top of page

Zacchaeus and the Key to Our Salvation

Zacchaeus and the Key to Our Salvation

[object Object]

“When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.”  ― Desmond Tutu


Our story for today is fairly brief, but it is packed with a whole lot of detail. We actually know more about Zacchaeus from these 10 short verses than we know about most of Jesus’ disciples from all four gospels.


For example, you probably can’t tell me a whole lot about Nathaniel or the other James or even the other Judas.  In fact you might not even know that amongst Jesus’ disciples there were two named James and two named Judas. Did anybody know that? But if you grew up in church you can probably tell me a lot about Zacchaeus.


For starters, you probably know that he was…. short. Yes; “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he” right? We also know what did he do for a living? He was a … tax collector, yes. But not just any old tax collector. Zacchaeus was the… chief tax collector.


Ergo, Zacchaeus was …rich. Excellent. And how did his neighbors feel about this filthy rich tax collector? Not good. Zacchaeus was not well liked by the people. In fact, in verse 7, they come right out and call him a “sinner.”


So to re-cap, we know Zacchaeus was short. He was rich. And he was a sinner. Right? Right.


Only what if he wasn’t? What if so much of what you think you know about Zacchaeus comes not from scripture but from other sources like, say, songs you learned in Sunday School. What if most everything you think you know about Zacchaeus… is wrong?


Now, I think we all know that we bring certain assumptions to the Bible that influence our reading, influence it to such an extent that we sometimes see things that just aren’t there.


Take the three wise men, for example. Nowhere in the gospels does it specify how many wise men there were. It just mentions that there were three gifts. But when we hear the story from the gospel of Matthew, we all envision three men in fabulous robes, don’t we? I certainly do.


Just as I see a wee little man up in a sycamore tree swinging his short stumpy legs with excitement, every time I read this story about Zacchaeus. 


But what if Zacchaeus wasn’t the short one in the story? What if Jesus was actually the one who was short? Open your programs and look again at verses 2 and 3, because honestly you can read it either way:


A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” 


Does that last he refer to Zacchaeus or might it actually refer to Jesus? We don’t really know because the pronoun here is ambiguous.


Which means that the image so many of us grew up with - the ridiculous image of a small rich man up a tree looking down on a tall strapping savior in a long white robe with honey brown hair and lily white skin- might be a little off.


(Actually that image might be a little off in more ways than one.)

Can I prove Jesus was actually the short one? No. Nobody can.

But here is the thing: once you start to question details like that, you start to look at the story a whole new way and realize that if we aren't sure about the height issue, then there are probably other things we’re not a hundred percent sure about.


So I started reading through commentaries. I began to look more closely at what the text says and I found out something else that was really quite surprising. 


First off, the name “Zacchaeus means “clean” or “innocent.” Most commentators have interpreted this as irony on the part of Luke, but if you keep digging you realize that it’s quite possible both he and Zacchaeus were playing it straight all along because -


-and here is where I’m totally going to geek out on all of you with all my super duper knowledge of Biblical minutiae but bear with me because I swear this is important.


Are you ready? You sure? You all paying attention?


Good. Well then brace yourselves, because what I am about to say is going to rock your world.


It turns out, there is actually considerable scholarly disagreement about how to translate the tense of the verbs in verse 8.


Shocking, I know, but friends, this is where I earn my keep not just as your pastor but your teacher.


You may even want to open your Bibles for this one.


That was joke, I know no one brings their Bible to church anymore.


It’s ok, you don’t need to because we print the passage in the bulletin. But that’s too bad, because if you did all bring your Bibles we’d probably have more than one translation here, which brings me to my point: depending on which translation you read from, you’re going to get a very different account of what happened that day in Jericho.


So let’s take the story verse by verse and do a little play by play.


In verse 5, Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down and invites himself over for dinner. In verse 6, Zacchaeus scrambles down the tree and welcomes Jesus with joy.


But in verse 7, the crowd grumbles about how inappropriate it would be for Jesus to be the guest of this man who is a sinner and Zacchaeus responds in verse 8 by saying either:


"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."




"Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold."


Did you all catch the difference?


One reading is in the present tense; the other reading is in the future, but what tense you read it in makes all the difference in the world.


If you were to read this story in the Revised Standard, the King James, or Wycliffe’s version, Zacchaeus - speaking in the present tense - is defending himself.


He’s letting Jesus and all the people in the crowd know that he’s actually an incredibly decent guy, righteous well beyond the law, a man who already gives half of what he owns to the poor and if he ever finds that he has wronged someone, always pays them back not just what he owes them, but four times as much.


This Zacchaeus is good, I mean we’re talking, like ridiculously good.


But if you’re reading this morning from the NRSV in your bulletin or the NIV or any number of other translations, your Zacchaeus is promising that he will do these things in the future; meaning that right now, in the present, he is repenting for being a dirty, rotten scoundrel.


That’s a pretty big difference when it comes to understanding the point of this story; a pretty big difference indeed.


So which translation is right? Was Zacchaeus a good man wrongly vilified or a villain who finally made good?


Well I’m convinced, after much study, that the present tense translations are the most accurate; that Zacchaeus really was innocent and true to his name.[1] (And I’ve got footnotes here to that effect that I’m not going to bore you with. You can pick up a copy on your way out if you’re interested.)


What I am going to bore you with, however, is why I think this is so important. I think this matters because Zacchaeus’ story is most often read and taught as a classic story of repentance and redemption.


Filthy, rich, sinful Zacchaeus meets Jesus and is so overwhelmed by Jesus’ love and acceptance that he pledges on the spot to turn his life around and stop exploiting others.


It is read as a story about Jesus’ unconditional love for the outsider who repents and is brought back into the good graces of God and his community.

But if Zacchaeus is innocent, as his name implies, then that totally changes the whole message of the story.


If Zacchaeus is the one who has been wrongly judged and excluded from the very beginning then it is not Zacchaeus the wretched tax collector who needs to repent any more than it is Zacchaeus the wretched tax collector who needs to get saved.


It is, instead, all the “good” people who made assumptions about Zacchaeus and thought it was ok to shun him, who need to repent. It is the “good religious” people who judged him on the basis of what he was rather than who he was, who need to get saved.


And I don’t know about all of you, but this story gives me pause because frankly, I am a “good religious person.” People, I’m so religious I enjoy researching verb tenses in the Bible. And I don’t say that to brag.  I know I’m weird.


No, in all seriousness I actually say that with some fear and trepidation because if there is one class of people in the Bible for whom Jesus lacks patience, it is good religious people.


He has a real soft spot for the lost, confused, and compromised, but the righteous? Mmmm …not so much. It’s the people who think they have it all figured out, the people who are pretty sure they not only know right from wrong, but know who is right and who is wrong who give Jesus pause.

 [1] From David Lose at Working Preacher: “it turns out those who translate the verbs as future oriented appeal to a grammatical category called a present-future tense. The trouble is, as my Sermon Brainwave pal Matt Skinner informed me during our podcast on this passage, the only occurrence of this verb tense is Luke 19:8. Yes, that's right: rather than translate this sentence in the present tense -- which of course would muck up interpreting this as a repentance scene -- translators have actually created a new grammatical category that occurs once and only once to justify their theological interpretation and bias.

People like me.


Because the truth is that I’ve always known. Most of you know that I grew up in a fundamentalist church, 100% grade A certain that mainline protestants like us were completely wrong. And now I belong to this church which means I’m pretty darn sure the type of people I grew up amongst are at least mostly wrong. (I’m a liberal now, so I at least feel some compunction to qualify things). 


But here’s the deal: I think maybe what Jesus is trying to teach me through stories like this is that my propensity to isolate and label any type of people as just plain wrong … doesn’t make me right.


By which I mean:


It doesn't make me right with God.


It doesn’t bring me into right relationship with myself.


And it most certainly doesn't bring me into right relationship with those I’d rather not relate to at all.


And that’s something worth re-thinking as surely as this story about Zacchaues.


Because Church, I don’t need to tell you how bad it is out there…how divisive and polarized our political rhetoric and our nation’s people have become.


But what I do need to tell you is that it doesn't have to be this way. 


I think Jesus shows us the way forward. I think Jesus shows us the way out. I think Jesus shows us time and time again that whenever we draw a line and declare some one out of bounds, that Jesus himself will be the first to step over that line, not just for their sake, but for ours.


Because you see when we label and demonize one another, when we circle the wagons and declare that our tribe is the good one, the moral one, the righteous one, when we judge people for what they are rather than who they are …we can become so full of fear, anger, anxiety, and despair, so good at dehumanizing them that in the words of Desmond Tutu, “we risk becoming what we hate.” 


In helping us to see the humanity in the other, Jesus calls us back to our own humanity. He saves us from what is worst in ourselves.  And that is as hard as it is beautiful and powerful and necessary, but honestly, I think this is so much bigger than just you and me and the state of our souls. I think Jesus really did come to save the whole world - not by making us all Christians - but by showing us that we all need each other.


I think Jesus is always trying to help us learn how to empathize with the other – whoever that other is for you. And actually, before I go any farther, just take a second and picture who that is for you. Picture an actual person you know who you can barely tolerate… (Raise your hand when you’ve got it? Good. It doesn’t take long, does it?)


You don’t need to agree with them, because Lord knows that’s not happening, but I think it would help us if we could at least try and understand that their primal motivations are probably the same as ours: love, fear, and hope for a better future.


Friends, we need to learn to talk with one another again, find common ground, and build trust with people we have no reason to trust at all because here is the thing: the problems facing humanity right now – problems like climate change, nuclear proliferation, income inequality, racism, the refugee crisis, religious extremism – these can’t continue to be partisan issues or developed vs. developing world issues, us vs. them issues.


When it comes to the big problems facing humanity - and we have some really big problems facing us - at some point soon we need to come together and realize that ultimately we’re all on the same side because if we don’t figure out how to save the planet and live upon it in peace then we will all lose.


Jesus gave Zacchaeus a voice that day in Jericho. Whether he used it to confess his crimes or justify himself, I do not know. What I do know is that the salvation Jesus offered that day was not just for the tax collector.


Dear ones, I firmly believe that none of us is saved alone.


I firmly believe that our salvation is inextricably bound up in our relationships to one another, because I believe that how we love others, especially the other – how we love the other is how we love God.


For the people of Jericho, the one they thought they could do without was the one who held the key to their salvation.


It was ever thus. 


It is always so. 


bottom of page