An alternative reading…and the depth and challenges of the Bible
What is primary message of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, the tax collector? If the purpose of religion is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” then is Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus meant to afflict those persons like him who are rich, powerful, and taking advantage of rules at the expense of the little people? Or is there a surprise message, hidden, ready to zing the unsuspecting reader?
I have certainly focused on Zacchaeus himself. It’s a powerful story that is beautifully packaged—he’s easy to disapprove of, to rejoice with, and even to laugh at. At church camp we sing a song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” (BTW, please feel free to thank me: I have NOT sung it to you on the off chance that you don’t know it, thus preventing a pernicious earworm that will haunt you for days.) It is not hard at all to think of a tax collector as the object of hatred and as a sinner in desperate need of redemption. Zacchaeus’ story is incredibly satisfying because he is so in need of redemption—and because he repents and transforms so completely.
But what if the story of Zacchaeus is not so much about Zacchaeus needing to change as it is about the crowd needing to change?
I bring this up as a wake-up to the crowd—to us—to me—and as a demonstration of how tricky the Bible and translation can be, and how our compass for reading is most true when it orients to the broad theme of failure, mercy, and grace.
Zacchaeus’s beautiful transformation is made evident in his cry, usually translated as “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.” (Luke 19:8). Our understanding of Zacchaeus relies on the notion that Zacchaeus has been touched by Jesus reaching out to him as he perched in the sycamore tree, that Jesus wanting to have dinner with him was the turning point to repentance and transformation.
Here’s the thing: in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the verb “give” is in the present tense, not the future tense. Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he’s coming to his house. The crowd murmurs against Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus says, “Half my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor, and I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much!”
Not “will give,” but “give.” I give them now. Already. In other words, Jesus and the crowd may have misjudged Zacchaeus all along. Has he been a righteous tax collector, working behind enemy lines, as it were, giving people far more than what is owed them? Is the crowd—are we—the ones who need to be called out, to repent, to change their—our—ways? Is the crowd angry at generosity of spirit—and do we try to limit God’s grace to people who are like us, rather than having it spread to all people? I came across a sentence that simultaneously depressed me and rang true about why some people will not darken the doors of a church: they are afraid of the disapproving looks they will encounter, and “[s]adly, the most despising and diminishing looks come from the disciples of Jesus.” And while I don’t know the answer to the question of whether this encounter points to the shortcomings of Zacchaeus, or the shortcomings of the crowd (or both), I will note that it follows hard on the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee where it is the tax collector, humble and repentant, who is the one justified before God.
There are many complicated reasons for the many translations of the Bible. Whether we read Zacchaeus’ sentence in the future or present tense, the crowd’s “murmuring” (the same word, by the way, as the people of Israel “murmuring” against God after God has freed them from slavery in Egypt) is ugly and revealing. Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus and the crowd’s angry response is a wake-up call for us all to remember that Jesus’ proclaimed mission is to “seek out and save the lost,” which may include, it turns out, us.
 Peter Woods, “I am listening,” https://thelisteninghermit.com/2010/10/26/camouflaged-by-shame/