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."
- 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?
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.