(Proper 26C: 2 Thess. 1.1-4 & 11-12; Luke 19,1-10)
The story we heard in today’s Gospel is probably very well known to all of us. I am sure many of us sang a song about it as children, or taught it in Sunday school, along with the actions.
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Saviour passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
And said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!’
Zacchaeus was a very little man,
But a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.
The traditional interpretation of the story is that Zacchaeus was a very wicked person – a tax collector who overcharged people and exploited the poor to build up his own personal wealth. He wanted to see Jesus, but as he was too short to see over the crowds who lined the streets, he climbed a sycamore tree to have a proper view. Jesus spotted him, invited himself to a meal at his house, and from that moment, Zacchaeus was transformed. He immediately promised to give half his money to the poor, and to repay four times over what he had extracted by fraud. The story ends with Jesus declaring that Zacchaeus is saved, is a true Israelite, and proclaiming again his own mission to save the lost.
In some ways, this is a typical Lukan story: Jesus reaching out to the outcasts and the despised. But in other ways, it is very untypical. Zacchaeus is not like most of the people Jesus befriends in Luke’s Gospel. He is rich, not poor; male not female and he is not sick or old or a child. But he was an outcast, and probably considered ritually unclean, as he worked for the Roman occupiers, and handled their money.
But there are lots of unanswered questions in the narrative: Why was Zacchaeus so determined to see Jesus? How did Jesus know his name? Why did Jesus say he MUST come to Zacchaeus’s house – what was the compulsion to do so? Who were ‘those who saw it?’ – neighbours, scribes and Pharisees, or Jesus’s disciples? Jesus didn’t explicitly forgive Zacchaeus’s sins, but he was happy. Why? And did Zacchaeus make his statement about his financial affairs as a response to the criticism, or after Jesus had shared a meal with him? And what exactly did it mean for Jesus to say “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a son of Abraham”?
The usual explanation of the story interprets it as Zacchaeus demonstrating how to grasp the salvation Jesus offers, today, in the here and now, by freeing himself from his slavery to wealth and power. As the Magnificat proclaims, he accepts the exaltation of the poor and hungry, the humble and meek. It has been suggested that Luke includes this story at this point in order to contrast Zacchaeus, who was sinful, but accepted the challenge to give away his wealth, and so grasped the chance of salvation, with the rich young man of chapter 18, who kept all the commandments, but when challenged by Jesus to give all his wealth away to the poor, was unable to do so.
But one commentary I read (that of Judith Lieu, who some of you may remember as a member of this congregation many years ago and a Local Preacher) suggests another possible interpretation.
She points out that the name ‘Zacchaeus’ means ‘upright’ or ‘righteous’. Is that Luke being ironical, pointing out a mismatch between the name and the actions – or is he perhaps challenging the judgement of ‘those who saw this’?
More tellingly, she points out that in the original Greek, Zacchaeus’s statement about his financial affairs is in the present tense, not the future. So what the text actually says is: Then Zaccheus stood up and said to the Lord: “Listen, half my goods I give to the poor, and if I have left anyone in a less favourable condition, I repay them four times over.” Then Jesus said to him, ”Today, salvation (or healing) has come to this house, for this man, also, is a son of Abraham”.
In other words, contrary to the opinions of those who looked on, and judged him by what he did for a living as ‘a sinner’, Zacchaeus was already keeping the commandments about looking after the poor, and giving restitution to those who were hard done by.
This translation provides another way of interpreting the story. Perhaps it is intended to convey that Jesus already knew Zacchaeus; perhaps Zacchaeus had come to Jesus secretly, as Nicodemus is described as doing in John’s Gospel. He could not do so openly, because it would have compromised his position as an agent of the Romans. When Jesus came to his home town, he wanted to see him, but tried to do so unobtrusively, climbing the tree rather than being at the front of the crowd. But Jesus called to him, and in doing so, challenged him to bring his true beliefs out into the open. When he welcomed Jesus into his house, Zacchaeus openly proclaimed his commitment to Judaism and to Jesus’s radical interpretation of what was important in the Law. Jesus’s presence at his dinner table gave him the courage to assert in public that he did keep the Law. This allowed Jesus to challenge the prejudices of those who considered him an outcast, and proclaim him a true son of Abraham, a full member of the covenant community, not because he has now repented, because he already was an heir to the promises made to Abraham. Zacchaeus had been seen as one of the lost of the House of Israel; now he was proclaimed not to be so by a respected teacher; and that brought healing to him and his house. Jesus’s statement about ‘seeking the lost’ in this instance refers not so much to those who are sinful, but to those who were neglected and despised by the religious structures of the time.
So what does this story say to us today? Earlier in the service, we were talking about what we think might make God happy. Clearly the traditional reading of this story is another confirmation of Luke’s message that what God wants of us is to be on the side of the poor, the exploited and the disadvantaged, and that we Christians need to repent and reform our lives if we are not.
Judith Lieu’s retranslation of the text, however, gives us a further message. It tells us not to judge too quickly whether people belong in the community of the saved or not: and particularly not to judge by external appearances.
That is, I suspect, a much more difficult message to receive. We are all much happier (me included!) if our churches are full of people like us, people who dress like us and think like us, people who interpret the Bible in the same way, people who know and like the same hymns, people who think the same as us about the way the church building should be used, even people of the same age, or class, the same race, or the same sexuality.
The story Luke tells about the encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus in Jericho, warns us that, though we may judge people as ‘sinners’ because of their occupation, or their lifestyles, or their sexual orientation, it may be that they are keeping the commandments, have met Jesus and committed their lives to following his Way, and may already be healed and saved citizens of the Kingdom of God. God in Jesus may be at work in ways hidden from us.
Our task is to conform our own lives to what God wants us to be and to do. We should leave it to God to decide whether others are on the right path or not.