From Children's Books to the Real Story
I have a confession to make.
I’ve been reading Zaccheus wrong my entire life.
But it’s ok. There’s many more to blame.
The story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 is about a dude who wants to see Jesus so he climbs up on a tree. Jesus says, “dude, I’d like to eat at your house.” The dude is like “dude, totally” and the crowd is like “dude, that guys bogus” and the dude says “dudes, I’ll right now give away half my stuff and repay anyone I owe big time.” And Jesus is like “dude, awesome, salvation is here.”
OK, that was the surfer version.
Here’s the real problem. I have several children’s storybook versions of this story. Here’s how it reads the end (verses 7-8).
(1) Zacchaeus heard what the people were saying about him, and he must have known that they were right. So he said, “Listen! I will give half of everything I have to the poor! And if I cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times as much!”
(2) 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.”
(3) People began to criticize Jesus because he was going to the house of a “sinner”, but Zacchaeus was a repentant sinner. He was sorry for the bad things he had done. He told the Lord that he would give half of his possessions to the poor, and if he had cheated anybody out of anything, he would give back four times that amount.
(4) When Zaccheus had welcomed Jesus to his house, he made a promise. “Here and now I promise to give half of whatever I earn to the poor. I’ll also give back four times whatever I’ve cheated from others in the past.” He bowed his head. Zaccheus knew who Jesus was. He was ready to change his life for Him.
Those are the children’s story versions. #2 is exactly what the NRSV reads.
But look at how King James interprets the line:
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
And the new Common English Bible is similar:
Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
There’s a problem. The verbs are in the present tense in the bible passages above. The verbs are in the future tense in the children’s versions.
Why is that important?
- If they are future tense (Zac will do these things) then it’s a story of repentance and turning your life to Jesus.
- If they are present tense (Zac already does these things) then it’s a story of claiming one’s actions are unnoticed by the crowd and Jesus affirms them.
The greek supports the present tense. However, the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary argues for the traditional reading of future tense, given its form of confession and the couplet by Jesus at the end that seems to describe a change in Zac as evidenced by Salvation is coming to his house.
As with any bible story, a multiplicity of conclusions are supported by a multiplicity of translations and knowing that even being inspired by God doesn’t mean the Gospel writers had perfect Greek written.
But I’m finding a lot of meaning in this alternative textually-supported interpretation.
- It can be a story of the power of gossip. The crowd had claimed Zacchaeus as a terrible person due to his status. But Zac shows the reputation does not hold water. The crowd is the sinner and Zac is still a sinner but shows how he makes up for his shortcomings. What is the crowd doing other than spreading falsehoods in this passage?
- It can be a story of the power of naming and standing up for one’s self. The crowd named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus spoke the truth. Jesus affirmed the truth. By claiming his name a son of Abraham, Zac named who he was against who they thought he was. Perhaps then the lost Jesus refers to is the crowd not Zac…well, Zac too.
- It can be a different understanding of Salvation being not an event but a person, as Jesus says “salvation has come to this house” could be a reference to Jesus and not the changed heart that dictated an event of salvation.
What do you think? Was Zacchaeus referring to his past actions or his future promises? Either way, what causes Salvation to come to his house?