Zacchaeus and the Reformation

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Author’s note: Because I am writing on the All Saints’ passage this year, Working Preacher, I’ve posted here the commentary I wrote on the Zaccheaus passage three years ago. It happened to fall that year on Reformation Day, but I think the gist of the letter is still applicable.

Dear Working Preacher,

How far are you willing to go to protect a flawed idea? Or to overlook a mistaken assumption? Or to keep intact a broken theory? When it comes to some of our cherished theological formulas, apparently many of us are willing to go pretty far.

Case in point is this story about Zacchaeus, which I — and apparently most interpreters — have taken to be 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.

Lately however, I’ve been convinced this isn’t what the story is about at all. There are a number of reasons for this change of heart, some of which I describe in my commentary on this passage, but the main one is this: 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.

So what’s going on with the variant translations? Well, it turns out those who translate the verbs as future oriented appeal to a grammatical category called a present-future tense. The trouble is, as my Sermon Brainwave pal Matt Skinner informed me during our podcast on this passage, 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.

So what’s up with that? Well, some flawed ideas die hard, and one of the most cherished Christian ideas is that repentance always precedes salvation. So I suspect that at least two things are at stake. First, it’s hard 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 Zaccaeus 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, yet Zacchaeus is indeed a child of Abraham, one of the covenantal people, a beloved child of God. Like it or not, Jesus seems to say, and contrary to all expectations, this chief tax collector is one of God’s own and, even more, lives like it!

Second, many of us struggle to imagine that God would just forgive sin, apart from some meaningful repentance. After all, if God just forgave us, what would become of God’s justice? (Truth be told, I don’t think this passage is about sin and forgiveness — at least Luke doesn’t use those terms — but I think it nevertheless seems like a related and fair question.) What if, however, God doesn’t care as much about justice as we do? That is, what if justice wasn’t the primary category God uses all along? Maybe justice is our way of tracking each other, our way of defining each other, of keeping count, of keeping score, of following who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down. If this is so, if God’s love regularly trumps God’s justice — and I believe Jesus dies precisely to show us that it is — then we’re operating with flawed categories. 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.

Which, when you think about it, was pretty much what the Reformation was all about — declaring that God is a lot more like a loving parent than a tyrannical monarch, a lot more interested in relationship with us than righteous over us. Luther’s great insight into Romans, in fact, is that Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17) isn’t the righteousness God expects from us and by which God judges us, but rather is the righteousness God gives us freely and unconditionally in Christ, so that we — whether tax collector or teacher, cleric or homemaker — can hear and believe that salvation has come to us through Christ.

So perhaps that’s our task this week, Working Preacher: to proclaim that against all odds and expectations God can just forgive sin, and that God can pronounce salvation apart from repentance. Why? Because it’s God who is doing it. And because this God is determined, even desperate, to be in relationship with all of us so that, in turn, we might be in relationship with each other. This won’t be easy for us to hear. We like our formulas because, truth be told, they give us a way to manage the illusion that maybe we’re still in control, at least a little bit; that maybe God isn’t quite so wildly free as the Bible portrays; that maybe there are rules we can know and follow and hold others accountable to. All that disappears when God just forgives sin and pronounces blessing.

But maybe that’s exactly why Jesus again shocks the crowds and disciples alike by seeking out this rich tax collector, honoring him, affirming him, naming him a child of God and declaring that, indeed, salvation has come this very day to his household. Maybe it’s to remind us that we never were in control in the first place. Which, while hard to take, proves in the long run to be a good thing as God’s mercy so greatly exceeds either our need or our expectations. Thanks be to God.

Thanks for your faithful testimony, Working Preacher. So many of us count on your labor, insight, and courage!

Yours in Christ,