Reforming Zacchaeus?

Because Sunday marked the 500th Anniversary of The Reformation (click here to learn more about The Reformation), our Sunday worship centered around the idea of “The Church Reformed, Always Reforming.” The Reformation is not something that is FINISHED, or COMPLETE; rather it is something that is ongoing and should be present in our understanding of who we are. If we believe that the Holy Spirit is still moving among us, and that God is still speaking through God’s prophets and saints, then we should have our hearts and minds attuned to hear where we need to reform our understanding of what it means to live as Christians.

I had a “Reformation Moment” earlier this week when I began to study the Gospel reading for Sunday. It was the much-loved story of Zacchaeus. I started out with the mindset that this is a beautiful story of a life-change in response to the presence of Jesus. Afterall, before Jesus saw Zach up in the tree, Zach had been pushed to the outside. He had to climb a tree to even get a glimpse of Jesus. This was, in my understanding, because the people in this community really despised Zach. He was the “Chief Tax Collector and was wealthy.” The tax collector portion is enough to make him unpopular — the chief part adds insult to injury, and the wealthy aspect puts Zach at the bottom of everyone’s list. People loved to hate him.

The traditional interpretation for the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 hinges on the translation found in the NRSV:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.”

Here it sounds like Zach makes a life change in the presence of Jesus, as a direct response to Jesus.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this interpretation from this translation.

The “Reformation Moment” for me came from this scholar’s take:

▪ “But there’s one small problem with this interpretation. Neither Jesus nor Zacchaeus says anything about sin or repentance. Only the crowd does. When Jesus decides to go to Zacchaeus’ house, they grumble, upset by Jesus’ choice of companion (not a new theme in Luke!), and call Zacchaeus a sinner. Which prompts Zacchaeus’ protest. Indeed, it’s important to note that Zacchaeus doesn’t actually make a promise to give half his possessions to the poor or repay anyone he has defrauded in the future. He says he is already doing that, a claim he probably makes in light of the crowd accusing him of being a sinner. The verb tense in Greek is present, you see, not future. So it’s not ‘I will give’ and ‘I will pay back’ but rather ‘I give half my money to the poor’ and ‘I repay.’ As in now, already, this is my current practice.”

Mind. Blown. It’s not a big difference, but it is enough to make me stop and question whether or not Zach was a bad guy to begin with. Yes, he was a tax collector, and the “Chief” portion of his title indicates that he was wealthy enough to have paid all the taxes owed to the government, and then was able to extort whatever he wanted from the citizens. Anything extra he collected would be considered profit above and beyond what he was paid by the government for doing this job.

But if he stands before Jesus and proclaims that he gives HALF of what he earns to the poor and needy, and that he gives FOUR TIMES whatever he might have gained dishonestly, then this Chief Tax Collector is way more righteous than me. He had nothing to be ashamed of standing there before Jesus. Digging a little deeper, I found that the name, “Zacchaeus” is a common Jewish name that means “innocent” or “pure.” Could this be an obvious nod to the nature of Zacchaeus’ character?

To me, this makes this story at the end of Luke’s teaching/traveling narrative more about Jesus widening God’s reach to even the wealthy people than it is about having a sudden change of heart in Jesus’ presence. When Jesus tells Zacchaeus “Today salvation has come to your house, for the son of Man came to seek out and save the lost,” I wonder if it means that in showing Zacchaeus the honor of being a guest in his home, Jesus restored him to a place of respect within his community. Perhaps the “Lost” aspect of Zach was that he was not included in community fellowship, and was “diminished” in his standing among his fellow Jews.

Either interpretation of Zacchaeus’ story is a faithful interpretation. Whether he changed his crooked ways in the presence of Jesus, or whether his honor as a righteous man was restored by Jesus’ presence, we can learn much. Either interpretation causes us to stop and ask ourselves whether we allow anyone the opportunity to be restored to community — either by repentance or through our acceptance of them.

And even being open to asking questions about this familiar story makes us solidly a “Church Reformed, Always Reforming!” Praise be to God!

In Sure and Certain Hope,

Rev. Paula

PS: As an added bonus, for those of you still scratching your head, I include this little note on the text by professor Rev. Dr. David Lose:

Many versions of the Bible translate Zacchaeus’ statement as referring to future action, even though they are clearly present tense verbs in the Greek. To justify that decision, they argue that this is an instance of the “future-present tense” in Greek. Curiously, there is no other instance in biblical or classical Greek literature of a “future-present tense,” which means that translators actually made up a grammatical category to justify their poor translations. Why? Because we really, really want God to conform to our expectations. Once again, we don’t get the God we expect, but rather the one we need. Thanks be to God!

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