Lloyd Pietersen’s post-Christendom reading of the Gospels leads him to stress the fact that for Luke “discipleship means giving up everything to follow Jesus” ( Reading the Bible After Christendom , Kindle version, loc. 657). Jesus tells his disciples that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”, but to gain it they will have to sell their possessions and give to the needy. By taking this radical step they will ensure that they are not distracted from their course by the treasure that they hold on earth (Lk. 12:32-34). Like a man who wishes to build a tower or a king going out to fight a battle, they must frankly assess the cost of following Jesus, because “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (14:28-33).
The wealthy ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit the life of the age to come is a righteous Jew who has kept the commandments from his youth (Lk. 18:20-21). He has, for example, never stolen from others. But he lacks one thing: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (18:22). In other words, Jesus instructs him to do exactly what he has instructed his disciples to do. The man is reluctant to do this, and Jesus observes:
How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (18:24–25)
This raises the question of whether the rich in Israel will be among the few who will be saved from the coming destruction. That is in God’s hands, but Jesus stresses the point that those who have left home and family to follow him will “receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (18:27-30).
But what about the tax-collector Zacchaeus?
The righteous wealthy ruler is told to dispose of everything; the unrighteous wealthy tax-collector gets away with giving half of his goods to the poor and compensating those whom he has defrauded fourfold. Perhaps that left him with nothing. Pietersen quotes Tannehill:
the supposition is that such compensation will take all or most of the wealth not given away, leaving Zacchaeus pretty much in the same position as the rich ruler, had he chosen to follow Jesus.
But I think that in their concern to maintain consistency Pietersen and Tannehill have missed the point of the contrast between the two men—and between the two models of “discipleship”, if you like, that they represent.
The wealthy ruler is expressly called to follow Jesus—to join the group of disciples who have left behind home, family, and livelihoods to proclaim throughout Israel the advent of the reign of God over his people. It will be a painful and costly mission and may well end in death:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Lk. 14:26–27)
The story of Zacchaeus has a quite different symbolic value. Jesus does not call him to become a disciple and follow him. Instead, much to the annoyance of his critics, he invites himself into the house of this “sinner” to stay with him. When Zacchaeus “repents”, Jesus says to him:
Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (19:9–10)
The restoration of Zacchaeus’ household through giving to the poor and restitution is a sign of the restoration of Israel. He is restored to Abraham, just as in Luke’s Gospel the beggar Lazarus, the woman with the disabling spirit, and the prodigal son are restored to Abraham.
So we have two ways of being, two models of discipleship, in response to Jesus. Some are called to leave everything and follow him down a risky path. Others are simply put right, made whole, given the opportunity to live well again where they are as members of the community of God’s people.
Both responses are narratively determined. No one can now follow Jesus in the way that Peter did and the wealthy ruler didn’t. No one can now embody the restoration of sinful Israel at a time of extreme eschatological crisis in the way that Zacchaeus did and the grumbling scribes and Pharisees didn’t.
But we are not less a community having to deal with the ups and downs of history. Sometimes we will have to respond to our now risen Lord by leaving things behind—perhaps by leaving everything behind—for the sake of our own missional calling. At other times, in other places, others of us will have to respond by making things right in order to live well—to live righteously—as God’s people.