With heartfelt thanks to PS for inspiration and permission to borrow liberally!
This morning’s Gospel is one of those stories we have all grown up with. Many of us know the song about Zacchaeus as well. Because this story is so familiar and we have heard it so often we might think we get the message it contains and really not pay too much attention. That is kind of what I thought until yesterday morning at about 11:00 when C called me and told me that her mother-in-law was not doing well, and might not last the night, and asked me to be prepared just in case she would not be able to be here to celebrate and preach this morning. C called again late last night and said that death was close and they were going to be staying with the family, so that is why I am here in her place. And why I got to have a quick course in what else might be going on in this little story that we all think we know so well.
Typically when we think about Zacchaeus, we think of him as yet another person in the Gospels who was doing something wrong or bad, then who had an encounter with Jesus, that resulted in a conversion experience, was transformed and repented of his or her transgressions and then went on to live a different kind of life. And indeed that may be the story here, or perhaps there is a different story entirely.
We are told that Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Often they were not the most upstanding of fellows by anyone’s understanding. How this tax collecting business worked back in Jesus day was that the tax collectors were sort of free agents. The tax collectors paid the Roman government first, and then went off to collect from the people what they had already paid. So the government really had no oversight, and the tax collectors were very motivated to collect, and I imagine a good one could get very rich, as they could probably do some creative bookkeeping as they wished. No wonder they were a hated bunch! We are also told that Zacchaeus was rich. Another reason for people who were not rich simpy to dislike him because he was!
So here is Zacchaeus. A rich tax collector. A man whom it appears the people in Jericho made some assumptions about. They declared that Zacchaeus was a sinner. They grumbled about Jesus having dinner at his house. But it seems that Zacchaeus may have been guilty, in this case, perhaps of nothing more than his profession, and that those who were truly in need of repentance were the rest of the crowd. Because this is where the story gets really interesting and possibly departs from the Sunday school Bible story of Zacchaeus getting religion and becoming a generous person in order to be saved. There is some ambiguity as to whether or not Zacchaeus is actually converted by his encounter with Jesus. Bible scholars disagree as to whether the verbs used by Zacchaeus are in the present tense or the future. That is, Zacchaeus may be saying that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anybody he has defrauded, but he could be saying that he already does these things. If Zacchaeus is using the future tense, then he is announcing a change of heart. If Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense, then he is claiming that he is already doing these things, and it appears that it is perhaps the community that has the problem, and is in need of repentance and conversion more than Zacchaeus. Either interpretation of the verb tenses indicates that there exists the possibility of transformation, it is simply a matter of who it is that is changed.
If we read the story in the traditional way, Zacchaeus is a rich, short, likely pompous tax collector who, for some reason unknown to us decides he MUST see this Jesus who is passing through his town. He climbs a tree, where he is spotted by Jesus, who sees him and has the effect that Jesus often has on people and Zacchaeus changes his life. He becomes not only a generous man, offering to give to the poor, but a just one as well offering to restore and compensate for wrongs done. This lost, formerly wicked tax collector is saved and brought into the house of Abraham.
But what if the conversion is not about Zacchaeus at all? What if we read his words in the present tense? What if he is saying to Jesus as has been suggested, “Look, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I have paid them back four times as much.” What if Jesus choice to stay at the house of Zacchaeus was to bring healing and wholeness (as this is the meaning of salvation) to him who was outcast by his community. Perhaps the “lost” that Jesus was referring to was the community as much as it was Zacchaeus. This community that decided they knew a whole lot about Zacchaeus based on certain bits of information. The community that perhaps separated itself from him and declared him a sinner as a result.
And the fact of the matter is that there was probably need of conversion and repentance on both sides there that day. Because that is usually how it is for us humans who live in community. Because we are not perfect. We are all both light and shadow. We are not always our finest selves. We do not always live in that present tense where we do those good things we plan to do. Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we ARE doing what we wish we did. And sometimes as a community we do not always allow for others to be that fuller finer self. We assume things based on what we think know about people and limit them as a result. We exclude based on partial information, or labels, or past behavior. Sometimes we have a hard time letting people change and be renewed. We keep them in the boxes of how they have always been.
But the good news in this Gospel as it is in every Gospel is that someone is always able to be converted because like in the story God sees it, all of it, and can call us out of it. As a Jew of his time Jesus understood something about the nature of repentance that we western Christians maybe don’t get so well. The Jewish understanding of the word itself is that it involves a stop, a turn, and a restart from that very point. In this understanding things CAN change on a dime. It’s radical and it’s joyful, it’s lifegiving and it’s transformational. It’s about discovering, or rediscovering who you really are at your truest, best and most authentic in relationship to yourself, your God and your community and being restored to that. Perhaps this is what happened in Jericho when Jesus passed through and called Zacchaeus out of the tree. Jesus saw Zacchaeus as he truly was and called him out, and allowed him to see himself and others to see him and themselves as well. And perhaps they were all able to be transformed as a result.
This is the first time I’ve ever thought about this story in this way. And I am not a Greek scholar and would not even begin to argue one side against the other. But it does not seem like a stretch to me that the point of the parable could be about the community’s conversion and need of repentance as well as Zacchaeus’. One of the things that struck me as I thought about it was the last line, “For the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost.” There are a lot of ways people can be lost. Zacchaeus was lost to his community because he was excluded. He was excluded because he was feared. Perhaps the fear was warranted and perhaps it was not. It all depended on the verb tense in this case.
Who do we fear? Who do we exclude? Is it that simple? Not always. But do we as Christians have a responsibility to call ourselves to repentance on excluding others and turn from it when we find ourselves doing it? It would seem so. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost…whoever they might be, because they might even be US!