One of the central issues in this text comes down to verb tenses. I’m not just nerding out on this, although there is that. The verbs in Luke 19:8 are translated, for example, in the NRSV in the future tense. “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” (my emphasis). However, in the Greek, the verbs are “I am giving,” and “I am repaying.” That’s a problem.
If the verbs really are future in their connotation, then this text is about repentance and reparations. That’s the traditional interpretation that many of us have heard and would embrace. If the verbs are really present in their connotation, then this text is about defending Zacchaeus from the slanderous opinions of his neighbors. That’s not the traditional interpretation that many of us have heard. Nor are we, I suspect, very excited about embracing it. But there it is.
Some interpreters and translators render these verbs as a present tense that contains or implies action in the future. I suppose that’s a possibility. The problem is that when interpreters and translators do this, the only real example of this rendering is (wait for it) Luke 19:8. In fact, this is circular reasoning that doesn’t get us very far.
So, let’s see what we think about the translation. And then let’s think about what we do with it (when we’ve decided that it really is just a couple of garden variety present tense verbs). Sorry for the spoiler – not!
Richard Swanson takes the verbs to be, without question, present tense. For him, our text is in part about Jewish rituals of caring for the poor. “An observant Jew practices her faith by acting out the ritual and letting it shape her life,” Swanson writes. “That is why it is so significant that, at the end of this scene, Zacchaeus reveals to the audience that he is already giving half of his possessions to the poor and that any offense is repaid at ruinous rates. Zacchaeus,” Swanson continues, “practices the ritual of binding the world together and thus reveals himself to be an observant Jew, even though his status as a tax gatherer puts him outside that community line” (page 221).
If we read the text in this way, then we see that the Zacchaeus story continues the Lukan emphasis on the surprising and unpredictable character of God’s grace in Jesus. Zacchaeus should be a bad guy in this story. We’ve been set up for this by the Lukan author in numerous ways. Zacchaeus is rich. Rich people in the Lukan account tend not to fare well, as we have just seen with the Rich Ruler. Zacchaeus is a tax collector – one of the villains in first-century Palestinian life. There’s no way that he should be a hero in the gospels.
Yet here he is. Zacchaeus is the concluding and climactic example of discipleship in the Lukan travel narrative. “Anyone who says they saw this coming is lying,” Swanson says, “even though Luke provided hints early in his story” (page 221). Those hints included tax collectors coming to John for baptism and repentance. When they ask what they should do, the Baptizer doesn’t tell them to get another job. He tells them to be faithful in their current job. It may be, in fact, that the Baptizer tells them to be like Zacchaeus.
“Zacchaeus is still a surprise,” Swanson writes, “That is the point, I think.” Swanson interprets this story as a scene of revelation, not of redemption. It’s not that Zacchaeus has an epiphany and announces a change in behavior. Instead, he already gives to the poor and pays fourfold reparations if he defrauds anyone. Zacchaeus is, as Jesus reminds us, “a son of Abraham.” Remember that just before John the Baptizer gave his ethical counsel to the tax collectors, he told the crowd that “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” Abe’s kids might pop up anywhere and often in the last places we’d expect!
Swanson concludes his provocation by remembering the story of Schneeweiss, a Jewish collaborator in the Janowska concentration camp. I would encourage you to read that story here. As Swanson notes, it makes for a powerful interweaving with the story of Zacchaeus.
Levine and Witherington agree that the verbs are present tense and not future. They disagree on what to do with those verbs. Levine notes that the text makes no mention of repentance. Therefore, Zacchaeus is not repenting. Instead, “the tax collector is explaining that he has been judged, incorrectly, as sinful.” Remember that it is the crowd, not Jesus, who identify Zacchaeus as a “sinner.”
The “salvation” that comes to his house, in Levine’s view, is “the restitution of the man to the community, which occurs when he states what he actually does, rather than what the crowd thinks he has been doing.” Jesus gives Zacchaeus a platform upon which to defend and rehabilitate his public standing. And Jesus approves that defense, I would add, by going to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner.
Witherington reads the verbs as say that Zacchaeus is ready to make repayment and reparations. He takes support in the text from the assertion that salvation has come to the tax collector’s house “today” (and not before). In this way, the verbs indicate a behavior that is happening now (for the first time) and will continue into the future. “Something happened on that day,” according to Witherington, “that changed him” (page 512).
Levine and Witherington can share the same conclusion even as they take different paths to get there. Zacchaeus remains a tax collector. He is one of those Jesus has come to seek and to save. He is a child of Abraham, no matter what his neighbors might say and think. Even though Zacchaeus is identified as rich, he isn’t condemned (or labelled as a fool). Instead, he uses his wealth appropriately. Zacchaeus “shows that the rich, through divine grace and appropriate income distribution, can enter the Kingdom” (page 513).
I find it interesting and surprising that this is the message the Lukan author presents as the climax and conclusion of the major Lukan addition to the gospel accounts. In discussing the story of the Rich Ruler, Justo Gonzalez offers this conjecture. “Quite possibly, Luke is writing this account at a time when the presence in the Christian community of some who are in better economic condition than others,” Gonzalez suggests, “poses problems and raises questions, much as was the case in Corinth when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians” (Kindle Location 4085).
A gospel account that is often seen as hammering the rich for unfaithfulness may in fact be an apology for the presence of faithful rich people in the early Christian community. How’s that for a reversal?
Gonzalez understands the verbs to be future in connotation, although he doesn’t make a big issue of this concern. Zacchaeus is a “sinner among sinners.” Thus, the grumbling of the crowd is not at all surprising. Jesus makes Zacchaeus a parade example of the lost who have been found.
When it comes to wealth, Gonzalez sees this story as a commentary on and corrective to some of the previous “rich person stories.” Zacchaeus is no fool when it comes to his wealth. He doesn’t see it as “his,” nor does he treat it as something to be hoarded. Nor is he sad when he parts with his wealth, as was the rich ruler. In addition, the story makes clear that it’s not necessary to sell everything in order to follow Jesus. Gonzalez gives this interpretation.
“When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing—and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined” (Kindle Location 4174).
Malina and Rohrbaugh hear the verbs as present tense. Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as one with whom he can share table fellowship and thus community, in contrast to the attitude of the crowds. “Zacchaeus,” they write, “vindicates Jesus’ judgment about him by pointing out that he already gives half of what he owns to the poor and (already) repays fourfold anyone he discovers has been cheated” (page 387). The crowd doesn’t believe his assertions, but Jesus does.
Therefore, Jesus acknowledges him as “a son of Abraham.” This means, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh that Zacchaeus’ salvation consists of being restored to his rightful place in the covenant community. “In other words, this is a healing story: the restoration of abnormal or broken community relationships (caused by the stereotyping of Zacchaeus on the part of the community) has been effected by the power of Jesus,” they conclude. “The story is therefore not about Zacchaeus’s repentance but about the curing of his illness” (page 387).
If one combines this insight with Swanson’s story of Schneeweiss, we get a poignant picture of one (Schneeweiss) healed by dying for the sake of the community.
I’m convinced that we should read the verbs in the present tense. I’m not sure how to present that in a message on Sunday yet. Nor am I quite sure of what I think it all means. I have this suspicion that one of the keys is hidden in the text that follows and actually concludes the Lukan Travel Narrative, The Parable of the Pounds. I think we’ll go there next.
References and Resources
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.