, taxes, or government programs. Then there’s the part about how the people of the country hated the master and would not have him rule over them, etc. Again, I think the parable was intended to teach us about wealth to the same degree that the parable of the sower was meant to teach us how to farm; i.e., not at all.

    “And why didn’t Jesus tell the person with 10 extra talents to give some to the layabout who only had one talent?!” Because the “layabout” hated the master.

    “…you must do the best you can with your lot in life, better yourself and….” But that’s not what Zacchaeus and the rich man teach at all. There was nothing in the stories about “bettering themselves.” It was all about whether they were willing to give up riches—by giving to the poor—or not. Zacchaeus was; the rich man…well, he was hesitant at best. And the parable was about how servants used the wealth of their master, not how they used their own wealth.

    In summary, I think you open the post by citing how the liberal left grossly misapplies this chapter to support their predetermined political agenda, and then you pretty much do the same wresting.

  3. BrianJ, good comment. First, “avaricious.” This word is purposeful. In my opinion, people who are continually thinking of new ways of taking other peoples’ money are greedy. This is the moral position behind the progressive income tax and the death tax. People who favor such positions always refer to “fairness,” ie it is not fair that some people have more money than others (regardless of how they got it — some rich people are rich simply because they worked hard their entire lives and earned every penny they got). It is pure avarice that causes people to concentrate on other peoples’ wealth. Concentrate on your own situation and your own righteousness. If you are spending your time concentrating on other peoples’ issues, you are motivated by coveting and avarice.

    Zacchaeus typo has been fixed.

    Tax collectors are always seen as sinners in the Gospels. This is why Matthew’s following of Jesus was such a shock. (see Matthew 9:9-12). See Luke 18:9-14 for another example.

    I think the parable of the talents has both an earthly and spiritual meaning, which I think I made clear. The parable of the talents is exactly about people refusing to better themselves by not taking earthly actions (not investing their time and talents wisely) and not taking spiritual actions (not trusting the Master).

  4. Even more important is when the apostles go “who then can be saved” — reflecting an implicit cultural assumption that if it is difficult for the rich to be saved, then no one can. Christ’s response is that salvation is impossible for man, but all things are possible with God.

    A much more interesting point.

  5. Geoff,

    I think the story of the rich young man has a lot of possible things we can take away from it. Strangly, prior to this post, I did not know one possible interpretation was that you can’t be rich and go to heaven.

    It always seemed to me (and I guess I’m agreeing with you) that the whole point is that you have to give up yourself to be saved. But even saying it this way misses the point. Salvation is a certain kind of character, namely God’s. So there is tautologically no way to be saved but to surrender yourself entirely. To not give yourself up and be saved is to be saved without being saved.

    This is why Jesus’ first answer was ‘keep the commandments.’ This is why someone that had done as much as this young man had really needed an even bigger sacrifice to take the next step.

  6. Geoff,

    It’s been a long while since I read Nibley. I hate to admit this, but I’m not always a Nibley fan. (Though we owe him a great debt for starting off modern Mormon scholarship and his critics tend to overlook that most of his “stretches” are marked as such, thus he was quite honest in his approach. Plus, he one ups his critics by admiting his biases upfront — a thing his critics never seem to do and often seem to intentionally mislead people on.)

    However, I had thought that Nibley actually only advocated for voluntary redistribution of wealth and not any sort of taxation based system. Am I remembering this wrong?

  7. Bruce, “Approaching Zion” is a good place to start. Nibley was mostly discussing personal actions and encourages (some would say “exhorts” or “condemns”) others who do not have his personal philosophy, which is a communitarian, left-wing view. At his worst, Nibley basically says the only honorable professions are teachers and farmers — he condemns just about everybody else. So, like many on the left, he ends up being incredibly judgemental in pursuit of his ideal. Nibley was a communitarian socialist in his personal politics, and that comes through in his writings on this subject. But you are basically correct that he spends more time making personal exhortations (and condemnations) than discussing government.

  8. As long as Nibley is talking about Law of Consecration and it’s on a voluntary basis, I’m in Nibley’s camp. I do think the eventual goal is to give up capitalism in favor of consecration, but to do so on a solely volunteer basis. But this is not possible today and I don’t pretend it is.

    If he’s talking about backing it up with government and law (i.e. the holder of legitimate violence) then I’m not in his camp at all. Then it’s just communism or extreme-socialism. I oppose both on pragmatic, practical, and moral grounds.

    It sounds like Nibley may have sometimes crossed the line into the second camp.

  9. Geoff B: Your presentation of the view of the left is a crude—and erroneous—caricature. You’ve perhaps found some examples of people on the left who actually believe what you argue against, and you apply that argument to all people on the left. I can’t argue against a straw man argument, so I’ll leave our “avaricious” debate as is.

    (As an aside, I think it’s worth pointing out that I don’t question your argument because I’m a leftist fan of income redistribution and challenge you just to defend my position. In fact, my own views on income redistribution/social justice are much closer to yours than they are to many of the people on the left. No, I challenged your argument because I think it misrepresents your (and to some extent, my) opponent.)

    “Tax collectors are always seen as sinners in the Gospels.” Well, they are always presented as being viewed as sinners by the general population. The Gospel authors themselves don’t accuse publicans of being sinners. “This is why Matthew’s following of Jesus was such a shock.” Right, it was a shock to the general population, but not to anyone who understood Christ’s gospel. I don’t think that we, as the reader, are supposed to read Luke and ever think of Zacchaeus as a sinner. Inasmuch as your interpretation relies on Zacchaeus’ righteousness/wickedness, it should take this into account.

    “The parable of the talents is exactly about people refusing to better themselves….” My counter-argument (in #4) was, in part, that the stories of the rich man and Zacchaeus are not about “bettering ourselves,” as you claim in the original post. You only respond concerning the parable portion.

    That said, you say that is the exact point of the parable. How so? In what way does the parable say anything about “bettering ourselves”? The money isn’t the servants’; it’s the master’s. And they employ it to make him more rich, not themselves. And their “reward” is not to receive more wealth—they were never given any wealth to begin with—but rather to have greater authority/responsibility, presumably over more of their master’s wealth. I can see how the parable might remind one of the concept of self improvement, but I don’t think that’s what the parable is about.

  10. BrianJ, I stand by what I have written on the avarice of those who use the scriptures to justify taking the property of some and redistributing it to others they deem more worthy. Notice in neither the main post nor in comment #6 did I say “the left” does this specifically. Thus, your “crude” comment is misdirected. The reason I didn’t say this is that this is, in my opinion, not just the left these days but the middle and some of the “right” who do so. It is a small but growing group that recognizes the basic moral hazard of justifying taking others’ property based on a limited view of “fairness.” I understand why this is difficult to understand — the idea that one can take from some and give to others through the force of government is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even question it anymore.

    Let me use one small example to illustrate my point. One of the last acts of the lame duck Congress was to approve $4 billion to pay to the first responders to 9/11 for their health care and other issues. I do not deny that if anybody “deserves” special consideration, it is the first responders to 9/11. But in this entire debate nobody ever stood up and said, “hey, money doesn’t grown on trees — if we are going to give $4 billion to the first responders, we are going to have to take it from somebody else, either in terms of taxes now or in terms of printing more money (QE3), which decreases the value of our existing money and hurts everybody.” The idea that we can hand out money left and right to various causes — no matter how just they may seem to be — is so ingrained in our popular culture that we never stop to think of the morality behind it. So, you don’t even see it as avarice anymore, but that is exactly what it is. The first responders feel they need to be “compensated,” but they don’t ever stop to think, “I am taking money from somebody else when I get compensated.” I bet if you did a poll of all of the first responders who are getting compensated, less than 5 percent would be consciously aware that they are taking money from other people so they can improve their lifestyles, pay off bills, etc. So, you may have a point that they are not consciously avaricious, but that does not lessen the moral issues involved.

    Regarding tax collectors being sinners, this message seems so ingrained in the scriptures that I simply have to disagree. Jesus repeatedly says that he is sent to heal the sick, not the well. This is one reason he spends so much time (to the shock of the people) with tax collectors like Zachaeus — they are the sick, the deepest sinners.

    I’m not sure what more I can say regarding the parable of the talents. The lessen seems very obvious to me, but not to you. I guess we just see if very differently. No reason to go around and around on that one. Peace, bro.

  11. I don’t think that the view of the rich is a specifically “leftist” view; I don’t align myself with any political party…I tend to look at both sides of the coin when it comes to politics.
    In addition to that parable in Luke, many others use this one (wrongly): “Money is the root of all evil,” when in fact, the scripture says “It is the love of money that is the root of all evil.”
    That being said, I always remind my peers and friends that being wealthy isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t necessarily make the holders of that wealth “evil” or “sinners.” However, from what I’ve seen in the news, and have read about what’s going on in Washington, I think that you are seriously underestimating the awareness of our society when it comes to allocation, taxation, and the “redistribution of wealth” beat. I think that the first responders are very much aware that the $4 billion compensation package will probably come out of something else. Our acceptance of this “avarice” as you mentioned is ingrained as well as the acceptance of sacrifice. However, in my opinion, I think that you are over-dramatizing the question and impact of “where” this money is coming from and what will be taken away to fund it.
    I agree with you in that wealth doesn’t automatically equal evil, but in this political climate, I think that your argument, to some degree, falls in with the same kind of rhetoric that those who are wealthy and fortunate use to separate themselves from sharing responsibility with the rest of this society; I don’t see taxation as a forceful thing implemented by the government. Paying taxes is a duty in order to keep this country in (mostly) working order. Taxation isn’t the government “taking” property or riches, and nor is it about taking money solely for those less fortunate, it’s about investing in our country, into things that will further its influence. Is it perfect? No, but necessary.
    It needs to be fair, equitable, and beneficial, and that’s what people are wanting. It’s not that Americans, or the left see wealth as evil. The flaw they see is when there are loopholes that allow the rich and the wealthy to worm their way out of paying what they owe through lucrative tax cuts, sweetheart deals, and umbrella clauses that hurt other people. It’s the greed that they disagree with, not the wealth in and of itself.
    Taxation is necessary, but it needs to be fair so that every American can have a fair shot. That’s what’s at the heart of the debate. It’s not about “taking” money from the rich and just give it to the poor; to me, that “Robin Hood Conspiracy” is old news. It used to be in this country that people could support their families, get a nice house, and keep their jobs. Most Americans didn’t want much, except a comfortable, secure life. Now, it seems next to impossible for families all over this country.
    When did it become avarice to channel money into education? Or into our Veterans? Or into our Military? When did it become avarice to expect that you pay a fair amount of taxes proportionate to your income?
    There was a statement made by a pastor some time ago, and I’m loosely paraphrasing here; he said that people are always going on about how resources are limited, how we’re using up all of earth’s resources, “there’s not enough to go around,” there’s not enough water, there’s not enough food, not enough money…but that isn’t necessarily true. If you think about it, God has given us this earth, he created it with everything we need to survive and sustain. Perhaps the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough…perhaps it seems that way because of the few people at the top who are hoarding it.
    Just food for thought.

  12. I agree that tax collectors are always regarded as sinners in the New Testament. The Roman empire used a tax farming system in Palestine. They hired local collaborators to collect taxes, and encouraged collection by allowing them to keep a large share of what they collected for themselves. They were considered rapacious enemies of the people.

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