Saint Zacchaeus!?

Rev. Sarah Buteux
November 3, 2013
Luke 19:1-10

You can watch and listen to the sermon here and on our youtube page here.


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 you can probably tell me a lot about Zacchaeus.

For starters, we all know 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? As Genevieve would say, “not dood.” 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 comes not from scripture but from other sources like, say, songs you learned in Sunday School. What if 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 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? Listen again to 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 Jesus or does it refer to Zacchaeus? We don’t really know because the pronoun here is ambiguous.

So that image so many of us grew up with; the ridiculous image of a small rich man up in a tree looking down on a tall strapping savior in a long white robe with honey brown hair, lilly white skin, and bright blue eyes a perfect match for his blue beauty pageant sash; that image might be a little off.

(Actually it 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 were mistaken about the height issue, then there are probably other things we’ve gotten wrong too.

So I started reading through commentaries. I began looking more closely at what the text really 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 that as irony on the part of Luke, but it’s quite possible that both he and Zacchaeus were playing it straight all along.

And here is where I’m going to totally 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?

O.K. 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 why you pay me the big bucks to be not just your pastor but your teacher; and it is time to get schooled.

You may even want to open your Bibles for this one, however – and here’s the 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:

"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."


"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."

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 read this story in your pew Bible, which is the Revised Standard Version, Zacchaeus is defending himself.

He’s letting Jesus and all the people in the crowd know that he’s actually an incredibly good 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 NIV or the NRSV (two of my preferred 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 such 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 RSV is the most accurate in this case; 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.

You know the story well: 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, than 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 shunned Zacchaeus and made assumptions about him, who need to repent. It is the “good” people who judged him on the basis of what he was rather than for who he was, who need to get saved.

If Zacchaeus is innocent, if the outsider is actually the one on the inside, if the tax collector is the true son of Abraham, then all these people who thought they were on the inside, all these good folks who thought they knew the score, have to face the fact that they are profoundly mistaken.

By giving Zacchaeus a voice, Jesus has turned their whole world inside out. By standing in solidarity with the one who was scorned, Jesus has redrawn all the boundary lines.

Salvation is at hand. Salvation has come to this house. Salvation is right here for the taking in the streets of Jericho.

The question is whether the ones who really need it will realize it. The question is whether the ones who really need it will humble themselves enough to repent, step over the line, embrace the other who is and has always been their brother, and thereby receive it.

But that’s a big, old, open question. It was back then.  It is right now.

Father Richard Rohr puts it this way, and this is printed on the back of your bulletin if you want to read along:

Those at the edge of any system and those excluded from any system ironically and invariably hold the secret for the conversion and wholeness of that very group. They always hold the feared, rejected, and denied parts of the group’s soul. You see, therefore, why the church was meant to be that group that constantly went to the edges, to the “least of the brothers and sisters,” and even to the enemy. Jesus was not just a theological genius, but he was also a psychological and sociological genius. When any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be the Christ. The only groups that Jesus seriously critiques are those who include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God.

Only as the People of God receive the stranger, the sinner, and the immigrant, those who don’t play our game our way, do we discover not only the hidden, feared, and hated parts of our own souls, but the fullness of Jesus himself. We need them for our own conversion.

The Church is always converted when the outcasts are re-invited back into the temple. You see this in Jesus’ commonly sending marginalized people that he has healed back into the village, back to their family, or back to the temple to “show themselves to the priests.” (You see it today in Jesus inviting himself to the home of Zacchaeus). It is not just for their re-inclusion and acceptance, but actually for the group itself to be renewed.[2]

Take that home. Meditate on it. Put it on the fridge, lay it down on your bedside table, read it again and again and again, because he is right.

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 - whoever that is for you – 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.

Amen and Amen

[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.

[2] Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 28