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?
I like your alternative reading.
In Mythbuster’s terms, I might call it “Plausible.”
But there’s more in the text and the surrounding circumstances that leads me not to be quite ready to give it a status of “Confirmed.”
You’re right that the verbs are present tense. But present tense in Greek sometimes translates a present-future intent in semitic languages. It could simply go either way.
That ambiguity may indeed be intentional. Maybe we’re not supposed to know quite what to think about what happens here. Certainly, the narrative itself sets us up in every way not to like this guy. He’s not just a tax collector but an “arch” tax collector, meaning he has other tax collectors in the greater Jericho environs reporting to any therefore also paying him for the privilege of having this job. In MLM terms, he’s near if not at the top of the “pyramid.” Which is why he’s also called “rich.”
Now not long before this appears the story of the rich ruler (Luke 18:18-30) who has done everything right EXCEPT give away ALL his property to the poor and start following Jesus. That is followed by the famous “it’s easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God,” and further, “with people, this is impossible– but with God all things are possible.”
And then just before this episode, and just outside of Jericho, there is a blind beggar that Jesus heals.
So here’s the problem. If it’s the case that Zac already regularly gives away half his income to the poor, and also regularly restores fourfold to anyone he had defrauded (including all of his underlings in the greater Jericho district!), how is it that there is a blind beggar who is still a beggar just outside the city gate?
Maybe, one might argue, whatever he regularly gives away isn’t being managed all that well, so this beggar hadn’t been cared for yet. Maybe. But with the kind of wealth Zac has, and given his position, he is the Don Corleone of the area. If he wanted it to get done, it would have gotten done.
Okay– another twist. I think you’re also right that part of what is at stake here is the opinion of others, the way others label Zac, rightly or wrongly, and therefore are aghast at Jesus out of the blue calling this guy by name and saying he was having dinner– with his entourage– at Zac’s place. Everyone there (pantes– vs 7)– which would have included the disciples– everyone wasn’t just thinking, but murmuring out loud (and one imagines, not unreasonably, aghast– that’s implied strongly in the verb “murmur”), “He’s come here to be lodged with a notoriously sinful man!” So yes– no one at all has any sort of positive opinion or hope for this man.
But Jesus clearly does.
And so should we– if our eyes are on the power of God and not simply on the usual outcomes from the powers that be (including the tax system!).
So yes– there is a rebuke here for simply writing of Zac as a hopeless sinner.
God’s reign is always more surprising than we ever imagine.
For here the impossible has happened– a rich man giving away half his goods to the poor, and pledging to pay back fourfold everyone he’d defrauded, right out there in public, no dount the public square near the gate where many of those he had defrauded may be present! This IS huge.
And you’re right too– the children’s versions over-determine the “feeling” of this by saying Zac felt sorry for what he had done. What IS clear is he was now publicly committed to acting very, very differently. We don’t know what Jesus said or did that prompted this. Luke never tells us. But whatever it was, salvation had indeed grasped even him, and through that grasp would bless many people for miles around– and that all before Jesus ever set foot into Zac’s home.
All it took to elicit this– from the narrative itself– was for Jesus to invite himself to eat with Zac.
If that’s not a reference to the power of the presence of Christ at the Eucharist for all of us, including the most notoriously sinful among us, I don’t know what is.
So… Plausible… maybe. Not totally Busted, for sure. But Confirmed– not so much.
My two cents, anyway…
Keep up the great thinking!
I have read this story both ways, seeing that sometimes Jesus’ engagement in my life invites me to change my intentions and set myself up for more Godly decisions. I have also taken it to me that here and now things begin to change. I love this story and I believe that part of what is powerful is that Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus, who for all intents and purposes was living furtherest from the kin(g)dom of God in Jesus’ actions. But Jesus finds him and invites him into the redemption and salvation that is offered in Christ. Because of that invitation and the beginning of that relationship Zacchaeus is transformed in the moment and for the future. I think both are right to some extent. Sometimes we need to the immediate response and change but we will still need to make choices in the future that sustain that lifestyle choice for the long haul.
I think there is a lot to mine in this pericope, but I really only want to focus on two items which occurred to me after reading your post and having spent a week working on this story preparing for worship this past week.
First, regardless of his place in the hierarchy, as a tax farmer, Zac would have been seen as a sinner (“Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?”). What we see is not a refutation of his sin per se, but an attempt to reframe judgment. Zac is probably in a regular state of ritual impurity. Whether future or present tense (and whether imagined or actual), Zac claims that his “sin” is or can be mitigated by his actions. He doesn’t claim to refute his status as a sinner; he claims that there is another way to evaluate his life/value. Basically, ‘everyone’ thinks righteousness is A, B, C (ritual adherence to the Law), but Zac asks, “Can’t righteousness be X, Y, Z (taking care of the poor and powerless)?”
Luke’s Jesus has spent every moment of this gospel pointing to outsiders who are more saintly than the “righteous.” New wine and new wine-skins. Whether Zac has heard Jesus’ words, each of those incidents should be in our minds, and we should hear Zac simply asking (rhetorically, if we’ve been paying sufficient attention) whether he has understood Jesus rightly or not? Zac ‘giving away the farm’ would not have swayed Luke’s Pharisees’ opinion; it is meant to bolster our dawning understanding.
[If you read Luke’s Jesus as a subversive, you may hear a subtle rebuke from Zac: ‘I won’t/don’t give this money to the Temple priests or to the Roman courts, but directly to those harmed, acting like the mustard seed, working in silence.’]
Second, Taylor astutely mentions the tension between Greek (the writing) and Aramaic (the likely spoken words). However, bringing up this tension, it is also necessary to consider the equal tension between writing and speech. Our critique is based upon a written text to which we have extended access. Was Luke written to be read critically or to be heard in community?
Don’t think me too post-modern, but I feel like this basically puts this incident – or any other single incident – slightly beyond our ability to decide definitively the meaning of any phrase or episode in this or any gospel. That thrusts us right back upon reliance on the extended gospel as a whole to help us understand the episode(s) individually.
I think Luke intends us to be certainly uncertain. Luke’s Jesus is turning the world of sin and righteousness upside down, and we ought to embrace that uncertainty. In our current literate context, we are blessed to have the Greek/Aramaic, present/future/intentional, oral/written rifts to keep us uncertain and talking about exactly what Jesus means.
In the long run, even our ‘wise and learned’ age doesn’t have a firm grip on precisely what it means to be covered with our Rabbi’s dust. Thank God! We still haven’t figured out how to leash and “lead the lamb on Judgment Day.” Jesus’ Gospel remains more a question (and a challenge) than a statement (or a program).
Austin J. Alexander
I picked this post up from Exploring Our Matrix.
I would suggest checking out Porter’s Verbal Aspect book, especially pp. 230-33, and Wallace’s GGBB, especially pp. 692-94, and Robertson’s Grammar of the NT, especially pp. 869-70, 880, 1007-12.
Happy hunting. 🙂
While it is arrogant of me, can I ask for a summary of their arguments and/or data? I do not have access to the books you describe and would enjoy a charitable contribution.
Paul Anthony Preussler
Jeremy, how can you be a Methodist minister, and dare to ask what caused salvation to come to the house of Zacchaeus? Are you seriously advocating the Pelagian doctrine of works-righteousness?
The correct answer is that Zacchaeus was saved through his living faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Also, fun fact: many believe that Zacchaeus, after his salvation, took the new name which we render as Matthew, and was the pharisee who dined with Jesus, the scribe who wrote down the sayings of Christ, which ultimately became the Gospel of Matthew, or an Aramaic proto-Matthew, and ultimately, it was this Matthew, nee Zacchaeus, who was elected to replace Judas as treasurer.
This, like many hagiographic legends, cannot be verified, but its a beautiful story, and while the chronology doesn’t quite line up (although in all fairness, only the Gospel of John has a perfectly viable chronology), it is otherwise entirely plausible.
Rev. Nathan Ndjadi Lundula
I’m a freind of Rev Taylor, in DRC. area of congo central to bishop Yemba.
Zacchaeus are climbs up on tree, he like to see hote not down
me again, i looke to see jesus . but who will be my tree? who will elp me?
Wonderful thought Rev. Nathan! Oh to be the tree that Zacchaeus climbed up into in order to see Jesus! In Matthew 5, Jesus calls us to be salt and light in order for those around us to SEE and glorify God. Oh that we would be those who truly HELP others to SEE Jesus rather than hinder them from coming to him (Luke 18).
Seeing this post as being 9 years already, I hope this reaches you (the author). I support your interpretation. One word I see most if not everyone miss is “IF I have cheated anyone…”
IF denotes the possibility and not certainty. Why would Zac say “IF” if he knew for sure he has indeed cheated people. He would just said “All those I have cheated, I payback 4 fold.”
If read from a repentance view, I dare say he will do an audit and honor his words. If read from your (author) perspective, it is as u said, he is clearing his name.