A meditation on Luke 19: 1 – 10
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church November 3, 2019
On this day, when we recall the saints of our world, it may seem a little odd to be talking about a guy named Zacchaeus, especially after you hear how theologians describe this vertically challenged tax collector:
“A sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job”
As a chief tax collector, a “sinner among sinners”
A “short, insecure extortionist”
A “traitorous, small-minded, greedy, physically deformed tax collector”
A “slimy, good for nothing thief and he knows it
The Hebrew root of Zacchaeus’ name? Righteousness, purity, loyalty. Jesus called him a “Son of Abraham.” How do we reconcile the two sides of the Zacchaeus coin? Who was he? A slime ball or a “son of Abraham”?
We can probably easily name three things about Zacchaeus:
- He was a chief tax collector for the Romans.
- He was wealthy (and wealth is a critical issue in Luke’s gospel).
- He was vertically challenged. (Although I love that New Testament scholar Amy- Jill Levine suggests that the Greek translation of verse three allows for two possibilities. The first is the one which the church has long embraced: Zacchaeus was short and had to climb a tree in order to see over the people. The text, however, allows for the possibility that it was Jesus who was short and difficult to spot when in a crowd! A kindred spirit! Of course, this is not a thread we have embraced…and to add insult to injury, Romans considered short people as being of less importance!
Bonus: he has a song that you learn as a child in Sunday school (“Wee Little Man”) although the first tune that plays in my head is Randy Newman’s “Short People.”
“Short people got nobody to love…”
Let’s take what we know about Zacchaeus and partner that knowledge with other encounters with tax collectors in the Gospels. Just the designation “tax collector” probably makes us all shiver a little. We live with our own tax obligations and the dread and/or fear that instills in us. Setting our personal emotions aside, let’s explore what we know from scripture about these characters. In the third chapter of Luke, crowds gather with John the baptizer at the Jordan. In that crowd are tax collectors, seeking both baptism and advice:
“Teacher, what should we do?” [John] replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” (Luke 3: 12b – 13, CEB)
John doesn’t tell them to leave their professions, but to carry out their work with honesty and integrity.
Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector to be a disciple, a story recorded in the ninth chapter of Matthew. He goes straight to Matthew’s home, and many other tax collectors join them. Criticized for fraternizing with those who are seen as corrupt and dishonest, Jesus offers the reminder that it is those who are ill who need a doctor. He came to call the sinners, not the righteous.
And Luke, in his methodical approach to telling Jesus’ story, offers us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the previous chapter. While the Pharisee – we could substitute minister or elder – offers a prayer overflowing with vanity, the tax collector quietly offers his prayer of humility and contrition. Though he prays for forgiveness, we shouldn’t assume that he needs forgiveness for being a tax collector! Neither should we assume that Jesus is implying that all Pharisees are vain…we know how dangerous it is to barter in stereotypes. Hear the introduction Luke offers for this story: Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust. (Luke 18: 9, CEB)
Luke drops bread crumbs for us in chapter 18, leading us step by step into this complicated story. The parable of the tax collector’s prayer (so tax collectors aren’t ALL bad? ALL tax collectors aren’t evil?), the welcoming and blessing of children (who, being vertically challenged like Zach, also couldn’t see over the crowd to get to Jesus), Jesus’ encounter with the morally upstanding yet very comfortable rich ruler who wants to receive the promise of eternal life, and, finally, a blind beggar who longs to see Jesus.
Bread crumbs…Luke is leading us to the sycamore tree.
Picking up on a pattern here? Jesus continually seeks to remove whatever it is that keeps people from experiencing God’s welcome. In the case of the children, Jesus had to tell his own disciples to get out of the way. Because, yes, he did have time to play “freeze tag” with the kids! With the rich man, he tried to show him that his wealth was obscuring his view of God’s kin-dom, a kin-dom that was right there in front of his eyes, and of which he could be an integral part. And the blind man? Through no fault of his own, despite the common understanding that physical disability was a result of sin, this man wanted his sight restored so he could see the “Son of David.” Though the crowd around him told him to “shut up,” he would not let anything stop him from seeking to get Jesus’ attention. A stubborn determination, not unlike Zacchaeus, who would not let the crowd block his view. He was going to see Jesus and if that meant climbing a tree in his fine clothes, then so be it.
How you define Zacchaeus – as either slimy or misunderstood – depends upon which translation of the Bible you read. Everything turns upon the verb tense in verse 8. Bible scholars recognize that there are two ways to interpret the Greek. It can be read as either “I will give half of my possessions to the poor,” (a future action intended to demonstrate repentance, NRSV) or “I give half of my possessions to the poor,” (as in an activity that has been occurring in the past and will continue in the future, CEB or KJV.)
So could it be that Zacchaeus wasn’t actually this horrible, greedy monster? Is it just possible that though he was a chief tax collector, a supervisor of other tax collectors, and, therefore a wealthy man, he was a wealthy man who continually gave away half of his wealth? I’d say that’s pretty impressive. It’s far beyond the 10% tithe many of us see as a goal for our own giving. If he was doing this, he was doing it so quietly that no one even knew, nor did he attempt to defend himself against those who had branded him as a greedy, dishonest man. Here’s another piece of evidence to support this possibility: Luke does not tell this as a redemption story. Jesus makes no statement of forgiveness, nor does he instruct Zacchaeus to “go and sin no more.” He goes to the home of an ostracized man. “I must go to your house,” Jesus says. Not “I want to,” or “I’d like to” or “I’d hope to,” but “I must.” Maybe the reason he must go is so that he can continue to break down the stereotype of the evil tax collector. Maybe he wants to remind people that even in the midst of corruption there are good people to be found, and generalizations and stereotypes will always cripple community. Maybe Jesus is saying – again – that while wealth is not evil in and of itself, how we use our financial gifts is an expression of our faith.
Let’s keep going…
“If I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much,” reads the Common English Bible and the KJV. “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much,” reads the NRSV. Again, both are valid translations. The first leads us to believe that Zacchaeus is continually having his books audited. When mistakes are found, a repayment of four times as much is given. This is a practice rooted in the teachings of Moses, and an indication of Zacchaeus’ faithfulness. It would be in his best interest to avoid mistakes, to avoid such huge repayments. However, if Zacchaeus was truly corrupt, paying back everyone he defrauded by a ratio of 4 to 1 would eventually bankrupt him.
So how do you see him? Do you see him as someone who was discounted and ostracized because of his profession? Yet discovered to be a secret saint, giving generously from the wealth which he earned? Never speaking up in his own defense? If he were this honest man, then he was actually protecting the people from predators and also generously giving back to his community. And we have to ask: How many in that grumbling crowd had benefited from his generosity without knowing the source? It’s a possibility full of promise, and a caution against judgmental attitudes and stereotypical thinking.
If we see him as a corrupt man, who has been redeemed by Christ’s invitation, there is powerful promise there. Here is a man willing to go for broke to demonstrate the depths of his regret. A man who would give up all of his wealth to be restored.
Wouldn’t you love to know more about this little man? What’s the real story? I lean towards hoping he was misunderstood, but that may be because I have empathy for short people. Either way, Jesus says, “Today, liberation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.” Liberation. Liberation from sin and corruption, or liberation from discrimination and exclusion? All of that is needed in our world. Perhaps the crowd is set free from judging others, and that is salvation, too.
What will you take from this story? The promise of God’s redemption? A renewed call to generosity, inspired by Zacchaeus? The consolation that even though your good works might not be seen by people, they are seen by God? Or maybe the inspiration to find a way to climb above the people and things that obstruct your view of Jesus? He will come to you, and call you by name, and invite himself into your home. That is his promise to Zacchaeus, and his promise to you.
be the God who sees and knows our hearts. Thanks be to the God of love. Amen.
 Frederick Buechner, https://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog
 Justo L. Gonzalez, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Luke
 Alyce McKenzie, https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/power-persistence-alyce-mckenzie-10-28-2013.html
 Michael Parsons, Body & Character in Luke and Acts as cited in Levine & Witherington, p. 511.
 Michael Card, cited by A. McKenzie, Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, p. 167
 Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington, III. The Gospel of Luke, p. 511.