The church often treats the story of Zacchaeus as a children’s story. If you grew up going to Sunday Church School, you may have learned this song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” I learned the story in second grade, and the main lesson was that Jesus did not overlook Zacchaeus because of his “disability” of being so short and unable to see. I was a tall child, so I understood the message that I would need to stand in the back row every time the Children’s Choir sang. I accepted the basic fairness of this lesson, that Jesus loved us even though we were still little people, and would still love us even if we didn’t grow up to be big and tall.
So the most important characteristic of Zacchaeus in a children’s story is that he was short. Now here is something that blows my mind. The scriptures say that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus because of the crowd, and he was short of stature. Does this last he refer to Zacchaeus or Jesus? Which man is the short man? Or how about this. Does “short of stature” refer to height, or was Zacchaeus short on social stature, therefore unable to penetrate the crowd?
Since this insight was rearranging my entire childhood self-understanding, I decided to probe a little further into so translation issues and found another stunning, Greek Geek insight. Here in the NRSV that we read, there is a tense moment when people are murmuring that Jesus is going to eat at a house of a sinner, and a wealthy sinner at that. “There goes Jesus, all high and mighty now, our food isn’t good enough for him. I guess he has his price, some messiah he turned out to be.” Now Zacchaeus may be short, (or not) but he is not hard of hearing. So he turns and addresses the crowd, “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.” Note that it is future tense. (We learned how important verb tense is this week from White House spokesman Jay Carney. “We are not and will not listen to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.”). http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2013/10/28/carney_we_do_not_and_will_not_monitor_angela_merkels_communications.html Let the past be the past. Zacchaeus will give. That is quite a gesture. I’m so glad he is being generous-with tax payer money.
Let’s turn this into a grown up and perhaps modern story. For grownups, the most important detail about Zacchaeus is not his height, but the fact that he is a tax collector. We talked about tax collectors last week, hated because they were collaborators with Roman Imperialism and rampantly corrupt, almost like mob bosses. And he is the chief tax collector. So who would be up in the tree now, with say, the new Pope Francis, a lover of the poor, coming to New York City? How about Jamie Dimon, head of JP Morgan bank, just fined $13 billion for the bank’s role in the financial crisis. Pocket change really. Or imagine if the Pope saw John Thain, former head of Merrill Lynch, climbing the tree in Central Park to get a better view. You may remember Thain spent over $1 million redecorating his office at the height of the financial crisis in 2008. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/01/22/john-thains-87000-rug.html Pope Francis is going to John Thain’s house for dinner? What will Cardinal Dolan think? Eat your heart out Elizabeth Warren. (That is who I want Pope Francis to eat dinner with.) Oh wait, John Thain is giving his $68,000 oriental rug, and his 19th century Credenza and George IV desk to auction off for AIDs orphans in Africa. In fact, half his future dividends will go to Head Start programs, and if he ever finds any fraud on his books, he will repay it four times (which might bail out the US economy in one move.) Truly salvation has come today! It would be stunning to us to see such an act of contrition and restitution.
Would such a bold move by Zacchaeus have similarly stunned the crowd around Jesus? That is truly a repentant sinner. Was Jesus just that powerful of a presence? Did he have some great insight into the soul of Zacchaeus? So many questions fill my mind at this profound turnaround. Here is another possibility, based on a translation issue. Remember the “I will give…” phrase in the NRSV? But let’s look at the RSV and KJV, where the verb is translated in the progressive present tense. “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.” The Greek verb tense could infer that Zacchaeus always does this-gives to the poor and if he makes an accounting error he actually restores it fourfold just to be fair. In this reading, he is not the repentant sinner coming home, he is not the mob boss or imperial collaborator or scheming banker changing sides to do good rather than evil. He is actually more like Oskar Schindler, who people thought was a Nazi business man, later revealed to have saved 1200 Jews from the Holocaust. He is banker George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He is a man reviled, who turns out to be a hidden saint.
That would fit Luke’s Gospel, where it is the Roman centurion who has great faith, the Good Samaritan who is the true neighbor, the woman wiping Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair who understands his mission, and the Samaritan leper who has gratitude. The saints are hidden and unexpected, because they are usually scorned and at the margins of organized religion. Perhaps Zacchaeus is one too.
So perhaps the message of salvation Luke intends in this story is not that it is great to see sinners repent (true as that is!) but it is also to important to look for the saints who act justly in places where we do not expect to see it. Are we ready to see the saint in our neighbor, even the ones we might look down upon because of ideology or misjudging them? That also is were salvation lies.