Saturday, March 7, 2009

I wonder about Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8)

It's been awhile. Maybe I haven't had anything smart to say.

The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) has long been taken as a model story of repentance. According to this reading, this rich -- and corrupt -- tax collector encounters Jesus. Jesus, who has come to call "sinners to repentance" (5:32), so impresses Zacchaeus that he determines to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay those he has defrauded four times what he has taken.

In Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, I basically agree with this assessment. There, I simply note that Jesus never criticizes Zacchaeus or calls him to repent. The larger point is that in Luke (and in all the Gospels) Jesus never condemns ordinary sinners; instead, he simply joins their company as he does with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus responds to Jesus not because Jesus condemns his behavior but as a response to Jesus' self-invitation: "Zacchaeus, hurry down, for I must stay at your house today." Since it happens before a crowd, I understand Jesus' call as a public affirmation of Zacchaeus, regardless of his business affairs.

But one thing gives me pause, Zacchaeus' speech in 19:8. Perhaps Zacchaeus accepts his identity as a sinful tax collector, yet he has already struggled to live righteously. Here's the speech in my own literal translation.
  • But standing, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, "Behold, half my possessions, Lord, I am giving to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I repay [it] fourfold."
Let's look at each piece slowly, looking toward the possibility that Luke portrays Zacchaeus as a righteous sinner.
  • But standing, Zacchaeus said to the Lord.... The crowd is complaining that Jesus has chosen to keep company with a sinner. What if (a) in response to their complaint, (b) Zacchaeus stands up for himself and (c) addresses Jesus directly in the presence of the crowd?
  • "Behold, half my possessions, Lord, I am giving to the poor...." Note that Zacchaeus speaks in the present, not the future, tense. Perhaps Zacchaeus is defending himself: what if he already gives half his possessions to the poor?
  • "and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I repay [it] fourfold." We normally translate this clause in the future tense but the verb is present tense here as well. What if Zacchaeus (occasionally?) does defraud people as an inevitable part of being a tax collector, then tries to correct the fault?
According to this reading, Zacchaeus is indeed a sinner, but he's a sinner who tries to live righteously. His encounter with Jesus indeed leads to salvation -- not because he repents but because Jesus blesses him. As I've indicated, this is not how I actually interpret the story. But some smart people do interpret it so, and the idea is intriguing.

After all, are there not righteous sinners all around us? That is, are there not people whom we stigmatize on account of their lifestyle or profession, who nevertheless demonstrate impressive acts of compassion and righteousness? I recall Chris Chambers, the "bad" kid in Stand By Me who reconciles his friends and risks his own life to save his friends. Sure enough, Chris participates in delinquent behavior, yet he's the hero of the story. Perhaps people of faith would do well to think about the heroism and compassion of the supposed "sinners" in our midst.


Leo Hartshorn said...

Greg, for what it's worth, I have interpreted the Zachaeus story along the lines of the alternative reading you suggest. In 2007 I created a resource suggesting this interpretation: and recently posted a sermon I wrote then growing out that material:

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Mary Anne said...

I'm preaching on Zachaeus this Sunday and I find your blog intriguing and helpful. Thank you.

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Gennaro said...

I am by no means a scholar, but I have struggle with this verse a bit. Not because I disagree in the popular usage of this content, but because I dont thing any one would teach it as you have mention it here. I guess I agree with the minority. Why can't a rich man be righteous and why is he judged in lieu of his occupation. Are we saying that no rich man can be righteous. May be this is the rich man that can go through the eye of the needle. Jesus did not say it was impossible only that it was not easy. Just my 2.

Anonymous said...

Is the meaning of this name one of Luke's code names. Could it be one of cognates from the Hebrew word for righteous -Zaccai as in Ezra? Besides, does the if-clause strengthen or weakens his supposed confession, and is an apology considered convincing and serious with an if-clause. if all his wealth is a fraudulent loot, and he gives half to the poor, can Zach. still possibly afford a 4fold refund, and who were or would be the recipients. Remember another richman was asked by Jesus to divest his wealth but he refused. Here Zach is offering without being asked. Wouldn't this story be complete without v.8. Why is the interpretation hinged on this statement. Who do we side Zach or the stigmatizing crowd?. Is not obvious that Jesus was siding, nay vindicating Zach. as Abraham's son. Ordinarily, Rich men whose means are dubious will hardly have time for an itinerant fierce preacher like Jesus, not to talk about their pride which will hinder them for the pains Zach took just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Would this passage not be easier if Zachaeus is seen as an exceptional tax collector that is being affirmed by Jesus, who adjudges better than the crowd? Salvation does not always imply sin. The word can also mean restoration. God bless