Robert S. Turner
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
October 30, 2016
There is a problem with the translation I just read of the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, and it’s a problem of grammar. Verb tenses, to be exact. Before you start to groan and roll your eyes and try to take cover from the grammar police, listen for a second, because this may be important. (Good grammar is always important, but I digress.) This quirk of translation may make a big difference not only in how we interpret this familiar story but also how we understand the character of God and the nature of salvation.
Do I overstate the case? To paraphrase Walt Whitman, very well then, I overstate the case.
The problem comes in verse 8, when the NRSV tells us that Zacchaeus says to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” The verbs in this sentence are in the future tense, and the implication is that Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus is so overwhelming that he repents of his sinful lifestyle and declares on the spot his intention to make amends to everyone he has cheated.
This interpretation reinforces the view we have of Jesus, as one whose presence is so charismatic and riveting that all he has to do is utter three words and people will abandon their careers; all he has to do is look up into a tree and invite himself over to lunch and the vilest sinner will immediately repent and change his ways forever.
I am not suggesting that an encounter with Jesus does not have the capacity to change the course of one’s life. It happened to me, after all, and it has happened to most of us in this room and billions more throughout the course of history. But we do no one any favors when we turn salvation into a magic trick, an instantaneous transaction that takes one from blind to sighted, from broken to whole, from lost to found in the blink of an eye. I don’t know how many people I have heard, when asked to tell about how they became a Christian, say almost apologetically, “Well, I never had any kind of Damascus Road experience or anything,” referring to Saul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus that led to his conversion. Unfortunately, in Baptist and evangelical circles, at least, we have made that episode the paradigm of conversion; if the way you came to follow Jesus was less exciting or more subtle than that, your experience somehow doesn’t measure up.
The most common interpretation of the Zacchaeus story fits this pattern, and the use of the future tense—I will give to the poor; I will repay those I have cheated—reinforces it. If Jesus had not stopped under his tree that day, Zacchaeus would presumably have gone on in his sinful way for the rest of his life, and then, like the rich man in the parable, would have found himself in torment in the flames of Hades, separated by an uncrossable chasm from the bosom of Abraham. That sort of interpretation may be of great benefit to those who engage in what I call “full contact evangelism”—you need Jeezus, or you’ll go to hell to be tortured forever!—but it is neither theologically nor psychologically sound, and this story does not support it.
The verbs in verse 8, in the original Greek, are in the present tense. Some of the older translations, including the King James and the Revised Standard Versions, do translate them as present tense. Here is how it sounds in the RSV: “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.” Do you hear how that changes the meaning? The people in the crowd have been grumbling because Jesus has just said he is going to stay in the home of one they consider a sinner. When we read Zacchaeus’s response in the present tense, it sounds more like a testimony than a pledge of contrition. In fact, the text says he “stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look….’” He stands there. He does not cower in fear, or grovel, or beat his breast and feel so ashamed that he can’t even to look up, like the tax collector in last week’s parable. He stands there and testifies to his present-tense practice.
If we read his response this way, it sounds as if he is speaking to the crowd as much as or more than to Jesus, and he is offering his defense against what he considers their unjust accusations. The Greek verb tense he uses indicates not just present action, but present and continuing action—not just “I do these things,” but “I am doing these things.” We might rephrase his statement thus: “Look, I already give half of my possessions to the poor; and if I discover that I have defrauded anyone of anything, it is my standard and continuing practice to pay that person back four times as much.”
One may say that I am reading too much into this small discrepancy in translation, but doesn’t the other interpretation read a great deal into the text as well? Where, for instance, does Jesus or Zacchaeus ever mention sin or repentance? The people in the crowd call Zacchaeus a sinner, but those kinds of accusations have never deterred Jesus before. Besides, as we saw a few weeks ago, the designation “sinner” does not necessarily imply moral turpitude. Anyone who does not practice strict observance of the Torah, especially the Sabbath and purity regulations, is considered a sinner.
Jesus does not call Zacchaeus a sinner and does not demand repentance. He does not tell him to sell his possessions, as he did the rich ruler in chapter 18; Zacchaeus volunteers that information without being prompted. For his part, Zacchaeus does not offer any confession or, if we read it in the present tense, declare his intention to repent. He is defending himself against the murmured accusations of the crowd, and not abashedly, either. He’s almost boasting. If we want to see this story as one of a sinner who repents when he meets Jesus, we have to read a lot into it that may not be there.
Just as an aside, another thing we read into the story is that Zacchaeus was short. It’s become so commonplace to depict him as a short guy that the idea has been immortalized in song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man; / a wee little man was he.” But the wording of verse 3 is ambiguous. It says, “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” It’s pretty clear that the first two instances of the pronoun “he” refers to Zacchaeus, but what about the third one? He couldn’t see Jesus because he was short in stature. We assume it means that Zacchaeus was short, but it could just as easily mean that Jesus was short. That would make it just as hard for Zacchaeus to see him, because the diminutive Jesus would be blocked by the crowd just as much as if it were the other way around. It’s impossible to tell which one Luke means without reading into the text.
Now, this is admittedly an insignificant point in itself, but it illustrates what I have been saying. We need to question our assumptions when we read the Bible. Does it really say what we have always been taught that it says, or could it possibly have a different meaning? And what if all those pictures are wrong, and Jesus was not a strapping blond-haired man who stood six-foot-two and had blue eyes? What if instead he was a short, scrawny guy with brown skin? How would that affect how we felt about him? What would we think of him if we saw him on the street and didn’t know who he was?
If we decide not to go with the common interpretation, in which Zacchaeus repents upon encountering Jesus for the first time, how then do we read it? Specifically, what do we make of Jesus’s declaration, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (v.9)? If Zacchaeus does not repent, how can he be saved?
Since tomorrow, besides being Halloween, is also Reformation Day, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the cathedral of Wittemberg in 1517, the act that kicked off the Protestant Reformation, it would be appropriate for us to look once again at the doctrine of salvation by grace. Last week I noted that Luther virulently opposed the notion that one’s good works could ensure one’s salvation (or contribute to it at all, really). One can become righteous only if God graciously declares one so. This is what Luther meant by justification. The only role we have to play in the drama of salvation is to accept this gift of grace and receive it through faith.
The relevant point here is that God does not need anything from us in order to justify us, or declare us righteous. It is entirely a matter of God’s choice; our merit or lack thereof doesn’t enter the picture at all.
The objection you hear most often to this argument is that God’s standard of justice will not allow God simply to ignore our infractions. Our sins must be punished. The cosmic scales must be balanced. But what if God is not as interested in justice as we are, at least when it comes to punitive or retributive justice? What if God’s motivation is not balancing the scales but restoring relationships? What if salvation comes to us in ways we have not been trained to recognize? What is salvation, anyway?
Have you ever wondered how Jesus knows Zacchaeus’s name? He walks straight up to the tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (v. 5). It would be easy just to gloss over this by assuming that Jesus knows his name because he’s Jesus and he knows everything. But what if during his earthly life Jesus was not omniscient? In that case we are left with two main options: either the two men already know each other or somebody has told Jesus about Zacchaeus.
Considering that in verse 3 Zacchaeus is “trying to see who Jesus [is],” I think we can safely dismiss option number one. They don’t know one another; it’s simply Zacchaeus’s curiosity that makes him throw his dignity to the wind and climb a tree to see who it is who has caused such a ruckus just by entering the city gates.
So we are left with option two: somebody has told Jesus about Zacchaeus. We can probably guess who it was, too—it was everybody. No one in Jericho likes Zacchaeus. He’s the richest guy in town, but he amassed his wealth by the unsavory means of collaborating with the Romans as a tax collector. And not just any tax collector, either.
Luke tells us he is a “chief tax collector,” a term that appears nowhere else in ancient Greek literature. Zacchaeus is an important guy, no matter how tall or short he may be.
Just because he is well-heeled, however, doesn’t mean he’s well-liked. To work for the empire makes you a traitor in the eyes of pretty much everybody in an occupied land such as Judea. Like the translators who worked for the US military during the Iraq War and faced scorn and death threats from their neighbors, Zacchaeus gets a cold reception when he visits the marketplace or dares show his face at the synagogue.
Jesus probably gets an earful about Zacchaeus before he even sets foot in Jericho, and none of it is flattering. “Remember what you said, Rabbi,” some eager would-be disciple informs him breathlessly as they walk along, “—remember that time when you said rich people trying to get into the kingdom of God are like camels trying to go through the eye of a needle? Remember? Well, wait till you meet our camel. It’s like he’s got seven humps instead of one. He’ll never get in, I bet! Ha ha ha!” When Jesus asks the name of this man, practically the entire crowd says, “Zacchaeus,” with practically the same tone of distaste in each voice and practically the same sneer on each face. As they come down the street, somebody sees Zacchaeus clambering up his tree and shouts out, “There he is, Rabbi! Look how ridiculous he is! Get him!”
Imagine the crowd’s delight when Jesus heads straight for the tree as though on a beeline to “get him.” Imagine their dismay when, instead of upbraiding Zacchaeus for the corruption everybody just knows he’s guilty of, he invites himself over for tea instead. Imagine their confusion and the blow to their worldview when he pronounces salvation upon Zacchaeus, “because he too is a son of Abraham.”
The salvation Jesus says has come to this house does not depend on Zacchaeus’s repentance or confession or praying of the sinner’s prayer. And it’s not about his getting into heaven after he dies. The salvation that Jesus brings to Zacchaeus—and tacitly offers to his neighbors—is the restoration of relationships that have been broken. It’s reconciliation between enemies. It’s the drawing of someone who has been isolated and ostracized back into community. And it’s the reminder to these embittered townspeople that Zacchaeus, like them, is a son of Abraham. He, like them, is a child of God.
At least this is the salvation Jesus offers. Luke does not tell us what happens after Jesus makes his closing declaration, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (v. 10). We have already seen that Zacchaeus takes him up on his offer by volunteering the information that he is committed, or at least pledges to become committed, to the welfare of the poor and to fair dealing in his profession. But we don’t know how his neighbors respond. Will salvation come to their houses, as they recognize Zacchaeus’s worth as a child of God, or will they continue in their resentment and distrust of this person whose despicableness they have come to depend on?
In a sense, this story is a continuation of last week’s parable. The Pharisee needed the despicable tax collector to serve as a foil for his own righteousness. His self-estimation depended on the contrast between his goodness and the tax collector’s sinfulness. The Zacchaeus story implies that salvation comes when we stop needing to despise others and learn to accept them because they too are children of God.
As we reflect on this story, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. What persons or groups do we need to despise? How can we learn to stop despising them? Are we willing to stop despising them? What would it take for us to acknowledge the image of God in all people? Will salvation come to our house today?