Barking up the wrong Zacchaeus tree.

Signpost for Sunday30 October, 2016: Hab 1:1-4;2:1-4; Ps 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12; Luke 19:1-1.

If you’re anything like me, you probably think you know all about Zacchaeus. The tax man up a tree. The little man who repents big time. That guy who makes me feel guilty because I haven’t changed anything like as dramatically as he does on meeting Jesus.

But what if we are barking up the wrong tree with that way of looking at this passage? (Sorry I couldn’t resist that one.) And, what’s to suggest that we even might be missing the point being made here?

Luke is the only one who mentions this episode at all. So despite him reassuring his mate, Theophilus that he’s writing ‘an account of things that have been fulfilled’, maybe this passage is less about how it was and more about how it is.

I’ve been reading Robert Capon’s Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the parables of Jesus. First of all, he thinks that this tale falls into the category of parable not history. The way Capon sees it, Jesus doesn’t just tell parables, he acts parabolically (his word). So we can look for significance and meaning in the way Jesus does things in the New Testament as well as the way he tells things.

What Capons suggests is that Jesus picks out Zacchaeus to show the folks following him that he has come to save losers not winners (so far OK). But his big claim is that when Zacchaeus jumps up at dinner and promises to right all his wrongs many times over, Zacchaeus himself has got it all wrong – he has been chosen and forgiven by the grace of God, and no grand deeds or works he promises to do are of any significance at all. He may as well sit down, shut up and celebrate with everyone the gift of the grace of God in forgiveness.

But then I was reading a blog by Daniel B Clendenin, which pointed out that if you read different translations of this passage you get a different message. But we’re not talking special esoteric translations here. Have a look at this:

‘“And 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.” Luke 19:8 New Standard Version Revised.

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. Luke 19:8 King James Version.

It’s not the words ‘unto’ and ‘fourfold’ that are significant about the King James version. it’s the tense of the verbs. Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense. Maybe he’s not saying “I will give half my possessions to the poor.” Maybe he is telling Jesus that he already gives half his possessions to the poor, etc.

If that is the case, then the point of this passage is not what I thought it was all these years. It’s that Zacchaeus looks nothing like a righteous guy to anyone around. But maybe the clue that he’s not what he appears to be is right there at the beginning of the story. Zacchaeus, who as a servant of Rome, ought to be stuffed with his own self-importance, demeans himself in front of everyone and climbs a tree to see Jesus! He doesn’t get his flunkies to clear a path through the crowd so he can get a good view, as might be expected of most corrupt and nasty tax men.

Maybe Zacchaeus then isn’t a nasty tax man. Maybe he’s what none of us actually believes exists even to this day – a good tax man. Maybe Jesus really is acting parabolically and he picks Zacchaeus out because he recognizes that goodness. Shock, horror again for the Pharisees in the crowd who really are stuffed with their own self-importance and false righteousness – and maybe that’s the real point Jesus is parabolically making: you can’t tell who the good guys are by the position they hold in society. You may well find them among society’s lost, shunned and despised.

Paul

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