Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

How you read and preach this familiar story about Jesus and Zacchaeus hinges almost entirely on how you answer one interpretative question:

October 31, 2010

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Commentary on Luke 19:1-10

How you read and preach this familiar story about Jesus and Zacchaeus hinges almost entirely on how you answer one interpretative question:

Is Zacchaeus’ declaration of his financial dealings in verse 8 a promise of future action in response to Jesus’ visit, or is it a report on his present behavior? If the former, then this is a classic repentance story; if the latter, it is something else entirely.

Sight, Wealth, and Stature
Setting the scene leading up to the moment in question may help us decide which interpretive course to follow. Jesus, near the end of his journey to Jerusalem, is passing through the border town of Jericho. In that town is a man named Zacchaeus who is not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector which means, as Luke’s Gospel explains, that he is rich. He wants to see Jesus, but because he is short he cannot see over the crowds, so he climbs a tree. When Jesus arrives at the place where Zacchaeus has perched himself, he calls him down and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, which simultaneously brings Zacchaeus joy and scandalizes the crowd, because they know that Zacchaeus is a sinner.

Among the various details in this story told only by Luke, three stand out, particularly in relation to passages that have come just before this one. First, sight is again critical. Earlier, it is the tenth leper’s recognition that he has been healed that causes him to alter his course (17:15). In the passage immediately before this one (omitted by the lectionary), a blind man receives sight and, in response, follows Jesus and glorifies God. Now, Zacchaeus desires to see Jesus, but even as he is trying to catch a glimpse of this prophet Jesus looks up, calls him down, and honors him by coming to stay at his home.

A second significant detail is wealth. Luke, more than any other evangelist, is consistently concerned about matters of wealth and, correspondingly, treatment of the poor. In the previous chapter a rich man, when asked to give away all he had, departs Jesus in sadness. When Jesus declares that it is nearly impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the disciples — who like most of their time believe wealth a sign of God’s favor — are incredulous. In contrast, in this story another rich man receives Jesus with joy and gives (or promises to give) half of his wealth to the poor and restores (or promises to restore) fourfold any amount he may have defrauded, and Jesus announces that the impossible has now happened as “salvation has come to this house” (19:9).

Finally, Zacchaeus is short, not just in physical stature, but also in terms of his moral standing among his neighbors who, no doubt, despised him; hence their reaction when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. This is not the first time bystanders have been outraged by Jesus’ behavior. Think of Simon’s reaction that Jesus would allow a woman all know to have a poor reputation to wash his feet with her tears (7:39) or the reaction of the Pharisees to the sinners and tax collectors who love to listen to Jesus (15:1-2). Nor is this the first time tax collectors have figured prominently in Jesus’ ministry. As just noted, their delight in Jesus’ teaching prompts the grumbling that in turn occasions Jesus’ “lost” parables. And at the outset of the previous chapter, it is the penitent tax collector, not the righteous Pharisee, who returns home justified (17:14).

Decisions, Decisions
So, what do we make of all this in relation to our central question? Are the present tense verbs in verse 8 to be understood, in fact, as present tense, thereby describing the current and ongoing behavior of Zacchaeus (as in the RSV and KJV)? Or shall we give them a future cast, describing Zacchaeus’ penitent pledge of future behavior (as in the NRSV and NIV)?

Scholars, as well as translators, are divided, so we will have to explore the narrative evidence and interpretive outcomes before deciding. The cleaner choice is to translate the verses as describing future behavior. This not only creates a nice flow of action — Jesus honors Zacchaeus, which prompts his changed behavior, which Jesus then acknowledges — it also accords well with a tacit theological logic most of us hold: repentance precedes forgiveness. From this line of thought, we might therefore conclude — and preach — that in the presence of Jesus all manner of heretofore unimagined things can happen such that even a wealthy tax collector might give away half his wealth. Or we might deduce — and proclaim — that our repentance must include matters of the wallet as well as the heart.

For all the theological and homiletical logic of this interpretation, however, I am unconvinced. (In fact, in such cases I am generally suspicious of the more convenient reading, believing that the more difficult one is not only the more likely one historically but is also more likely to yield an interesting sermon!). Notice that Zacchaeus neither confesses his sin nor repents. Admittedly, one can construe Zacchaeus’ pledge of future behavior as repentance, but it remains a construal and contrasts starkly with the previous verbal penitence, for instance, of the tax collector at the Temple (18:13). Nor does Jesus commend Zacchaeus’ penitence, or his faith, or his change of heart. He merely pronounces blessing, blessing based not on anything Zacchaeus has done but simply because he, like those grumbling around him, is an Israelite, a son of Abraham. Further, Zacchaeus does not offer his financial disclosure in response to anything Jesus has said; rather, it falls on the heels of the grumbling of the crowd. Perhaps it is a response to Jesus’ presence, but perhaps it is his bewilderment at the crowd’s complaint or a defense of his reputation. In either case, I suspect that Zacchaeus is not turning over a new leaf as much as he is lifting up an old one for all to see.

Seeing Zacchaeus Afresh
Read this way, how do we preach this peculiar story? Rather than imagining it as the perfect conversion story, one we should in turn emulate (particularly during stewardship season!), we might take it as yet one more way in which Jesus does the unexpected. Notice that Jesus calls to this chief tax collector by name. “Zacchaeus, come down; for I must stay at your house today.” There is both intentionality and urgency in Jesus’ summons. From the outset of Luke’s gospel and throughout its narrative, Jesus sides with those on the margin, those considered down and out, those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world. While Zacchaeus is rich, he is nevertheless despised by his neighbors, counted as nothing, even as worse than nothing. Yet Jesus singles him out. Why? Might he know of Zacchaeus’ exemplary behavior? We cannot know. Yet by seeing him, calling him, staying with him, and blessing him, Jesus declares for all to hear that this one, even this chief tax collector, is a child of Abraham…and child of God. Perhaps Jesus is again at work seeking out those who are lost (whether through their own actions or those around them) in order to find, save, and restore them.

Or perhaps Zacchaeus serves as yet further evidence of the manifold possibilities present in Jesus’ presence. Thus far, almost everything about this story seems impossible — that a chief tax collector would want to see Jesus; that Jesus would stay in his home; that it would be revealed that this sinner exceeded the law by his generosity; that Jesus would declare not just him but his whole household saved? Yet just earlier Jesus declared that what is impossible for mortals is nevertheless possible for God (18:27). Perhaps Zacchaeus is one more example of the impossible possibility that Jesus embodies and regularly manifests.

Or perhaps Zacchaeus simply represents the chief attribute of all disciples: a desire to see Jesus and a corresponding joy in his presence. Zacchaeus cannot see Jesus because he is too short, both physically and morally, and so the crowds impede his sight. Yet this rich chief tax collector is so desperate to see that he will not be deterred and humiliates himself by climbing a tree like a child in order to glimpse over the crowd and see Jesus. Read this way, this story is not about formulas regarding repentance and forgiveness — indeed, as in other places in Luke, it calls into question any attempts to reduce the miracle of salvation to a formula (see Luke 7:36-50). Rather, it embodies the promise that anyone — anyone! — who desires to see Jesus will. More than that, anyone who desires to see Jesus will, in turn, be seen by Jesus and in this way have their joy made complete.

If we can imagine reading the Zacchaeus along any of these lines — or maybe even all of them! — then we might ask who among us, both in our congregation and outside, are those who have been left on the margin, who have been ruled out of bounds, who might surprise us by their generosity and faith, and who just want to see Jesus but have been kept at bay. If we are willing to ask — and dare answer — such questions, we might see both Zacchaeus and Jesus in a whole new light.