In the Balance…
Commentary by Michael Banner
Quinten Metsys’s career was in Antwerp as it rose to become the Low Countries’ most important trading centre. The focus of commerce between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ worlds, it was perhaps the richest city in Europe.
In the conduct of international trade, the work of money lenders, bankers, and money changers (not necessarily sharply distinguished professions) was vital—without our current means for fixing the value of different currencies, settling the worth of coins of many different jurisdictions, relative to each other and to other valuables used in trade (such as gold, gems, and pearls), was essential to the making of deals. Yet even if the work was vital, it wasn’t well regarded—and Metsys is often credited as the originator of later popular genre scenes parodying money lenders.
It is unlikely that this is a portrait of an actual couple—they are archaically dressed, and Metsys painted other versions of the composition (which was widely copied). Nevertheless, there is no hint of caricature in the portrayal. The couple sit very companionably at the green baize table which serves as a counter on which to conduct the business of this small office.
The man is intent on the delicate task of weighing a coin in the balance which is the most vital tool of his trade. His wife’s fingers, mimicking his, are delicately poised to turn the page of her richly bound and lavishly illustrated religious text. She is not, however, intent but turns slightly and somewhat absentmindedly to observe his work, looking away from her book towards the haul of coins, jewels, and pearls her husband is appraising—and the very fine rock crystal vessel which sits on the table at the left of the composition.
The world goes on around these two—through a crack in the window behind them, we glimpse gossiping neighbours, and courtesy of the small mirror at the front of the desk, we see a fine window giving onto what is perhaps a public square, and beyond that to a church. But in their snug office, they are turned in on themselves, ‘lost in the moment’, as we say.
There is no hint of caricature, but there is a sense of gravity, particularly on the face of the woman. Everything hangs in the balance, and the question is just whether they are indeed ‘lost’ in this moment. Zacchaeus was rich and yet ‘received him [Christ] joyfully’ (Luke 19:6). Christ opens to them as the woman turns the page towards the illustration of him in his mother’s arms, but will they open to him, or will they remain transfixed by the hoard of valuables which spreads itself before them?
If I Have Defrauded Anyone…
Commentary by Michael Banner
Spatially, as racially, overseer and workers are effectively segregated, and the overseer, engaged in conversation with someone to the left (on the very edge of the shot), stands confidently in front of his workers.
His stance is open and assertive; his hand is firmly planted on his knee and his leg on the car bumper, while his workers seem variously wary, uncertain, bored, or even resentful. The man closest to the overseer—his leg and arms wound in towards his body—offers a particular contrast with the latter’s posture, and yet most of these workers look us in the eye and hold our attention in a way that the overseer does not.
Overseer and workers inhabit the world differently, and indeed inhabit different worlds. The car, with its power and mobility, and the oversized overseer, are symbols of one world; the mean store, perched precariously on its makeshift brick support, and the lean workers, symbolise the insecurity of another.
The overseer gives the impression of taking his authority for granted, as if it belongs to the natural order of things. And yet this ‘order’, far from being natural, has a history—the power imbalance represented in the picture was a perpetuation of the subjugation of African Americans, especially in the southern states, which continued after the abolition of slavery by the 13th amendment to the US constitution, ratified in 1865. The deep injustices of slavery, far from being ended by its abolition, took new forms in institutionalized discrimination which denied to African Americans economic independence or real equality of opportunity. ‘Master’ had become ‘boss’, but the change of name signified no new order.
The philosopher Walter Benjamin warned that the newly in-vogue documentary photography of the 1920s had ‘succeeded in transforming even abject poverty by apprehending it in a fashionably perfected manner—into an object of enjoyment’ (Solomon-Godeau 2018: 35). And perhaps this complaint could be made against some of Dorothea Lange’s most iconic images.
But this particular photograph surely raises the question of justice in such a manner that it cannot succumb to a comfortable aestheticization. In the picture, and in life, the overseer stands over his fellows; but his place is not his by right, but by wrong—and perhaps the picture hints at this by the gathering of the workers into a group, which in fact stands higher than he does. He too, like Zacchaeus, must come down.
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. 2018. ‘Dorothea Lange: Reflections on an Archive’, in Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, ed. by A. Pardo and J. Golbach (London: Barbican)
Commentary by Michael Banner
Zacchaeus ‘was small of stature’ (Luke 19:3)—and was doubtless, literally speaking, often overlooked. A merit of his chosen profession, however, was that in another sense he could not be. He was not simply a tax collector, but a ‘chief’ tax collector—most likely the person who had purchased the right to collect the taxes of his town, and who, with the help of underlings, made his money back (and more) through some hard-headed exactions from his neighbours. In any case these neighbours are agreed: ‘he is a sinner’ (v.7).
In the midst of the crowd which has gathered to see Jesus, however, Zacchaeus is once more in danger of being overlooked—but, as with his choice of profession, he adeptly solves the problem by climbing a tree from where he can look over the crowd. In Jacopo Palma il Giovane’s painting he hangs somewhat precariously and leans towards Christ who, parting the dense gathering, advances towards and addresses him.
Christ is on the move—he is only ‘passing through’ Jericho, for (Luke 9:51) his face is set towards Jerusalem which he now very nearly approaches. As he had drawn near to the town, he had been importuned by a blind beggar who sat by the wayside (18:35–44) to whom Jesus granted sight (surely the figure who kneels in gratitude and homage at the front right, for he followed Jesus after his cure).
That healing had been, so to speak, by the way, for Jesus’s way is bent towards the martyrdom which his deep-red robe prefigures. But now there is another who can’t see him, and even while he is set on his way, he does not overlook Zacchaeus, but addresses him, calling him by name: ‘make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today’ (19:5).
Zacchaeus has climbed into a charming limpid blue sky, from where, though only a matter of a few feet above them, he overlooks the crowd. But Jesus’s command is insistent—he must come down and Christ must stay with him (the word is the weighty New Testament word menei—translated ‘abide’ in older translations). After he does, Zacchaeus will learn to see not from his preferred vantage point, but from the earth which the barefoot Christ humbly treads as he determinedly makes his way to climb a another ‘tree’, in Jerusalem.
Quinten Metsys :
The Moneylender and His Wife, 1514 , Oil on wood
Dorothea Lange :
Plantation Overseer and His Field Hands, Mississippi Delta June 1936, 1936 , Gelatin silver print
Jacopo Palma il Giovane :
Christ calling Zacchaeus, c.1575 , Oil on canvas
Commentary by Michael Banner
There is a certain ambiguity in the story of Zacchaeus. It is possible to read Zacchaeus’s declaration, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold’, not as a promise of future behaviour but as a description of his current and customary practice, and thus as an answer to the grumbling crowd which complains that Jesus has ‘gone in to be a guest of a man who is a sinner’ (Luke 19:7).
To read the story as involving the recognition of the piety of one who was considered a sinner, rather than as a sinner’s conversion, seems to neglect, however, the narrative context and the very urgency with which the story unfolds.
The sense of urgency in the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, represented in Christ’s peremptory summons (‘make haste’, ‘come down’, ‘I must stay with you today’), and in Jacopo Palma il Giovane's picture by the onward moving figure of Christ, has to do with who these two are. The ringing statement that the ‘Son of man came to seek and save the lost’ (v.10) rounds off not only this incident, but both the saying and the incident together round off a long section of Luke’s Gospel. In chapter 15 Jesus tells the parables of the shepherd going after the lost sheep (vv.3–7), the woman hunting for the lost coin (vv.8–10), and the father who looks out for the lost, prodigal son (vv.11–32). And amongst the lost, the rich are, we might say, especially lost—in chapter 16, for example, Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and encounters the ruler who goes away sorrowful when he is told to sell all he has and give to the poor.
The salvation of the rich Zacchaeus (evidenced in his lavish giving to the poor and his determination to right any wrongs by which he has been enriched) manifests the nature and efficacy of Christ’s ministry. It is as if Christ is urgently set on realising in this one case what he will achieve for all in Jerusalem, which he now approaches and to which he hastens on.
And achieve it he does—the walls which the rich erect against the needy come tumbling down as surely as the walls of Jericho fell at the sound of the trumpet.
According to Peter Brown, Christianity, in effect, invented the poor, meaning that under Christianity the poor became a distinct and worthy object of charity (to wealthy Greeks or Romans, the poor made no obvious or compelling claim; Brown 2002: 8). Of course, Christian practice emerged from Jewish roots (and Jewish thought about the poor itself developed in the early common era): the injunction ‘open thy hand … to the poor’ (Deuteronomy 15:11) recurs in the Law and the Prophets, and Zacchaeus, giving half of his goods to the poor, proves himself ‘a son of Abraham’ (even if his generosity exceeds the 20% which rabbinic commentators judged a prudent maximum for such gifting; Bock 1996: 1520). And yet Zacchaeus not only gives to the poor, but undertakes to right the wrongs by which he has been enriched himself, making fourfold reparation to those he has defrauded. His actions, which Jesus welcomes as the expression of his salvation, respond to the claims not only of need, but of justice, and therefore open a wider vista of necessary social action.
In Dorothea Lange’s photograph of the overseer and ‘his’ workers, it is the precarity of the workers which seems to the fore—even the building on the steps of which they sit teeters on the brink. And yet, ethically speaking, the overseer occupies the more precarious position, since his rests on the wrongs they suffer. His workers are not just the poor—supposing they are poor—but those whose unfree labour and history of oppression is turned to his advantage. He hangs in the balance—as, with added irony, does the man in the picture by Quinten Metsys, who even as he is weighing is himself being weighed.
Bock, Darrell L. 1996. Luke, vol. 2: 9.51–24.53 (Grand Rapids: Baker)
Brown, Peter. 2002. Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press)