If you’ve spent any time at all in Sunday School you can easily follow along with this little sing-song rhyme: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see….”
That’s not a bad place to start, of course. Here’s the complete text from Luke (the NRSV version):
He [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” –Luke 19:1-10 NRSV
Zacchaeus is most generally held up as a wonderful example of the power of repentance and forgiveness. He’s also a good case study in generosity. And if we stop there he remains a worthwhile figure to study and emulate. But stopping there is perhaps the grown-up equivalent to thinking of Zacchaeus only in terms of being a “wee little man.”
A close look at the text in Luke reveals some rather surprising things. There is no direct reference to repentance or even an “I’m sorry” on Zacchaeus’s part. Nor, for that matter, does Jesus ever utter anything close to “Your sins are forgiven.” And although you can easily read all that in between the lines of the text, that’s often a questionable if not hazardous practice. So maybe there’s something else that Luke is trying to get across to his contemporary readers and, subsequently, to us many centuries later.
Although a Jew, Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman occupiers. Actually, he was more than that–he was a chief tax collector, which meant he was their boss. No doubt that meant a double reason for the Jews to hate him. Plus he was short. No, wait just a minute–let me explain. Perhaps Luke added that detail to emphasize that when observant Jews “looked out” on their fellow Jews they didn’t really see him, on purpose. As such he could be put in the category of being one of their own but part of the marginalized, even though we tend to think of the poor, the disabled, and the diseased in that group. Certainly not the rich.
In any event, this was not the kind of person good, upright, observant Jews thought should be hosting a dinner party for Jesus! Yet it fits rather well with Jesus’ typical modus operandi to hang out with the kind of people the “good folks” looked down on. Clearly, Jesus considered Zacchaeus just as much a “child of Abraham” as all those grumbling about the dinner party.
Curiously, both the NRSV and NIV (the two most popular contemporary Bible translations among Protestants these days) make a significant change to Zacchaeus’s explanation by putting his words in the future tense: “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.” Other translators have Zacchaeus speaking in the present tense.
This raises a reasonable question in the minds of Bible readers: Had Zack already been practicing this honest generosity or was it a result of his encounter with Jesus? How you answer that question relates directly to the repentance/forgiveness line of thought mentioned earlier. But even if you go with future tense, there’s still the question of Zacchaeus’s marginalized state. His encounter with Jesus represented, in its basic sense, an encounter with divine grace.
Look at all the other so-called marginalized figures Jesus encountered–the blind, the lepers, the beggars, the Samaritans, the Gentiles, the prostitutes, and the list goes on–and each time you will find this same encounter with grace. Sometimes they were healed, sometimes they were forgiven, sometimes it was just the fact that Jesus spoke to them or touched them or shared a meal with them.
Culturally, of course, it was a big deal for Jesus to do those things. But as a human act, it was nothing all that special. All very ordinary. It was just the way Jesus operated. And, as such, it serves as a model for disciples of Jesus in all ages.
- Jesus and Zacchaeus – Conversion (friarmusings.wordpress.com)
- Grace (listeningforthesoul.wordpress.com)
- Jesus and Zacchaeus – Seeing and Salvation Comes (friarmusings.wordpress.com)
- Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner? — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24C (bobcornwall.com)
- Zacchaeus (herbjordan.wordpress.com)
- This week’s gospel reflection: 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (Luke 19:1-10) (buffetcatholic.wordpress.com)
- Fourth Sunday before Advent 3.11.13 Luke 19.1-10 (preachersfriend.wordpress.com)
- St Cyril of Alexandria’s Homiletic Commentary on Luke 19:1-10 (thedivinelamp.wordpress.com)
My book, What Was Paul Thinking? is now discounted at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.