One of my favorite modern theologians is Frederick Buechner, a pastor and writer who has an amazing ability to humanize the biblical story and characters in a way that feels as modern as it is ancient.
Here is Buechner’s description of Zaccheus, originally published in his book Peculiar Treasures:
“Zaccheus stood barely five feet tall with his shoes off and was the least popular man in Jericho. He was head tax collector for Rome in the district and had made such a killing out of it that he was the richest man in town as well as the shortest. When word got around that Jesus would soon be passing through, he shinnied up into a sycamore tree so he could see something more than just the backs of other people’s heads, and that’s where he was when Jesus spotted him.
“‘Zaccheus,’ Jesus said, ‘get down out of there in a hurry. I’m spending tonight with YOU’ (Luke 19:5), whereupon all Jericho snickered up their sleeves to think he didn’t have better sense than to invite himself to the house of a man that nobody else would touch with a ten-foot pole.
“But Jesus knew what he was doing. Zaccheus was taken so completely aback by the honor of the thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised not only to turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he’d extorted from everybody else. Jesus was absolutely delighted. ‘Today salvation has come to this house,’ he said (Luke 19:9), and since that was his specialty, after all, you assume he was right.”
The Gospel of Luke is a pretty rough one for the wealthy. By the time we reach this story about our little friend, Zaccheus, we have seen the wealthy targeted by the crowds with suspicion almost universally. Wealth, in the gospels, is sometimes a blessing, but more often, it is a blockade to fully knowing God. Sometimes the message gets through, as in the “tax collector who leaves everything and follows” Jesus. Or it is heard but lamented, as the “rich man saddened by the claims that the kingdom makes on him and his wealth,” for he could not bear the thought of parting with his many possessions (Stamper).
Additionally, Mary’s Magnificat in the beginning of the gospel, “speaks of the Lord sending the rich away empty and filling the poor with good things. The poor (not in spirit as in Matthew) are blessed in Luke’s beatitudes for theirs is the kingdom of God. The foolish rich man who builds bigger barns to contain his wealth dies with nothing to show for it, and his story is followed by t image of the ravens and the lilies and the instruction from Jesus (12:33-34): ‘Sell your possessions and give alms… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’” (Stamper). Jesus also says things like, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” in conjunction with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. he
An important note: Jesus is not condemning wealth or the rich, per se. Rather, he is challenging the behaviors of those who are so blinded by their personal treasures that they neglect to serve others.
Chapter 19 of Luke marks Jesus’ transition from his ministry into his passion. He is coming into Jericho, and will soon be in Jerusalem. The end of this chapter depicts Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple when he turns over the money changers tables and drives out the merchants who have set up shop there. An interesting bookend for a chapter that begins with our pal, Zaccheus.
Now the tax collectors, particularly the Chief Tax collectors, which is Zaccheus’ profession, were members of the upper echelon- the one percent, as it were. And while they had their faults, “tax collectors, loathed as they were, are among the marginalized ones who cleave to Jesus in Luke. They are among the lost whom he comes to seek and save” (Stamper).
First take a second to think about how that sounds. Sure, it makes sense when we look at it like that, but we don’t always think about the “lost” in those terms. When we think about who Jesus came to save, we think about sinners who were living in depravity: drug addicts and prostitutes, the imprisoned and the homeless. Not the guy living in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue.
But that is exactly who Jesus came to bring home. Jesus is constantly overturning our expectations, isn’t he? This guy, who has, in all likelihood, made other people’s lives miserable with an overburdened tax system, who has made it impossible to put food on the table and pay the rent, who has colluded with the occupying Roman Empire to suppress and oppress his Jewish brothers and sisters, this is the guy, Jesus? Really?
But we get to see Zaccheus for who he really is: a guy, a little short of stature, who is also yearning for a deeper relationship with God.
Most interpreters see this story as a “classic repentance story. You know how it goes: Jesus comes to the home of a despised chief tax collector who, in a fit of contrition, vows to give away half of his wealth and exceed the requirements of the law for restitution” (Lose). However, there are a couple of things in the story that lead us to a different understanding.
Many of you know that prior to accepting the call to be your pastor, I spent the last four years teaching tenth and twelfth grade English at a private Christian school in Philadelphia. I was an English major in college, and language and writing are passions of mine. You will quickly discover, if you haven’t already, that words, to me, are incredibly important, both written and spoken.
So, if you will bear with me for a moment, a little bit of a grammar lesson, as well as a note on the translation. David Lose points out in a commentary on this text that, “Contrary to most contemporary translations (including both the NRSV and NIV), the tense of the verbs in Zacchaeus’ declaration are present, rather than future. That means Zacchaeus isn’t pledging, ‘Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Rather, Zacchaeus is boasting (probably in response to the grumbling of the crowd, ‘Look, half of my possessions I give to the poor… [and] I pay back four times’- as in right now, already, as a matter of practice” (Lose).
In other words, Zaccheus, who is already ultra-aware of his reputation in town, is trying to defend himself. And this meshes with what we know about him and his desire to see Jesus.
Remember, he is short (as if we could forget!). There was a crowd of people gathered to see Jesus. He can’t see over the crowd because of his height. So what does he do? He climbs a tree. Is that the action of someone who wants to be seen and recognized? He was rich, he had power, he could have very easily pushed his way to the front of the crowd to get a front row seat, but instead he hangs back; he lingers on the edge, knowing how despised he is. He understands that he is an outsider, so to speak, and he doesn’t want to cause a scene. He simply wants to see Jesus. Of course, he doesn’t know that Jesus is already seeking him out, in order to save.
So why do we have these two different interpretations of this very familiar story? “Well, it turns out those who translate the verbs as future oriented,” the ‘I will,’ “appeal to a grammatical category called a present-future tense. The trouble is… the only occurrence of this verb tense is Luke 19:8. Yes, that’s right: rather than translate this sentence in the present tense- which of course would muck up interpreting this as a repentance scene- translators have actually created a new grammatical category that occurs once and only once to justify their theological interpretation and bias” (Lose).
Now I’m not here to challenge the NRSV or the NIV or really any interpretation of scripture. I took Hebrew and Greek in Seminary, and believe me, I am no expert! But we do need to realize that all interpretations are going to be, to a certain extent, imperfect. Sometimes decisions need to be made to translate a word one way or another, especially with complicated languages like biblical Hebrew and Greek!
And what we need to understand is that these choices are sometimes made from a place of bias. “Some flawed ideas die hard, and one of the most cherished Christian ideas is that repentance always precedes salvation. So… at least two things are at stake” in this story with this translational problem. It is difficult for us “to believe that a sinner could receive salvation without first repenting. And since Jesus says, ‘Today, salvation has come to this house,’ it must mean that Zacchaeus has repented, right? Yet there it is: Jesus has singled out Zacchaeus in order to stay with him, honoring him with his presence (much to the chagrin of the crowds). And then Jesus honors him a second time by not arguing with his claim about his righteous behavior but instead affirming it, declaring that no matter what the crowds may think, Zacchaeus is indeed a child of Abraham, one of the covenantal people, a beloved child of God” (Lose).
In fact, Zacchaeus’ short stature may be a way to identify him even more clearly as a beloved child of God. When he is described as “short” or “little,” this may simply indicate that he was a short person, which is how he ended up in the branches of that sycamore tree. “But this term, in the superlative, is translated least, as in 9:48, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’ And so there may be a sense in which Zacchaeus, by climbing that tree in the manner of a child and embracing his littleness, so to speak, becomes one of the least of these. It is precisely because he humbles himself in this way that he is in a position to welcome Jesus just two verses later” (Stamper).
If we reinterpret this story in this way, the big question to us becomes, if God just forgives us, without our needing to do anything, what becomes of God’s justice? (Lose).
God cares deeply about justice; this is very clear throughout the story of scripture. God’s care and concern lie with the oppressed; with the widow and the orphan, the imprisoned, the sick… and yes, even with the well off, especially when they have been blinded by their own success.
See, what is even more important to God than justice, is God’s love; which means that the entire biblical narrative is about relationship. “Jesus dies precisely to show us that” God’s love is stronger than God’s desire for justice, which is saying something! “God, Jesus, the whole biblical story, as it turns out, isn’t primarily about justice but about relationship; God’s deep, abiding, tenacious desire to be in relationship with each and all of us” (Lose).
This morning, along with the story of Zacchaeus from Luke, we heard some hard words from the prophet Habakkuk. Here is a prophet who “is frustrated by the violence, strife, conflict, and anguish all around him… sounds a lot like life in the twenty-first century,” doesn’t it? “The prophet wants God to do something about this injustice right now! According to Habakkuk, justice doesn’t stand a chance with all these wicked people around” (Bartlett).
And we do know that God’s justice will win in the end. We believe that and we profess that every single week we gather here together and hear these words and sing these songs and prayer our prayers.
But then we come to Luke, where we get “a story of a ‘wicked’ person who meets Jesus” (Bartlett). And maybe what Zacchaeus points us to is the truth that “The Church’s job is not to stay safely inside our sterile, holy sanctuaries, free of conflict and anguish; it is to engage the world where wickedness and injustice live, where an encounter with Jesus offers much-needed transformation” (Bartlett).
Our good friend Frederick Buechner continues his thoughts on Zacchaeus.
He “makes a good one to end with because in a way he can stand in for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others too.
“There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even.
“Like Zaccheus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zaccheus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too. Why are they treasured? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it- that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have in them at their best to be because ultimately, of course, it’s not the world that made them at all. ‘All the earth is mine!’ says Yahweh, ‘and all that dwell therein,’ adds the Twenty-fourth Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me too” (Buechner).
I think that sometimes we are so anxious for God to change the world, that we don’t realize the truth: God has already changed the world, in a work that continued with Zaccheus and moves on to you and me. Amen.
Bartlett, Laura Jaquith. Abingdon Worship Annual 2016. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. 245-46. Print.
Buechner, Frederick. “Weekly Sermon Illustration: Zaccheus.” Frederickbuechner.com. N.p., 24 Oct. 2016. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Lose, David. “Zacchaeus and the Reformation.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Stamper, Meda. “Commentary on Luke 19:1-10.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 3 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.