by the Rev. Sarah Buteux
November 3, 2013
Proper 27, Year C
“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. He 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 a short, rich, 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 long dresses, 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, lily white skin, and bright blue eyes- might be a little off.
(Actually that image might be a little off in more ways than one.)
Can I prove it? 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 more.
This Zacchaeus is good, I mean we’re talking, like, crazy 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?