A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
November 3, 2013
All Saints’ Sunday
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 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. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’ (NRSV).
Thanks to the children’s song, everybody knows that Zacchaeus was “a wee little man,” and a wee little man was he. They know that he climbed up in a sycamore tree (for The Lord he wanted to see). They know that as the savior passed that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.” Everybody knows that much of the story, but not everybody knows the rest of the story.
It begins even before Jesus gets to Jericho.
Someone must have told him on the road, “By the way, there’s somebody in Jericho you probably need to know about—a tax collector named Zacchaeus. In fact, he’s the chief tax collector for the whole region, and he’s filthy rich. Oh, and one more thing: he’s short.” How short was he? The Bible doesn’t say, but in the same way it says King Saul stood “head and shoulders above every other man in Israel” Zacchaeus must have stood head and shoulders beneath every other man in Jericho, because when Jesus sees him sitting in the fork of a sycamore tree he recognizes him immediately and says, “Zacchaeus! You come down, for I’m going to your house today.” And Zacchaeus does. He hurries down out of the tree and comes to stand before Jesus. You can almost see him, can’t you? Breathing hard, brushing pieces of bark off his clothes, looking up with a big, embarrassed grin on his face. Luke says he was “happy” to welcome Jesus.
But then the story takes an ugly turn.
The crowd begins to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” And I probably need to say more about that because we have some tax collectors right here in our own congregation who may be wondering why Zacchaeus was considered a sinner. According to the Christian Resource Institute, “The tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes from fellow Jews for the Roman Empire. They made their living by charging an extra amount. Some of them made more than a living. They exacted any amount they could and thus became well to do. They were considered traitors who became wealthy by collaborating with Roman authorities at the expense of their own people.”[i] When Luke tells us in verse 2 that Zacchaeus was “rich,” he may be hinting that Zacchaeus had charged his fellow Jews far more than he should have. They may have had good reason to grumble.
But it’s this next part where you really have to pay attention, because everything hinges on how you interpret verse 8. In the New Revised Standard Version it says this: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’” But in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase—the Message—it says this: “Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, ‘Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.’” There’s a big difference between those two versions: one is future tense—“I will give half my money to the poor”—and the other is present tense—“I already give half my money to the poor.” When it comes to interpreting this story you need to know: was Zacchaeus so moved by his encounter with Jesus that he made up his mind then and there to give half his money to the poor, or was he already doing that, and couldn’t understand why everybody called him a sinner?
When I was looking at this story last Monday I thought about how familiar it is to us, and how, for that reason, some preachers try to find something in there that nobody has seen before, just to keep things interesting. For example, I’ve heard some of them talk about how it might not have been Zacchaeus who was short, but Jesus, because the text says, “He (Zacchaeus) was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he (Zacchaeus) could not, because he (Jesus?) was short in stature.” But that seems unlikely, doesn’t it? There’s no other place in the Gospels where anyone has trouble seeing Jesus because he is short, and it’s Zacchaeus who climbs the tree. I scratched that option off the list and said: “Forget novelty. What is the plain, simple truth of this story?” And then I wrote this: “Encountering Jesus can change your life.”
And it can, can’t it? That’s where I was going. That’s what this sermon was going to be about, until I realized that encountering Jesus doesn’t necessarily change your life. In the chapter before this one a rich ruler comes to Jesus asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments but he insists that he does, and has—all his life. So Jesus asks him to do one more thing: to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and that’s when he walks away, sad, because he couldn’t bear to part with his things. He didn’t change, and Jesus said as he was going that it’s awfully hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom. But then he meets Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector—a sinner!—but by the end of the story Jesus has identified him as a child of Abraham. What happened? Did Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus change his life? Did he repent right there on the spot and make a promise to give half his money to the poor? Or was he already giving half his money to the poor?” It would make a difference—a huge difference—in how we read this story.
Usually, I trust the New Revised Standard Version. It’s a very faithful translation of the original languages of the Bible. And although I appreciate the Message—Eugene Peterson’s lively paraphrase—it is a paraphrase, not a translation. He is trying to bring those ancient words to life in fresh and interesting ways and sometimes he seems to try a little too hard, pushing the limits of his poetic license. But he is not only a poet, he is also a scholar. He works from the original languages—Hebrew and Greek—and in this case he seems to be willing to see what everyone else chooses to ignore:
These verbs are in the present tense.
Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “I will give half my money to the poor,” he says, “I [do, already] give half my money to the poor.” And he doesn’t say, “If I cheat anyone, I will pay them back four times over,” he implies that this is his custom: “If I cheat anyone I pay them back four times over.” The first verb is didomi, in the present, active, indicative form. It means “I give.” The second verb is apodidomi, and it is also in the present, active, indicative form. It means, “I give back.” It’s as clear as can be. But the translators of this passage want so much for it to be a conversion story, in which Zacchaeus encounters Jesus and becomes a changed man, that they have converted the verbs, changed them from the present to the future tense. And even the ones who don’t have created a special, hybrid category for the verbs in this verse: they call them “future-present,” as if Zacchaeus were saying, “From this moment on I give half my money to the poor.” In his big two-volume commentary on Luke Joseph Fitzmyer says, “The present tense didomi is to be taken as expressive of customary action. There is no need to understand it as a futurist present.”[ii] And David Lose has pointed out that the only example of the so-called “future-present” in the entire New Testament is this one in Luke 19:8, leading him to suspect that some scholars are letting the traditional reading of this story affect their translation, instead of letting the translation affect their reading.[iii]
As I said, some people want so much for this to be a conversion story that they are willing to do violence to the verbs to make them say what they want. But what if we didn’t? What if we read this story just the way Luke wrote it? In that case Jesus may have already heard about Zacchaeus’ legendary generosity. “He’s a tax collector,” someone might have said, “but he gives a lot of money to the poor, and if he finds out that he’s cheated anyone he always pays them back.” “Hmm…” Jesus might have said. “I’ve got to meet this fellow.” So when he came to Jericho he may have already been looking for him, and even though Zacchaeus was hiding in a tree, peeking out through the branches, Jesus found him. “There you are!” he might have said. “Come down out of that tree. I’ve got to go to your house today. I’ve got to find out what makes you tick.” And Zacchaeus scrambled down out of that tree, happy to do so, happy that Jesus was coming to his house, because he may have been a wee little man, but he was the biggest giver in town, and the most ethical tax collector in Israel.
But, again, this is where the story takes an ugly turn, because this is where the crowd starts grumbling and saying, “He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner!” But Zacchaeus draws himself up to his full height and says, “Now, wait a minute, Lord. I may be a tax collector, but I give half my money to the poor, and if it turns out I’ve cheated anyone I pay them back four times over.” And it’s Jesus’ turn to be stunned. He’s never heard anything like this. He may have stood there a long time before he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a son of Abraham.” Luke says he said it to Zacchaeus, but I believe that second part was addressed to the crowd. They were the ones saying Zacchaeus was a sinner. They were the ones who had shoved him outside the circle of their fellowship. But Jesus says, “That’s wrong. You say this man is a sinner, but I say he’s a son of Abraham.” And in that moment he changes his status, and some might say…he saves him. I’ve told you that the word save in this Gospel has multiple meanings: that it can mean “to help,” “to heal,” “to save,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” I believe that when Jesus put his arm around Zacchaeus, when he told the citizens of Jericho that he, too, was a son of Abraham, something that had been broken for a long time was made whole.
So, maybe it’s a conversion story after all, but the ones who are converted are the people in the crowd. Maybe they are able to see Zacchaeus in a different way after this, not as the sinner they thought he was, but as the son of Abraham Jesus says he is. And maybe on the following Sabbath day they would have been able to open the door of the synagogue to him, and welcome him. “This is why I came,” Jesus said: “to seek and save the lost.” If this is what he means—that he’s looking for all those people who have been pushed out of the circle of God’s love so he can bring them back in again—we might have to think differently about words like “lost” and “saved.” Maybe the ones who are lost are not only those people who have never darkened the door of a church, but those who have, and somehow gotten pushed out, shunned out, shamed out. And maybe those who are saved are not only those who come to know Christ for the first time, but those who come to know him again, through people who are willing to seek them, and find them, and bring them back. Can you think of anyone like that? That woman who used to come here every Sunday, and drink in every word that was said, and sing the hymns at the top of her lungs? That young man who grew up in this church, but who is afraid to come here now—afraid that if we really knew who he was or what he’s done we would ask him to leave? Are those the lost that Jesus is looking for? And if he’s out there—seeking them and finding them and bringing them back into the circle of God’s love—
Why aren’t we?
[ii] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X – XXIV, The Anchor Bible, p. 1225.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.