Sermon for October 30, 2022

“The Great Pretender”

Luke 19:1-10 (11-27)

That’s how most people know Zacchaeus. He’s a rich, short guy who wants to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way. He climbs a tree to see Jesus. Instead, Jesus sees him. Jesus invites himself to dinner. Zacchaeus is so happy he starts handing out cash. Jesus says nice things about Zacchaeus. They all live happily ever after.

It’s a good story. But it’s not the story in the Bible. The real song for Zacchaeus is this one. “Oh, yes! I’m the Great Pretender!”

Have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not? Have you ever hoped people would see you as one person even when you know you’re another? Have you ever been an outsider looking in? Have you ever known that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never belong?

Then you “get” Zacchaeus. He’s the Great Pretender. But his pretending is ending.

Tomorrow is Halloween. It’s the high holy day for being something we’re not. We wear masks and costumes. Little tykes come to our doors. We ask, “Oh, who (or what) are you?” The kiddos are dead serious about their identities. Some of them really are, at least for the moment, Batman or Elsa or the Hulk or Moana.

Why do we like those masks and costumes? It’s fun to dress up and pretend. Psychologically, it’s also about escaping from ourselves for a while. That’s true for adults as well as kids. Historically, it’s about hiding from death for a while. If we have a good enough disguise, death might miss us – at least for the moment.

Pretending to be someone else. Hiding from death. We’re getting to know Zacchaeus a bit better.

Zacchaeus was head tax collector in the Jericho jurisdiction. He didn’t manage the regional IRS office. Zacchaeus was more like the local mob boss. Collecting taxes for the Romans wasn’t processing Form 1040s. It was more like theft, fraud, and extortion.

We shouldn’t be surprised that his neighbors spat on the ground whenever he walked past. We shouldn’t be surprised that they called him a sinner with their spit. We shouldn’t be surprised that they didn’t budge an inch to let him see Jesus.

We should be surprised  that Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house.

Or maybe not. A few weeks ago, we heard two of the Lost and Found stories in Luke fifteen. We heard about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. You might not remember the verses that introduce those stories.

“But all the tax collectors and sinners wee coming near to hear Jesus,” we read in Luke fifteen, verse one. In verse two we read this. “And some of the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling as they said, ‘This one is welcoming sinners and sharing meals with them.”

As that great philosopher, Garth Brooks, might say, “Jesus has friends in low places.” We shouldn’t be surprised by Jesus’ actions. Welcoming and eating with miserable sinners is what he does. That’s always worth remembering.

Zacchaeus is the one who surprises us. When that crowd along the Jericho road saw what happened, they weren’t happy. The started grumbling. They were just like some of the Pharisees and scribes in Luke fifteen. Jesus had no business going to Zacchaeus’ house, they said. Zacchaeus was a sinful man.

At that point, Zacchaeus had had enough. He drew himself up to his full height. Of course, his full height might have been all of four and a half feet. Maybe he climbed up on something to be seen and heard. Anyway, he stood up and set the record straight. He was talking to Jesus. But he was addressing the crowd.

“Look,” Zacchaeus shouted, “I’m giving half of what I own to the poor. If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’m paying four hundred percent in damages. Get off my back, you ungrateful fools!” I added that last part. But I think Zacchaeus would approve.

The truth was out. No more pretending. No more hiding. No more masks. No more double life.

Zacchaeus had lived on the shadowy boundary between two worlds. When he was around rich people, he was the wealthy businessman. He was backed by the full might of the Roman Empire. No one messed with Zacchaeus.

But all the old money types in Jericho wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this new-money social climber.

Behind the scenes, away from the powerful, Zacchaeus tried to put things right. He kept poor people from starving. He paid restitution and reparations when his employees got too enthusiastic about their work. There were people in that Jericho crowd who had jobs and homes and food because of Zacchaeus.

But all his neighbors wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this thief, this fraud, this extortioner.

Zacchaeus was the Great Pretender. And all his pretending got him precisely…nothing. He was rich. He was powerful. And he was seeking something more. So, he climbed a tree.

But the seeker became the “seek-ee.” Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. But Jesus saw him first. There Zacchaeus was, in that tree, with nowhere to hide. He was exposed for who and what he was. He was revealed for what he needed. The Great Pretender could pretend no more.

Have you ever been up that tree with Zacchaeus? Have you ever lived in the world of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”? This story is for you. Zacchaeus was a sinner. There was no pretending that away. But that’s not all he was.

“Each one of us,” Bryan Stevenson writes in his book, Just Mercy, “is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Zacchaeus needed to hear that message. So do we today.

Zacchaeus also needed to become a Beatles fan. He needed to learn that money can’t buy me love. “Look at what I’ve done!” Zacchaeus shouts in frustration. “Can’t you see that I’ve earned your love and respect? What else do you want from me?”

They don’t want anything from you, Zacchaeus. Money won’t buy you love.

Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house. He goes after he knows Zacchaeus is a sinner. He goes before he knows this man is a saint. Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house because God loves Zacchaeus no matter what. For even this man, this Great Pretender, really is a child of Abraham. He was lost and has been found. He was dead and is alive.

What are some take-homes from the Zacchaeus story?

First, each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes in Romans three, verses twenty-three and twenty-four, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” This is the great reminder of the Reformation we remember today.

Second, if we follow Jesus then what we do, we do for love.

We don’t do good deeds for God’s approval or for human rewards. Zacchaeus learned that money can’t buy you love. But it can buy food, clothing, and shelter for our neighbor in need. As Martin Luther often said, God doesn’t need our good works. But our neighbor surely does.

Third, doing justice for Jesus is more likely to get us rejected than rewarded.

Zacchaeus outed himself that day on the road out of Jericho. I imagine his Roman bosses weren’t very happy about his covert good deeds. When we challenge unjust and oppressive systems, those systems are going to hit back.

If you want some additional reading this week, read the Parable of the Pounds that follows our gospel reading. This is a story about what happens when brave people refuse to be part of corrupt systems. Jesus tells that story to help us understand Zacchaeus.

No more pretending for us. Through Jesus, we are freed from sin and freed for service. We are called to come down and rejoice. Jesus has come to our house today. Where will he lead us tomorrow?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Five)

It’s difficult to read “tone” in any written account, including the Gospel accounts. The Lukan author gives clues here and there in the text. For example, when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, all those who saw this “grumbled.” We don’t have to guess at the tone of the indictment. “He [Jesus] has gone in to take lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7, my translation).

It isn’t quite so easy to get the tone of Zacchaeus’ response to this public critique. As I’ve noted, I think we should go with the present tense of the verbs in Luke 19:8. So, this isn’t a promise or a vow. Instead, it’s a personal defense. “Look, one half of what belongs to me, Lord, I’m giving to the poor,” Zacchaeus says, “and if I have extorted something from someone, I am repaying it four times over” (Luke 19:8, my translation).

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

That’s what Zacchaeus says. But how does he say it, and to whom? It’s clear that he makes his personal apologia to Jesus, whom he addresses as “Lord.” His apologia is in response to the criticism from the crowd. I wonder if Zacchaeus is more exasperated than solicitous. He makes this response “standing.” There’s a lot of body language in the Lukan account, and I’ve learned to take that language seriously in a close reading of the text.

As a small man, Zacchaeus perhaps draws himself up to full height. Perhaps he has to stand up (or even on something else) in order to be seen and heard. I can imagine him drawing a full breath and letting it out in frustration. “Look at me!” he says to the crowd (and Jesus). See me for what I am! For crying out loud, I give away half my stuff to poor people. Some of you here are beneficiaries of my generosity. If my contractors take advantage of you, I make repairs four times over. What more do I have to do to get your respect!

That’s what I hear in this text at the moment. Zacchaeus is an outsider in multiple ways. He works with the Roman imperial oppressors. He’s rich and is therefore suspect because of the sources of his wealth. He has new money at the expense of others, so he’s not welcome at all the fancy dinner parties. He’s a short man in a world where Apollo and Adonis provide the ideals of maleness and masculinity. He’s a faithful Jew in a system that expects him to be a selfish scoundrel.

What does he have to do to get their respect? Nothing. Money can’t buy respect. Power doesn’t bring belonging. Zacchaeus does it all right, and he’s still regarded as all wrong. Nothing Zacchaeus does is going to put him right in the eyes of his neighbors. It’s no wonder he explodes in exasperation when those neighbors treat him like crap in front of Jesus.

Could any treatment do more to bring a “high” person low? It’s obvious that Zacchaeus is caught doing his “fan boy” thing as Jesus passes through town. He just wants to see this famous (and perhaps infamous) peasant rabbi who has become something when he should really still be nothing. Zacchaeus would like to just slip through the crowd to get a look, but the crowd’s not having it.

On an impulse, he sprints ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree. As he’s climbing the tree, Jesus notices him. I know it’s presumptuous, but I think the NRSV misses the point in Luke 19:5. The NRSV reads, “When Jesus came to the place…” This place is where Zacchaeus has climbed the tree. So far, so good.

The pronouns in this verse, however, are not quite that clear. The text reads “and as he came upon the place.” The referent of “he” is not certain. It could be Jesus. It could be Zacchaeus. I think the latter is more likely. The Lukan author uses the same preposition, “epi,” as we find in verse four. In verse four, the preposition describes how Zacchaeus climbs the tree. I think verse five should read, “And as he [Zacchaeus] came upon that spot [up in the tree], Jesus looked up and said to him…”

Why does this matter? At precisely the moment when Zacchaeus is the most vulnerable, even though he clearly doesn’t wish to be seen, Jesus notices him and points him out. If Jesus had wished to join in the community ridicule and rejection directed toward Zacchaeus, this would be precisely the moment to do so. Zacchaeus was exposed, alone, and a bit ridiculous in that moment. I think the expected response was that Jesus would pounce on the opportunity to shame this powerful and rich man.

Of course, Jesus does precisely the opposite. He sees and recognizes Zacchaeus in his moment of potential shame. He says, “Come down directly, Zacchaeus. For today it is necessary for me to dwell in your house” (Luke 19:7b, my translation). We have the verb, “dei,” which so often indicates divine necessity and will. This meeting isn’t any chance encounter. God is doing something important, and Jesus is making it happen.

Jesus isn’t merely popping in to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus intends to remain there for a while. The verb is “meno,” which means to dwell or remain. This intention to stick around for a while is part of what bothers the grumblers. The word they use to describe Jesus’ actions is that he is going to “take up lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7c, my translation). The word for “take up lodging” is related to the Greek work for an “inn” or a “guest room” (kataluma). Jesus is making a deep connection.

Twice in our text we get the word “today.” Jesus tells Zacchaeus that it’s necessary for him to dwell in Zacchaeus’ house “today.” In Luke 16:9, we hear that salvation has come this house “today.” We might think ahead to Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is no delay, no condition, no hesitation. It’s happening here and now. And what’s happening is an immediate embrace of one who is rejected and excluded.

What does Zacchaeus have to do to get their respect? Nothing – because nothing is going to do it. No matter how many hoops Zacchaeus jumps through, he’s always going to be on the outside looking in. But that’s not the case with Jesus. Jesus’ connection with Zacchaeus comes before his declarations of personal piety and practice. We could speculate, as do some commentators, that Jesus knows this in advance. But that’s not what the text says. Jesus embraces Zacchaeus, and the crowds do not.

It’s clear that this story is about belonging. Part of the punchline is that even Zacchaeus, despised and detested as he is, is “a son of Abraham.” The little Greek word “kai” is doing a lot of work in Luke 19:9. Perhaps it means “also” as the NRSV renders it. But I wonder if the translation shouldn’t be “because even he [Zacchaeus] is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9b, my translation and emphasis). If Zacchaeus, the outsider par excellence, is a child of Abraham, then perhaps there’s hope for us as well.

Jesus concludes by declaring that the Son of Man came to seek out and to save “the lost.” This word in both subject and verb forms appears in the Lost and Found parables of Luke 15 seven times. Remember that those parables are told, according to the Lukan author, in response to the “grumbling” (yes, same verb) of the Pharisees and the scribes. The lost ones in the parables are restored to the flock, the piggy bank, and the family. “Lost” in those contexts means separated from the group. “Found” means restored to the community.

In each of those parables, and in our text, the “finding” produces a party! The one who does the finding is the host of the party. That’s true of the sheep owner, the woman, and the Forgiving Father. It’s true in our text as well. We read, of course, that Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and joyfully welcomes Jesus (Luke 19:6). And the complaint in verse seven is that Jesus is a guest in Zacchaeus’ house.

“Ironically,” Mittelstadt writes, “the statement of the crowd fails to anticipate Luke’s reversal. Zacchaeus may have entertained and nourished Jesus,” Mittelstadt continues, “but Zacchaeus becomes the guest of Jesus’ hospitality” (page 136). When someone is found, Jesus throws a party, and Jesus is the host. When Jesus comes, salvation arrives and takes up residence. When that happens, the stranger becomes guest. The outsider becomes a member of the family. That’s true no matter what the grumbling crowd may believe.

What do I have to do to get some respect around here? Nothing, Zacchaeus! Nobody has that much money. Inclusion in the family of God comes as a gift of grace, not a commodity that can be purchased. We can play the buying and selling game for a lifetime if we wish. And we’ll never win. No matter how many billions we accumulate, it’s never enough to buy belonging. This is the real celebration of the Reformation – justified by grace through faith.

And that’s why Jesus next tells a parable about one who has resigned from the buying and selling game. If the third servant in the Parable of the Pounds is the hero, this is part of what that parable means. You see, Zacchaeus, the buying and selling game may get you power. But it won’t get you love and respect. Resigning from that game comes with a cost, that’s true. But it’s a cost disciples pay because we’ve already been given everything that truly matters.

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.

Mittelstadt, Martin William. “Eat, drink, and be merry: A theology of hospitality in Luke-Acts.” Word & World 34, no. 2 (2014): 131-139.

Solevåg, Anna Rebecca. “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke: Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included” Other”.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 225-240.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Four)

Zacchaeus’ parents had high hopes for their little boy. The name they gave him means, in Hebrew, “pure one.” It can mean “innocent” or “righteous.” It may be a combination with the shortened form of the Hebrew name for the God of Israel. So, little Zacchy’s parents named him “Yahweh is righteous.” Levine and Witherington title this section of their commentary as “Zacchaeus, ‘Mr. Righteous’” (page 510).

That’s a lot for anyone to live up to. On first glance this appears similar to calling Al Capone “Mr. Compassion.” The neighbors must have shaken their heads often at the bitter irony of it all. The one whom they regarded as a “sinner” had a name that meant anything but that. I suspect the Lukan audience would have reacted in a similar way on the first hearing. The character’s name would have prepared them to laugh sardonically at the unrighteous behavior of “Mr. Righteous.”

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Except, the joke was on all those who jumped to conclusions. The Lukan author devotes six Greek words to the identification of this character – “And, look, there was a man who was called by the name of Zacchaeus” (Luke 19:2a, my translation). This is more words than required to get the point across. I don’t know if I’m over-reading the text (well, that never happens!), but it seems to me that the Lukan author wants to get our attention by inserting the participle for “called” in this phrase.

“Mr. Righteous” was more than Zacchaeus’ name. It was his “calling,” his vocation.

Zacchy was an “architelones.”  The NRSV translates this as “chief tax collector.” That’s fine, but it’s not based on much. This is the only place the term appears in the New Testament. It doesn’t appear outside the New Testament in Roman imperial documents that we have. It’s not an official administrative title or political position. Jesus, or the Lukan author, makes it up. The Lukan audience would certainly know that from daily experience. Here’s another signal that something unusual is happening at this point.

The made-up title is a combination of the Greek words for “ruler” and “tax collector.” Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to steal anything personally. He had people for that. “The tax collectors familiar in the Synoptic tradition were for the most part employees of the chief tax collector and were often rootless persons unable to find other work,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Evidence from the late imperial period suggests that cheating or extortion on their part would be less likely to benefit them than the chief tax collector for whom they worked” (pages 387-388).

Zacchaeus was in charge of an organized system of tax collection. He may have had rules against extortion and fraud. However, he didn’t control the day-to-day behavior of the small-time contractors who worked for him. They may well have engaged in the extortion and fraud which is mentioned in our text. Zacchaeus, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note, was the one who benefitted most from that criminal behavior. He was also the one in the best position to do something about it. He was the “ruler” of that system.

Zacchaeus, as head of the regional tax system and rich, occupied an “in-between” social position. Solevag notes that, on the one hand, Zacchaeus was rich. This wealth certainly came from his work as the head tax collector. Therefore, his wealth was “new” money, not connected to land or inheritance. Therefore, the old money people would have regarded Zacchaeus as a gauche social climber (yes, that pun was intentional) who deserved ridicule rather than respect.

On the other hand, his fellow Jews would have seen him as a collaborator with the Romans. He was probably perceived as a traitor and was thus despised. This gives us some concrete data to deal with the language, for example, of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee may not regard all other people as beneath contempt. But in the parable, that’s certainly how the Pharisee regards the tax collector (one of the little fish in that extractive pool) who has come to the Temple to pray.

“Zacchaeus, then, is cast as a character whose social location is quite complex,” Solevag writes, “On the one hand, he is as an outsider, belonging to the generally despised category of tax collectors. On the other, he is powerful and privileged as a rich man and a leader within his guild” (page 12). Yet, as she notes, Jesus doesn’t treat Zacchaeus as the crowd expects. Jesus welcomes tax collectors and eats with them. In fact, “tax collectors are among those most responsive to Jesus’s ‘good news’ in the Gospel” (page 12).

Zacchaeus faces another obstacle in his quest to see Jesus. “And he sought to see who Jesus was, and he was not able to do so on account of the crowd because he was of small stature” (Luke 19:3, my translation). Long-time church people will find it hard not to hum the children’s song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Yet, the word translated as “stature” rarely refers to physical height. It more often refers to age. Zacchaeus was of “small span.”

I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author portrays Zacchaeus as young, although that may be part of the intent. Instead, I think we are dealing, as is so often the case in Luke, with an intentional double entendre. Zacchaeus is reduced in social stature, as far as both his Greco-Roman and Jewish neighbors are concerned. He is regarded by them as “less than.” The crowd grumbles because Jesus is going to share a table with this notorious “man who is a sinner” (see Luke 19:7).

The Lukan author also makes clear that Zacchaeus is a physically short man. Solevag argues that, in fact, the Lukan author portrays Zacchaeus as a dwarf. She does not draw that as a firm conclusion since the language in verse three is not that typically used in ancient literature to identify dwarfs. However, she points to a number of recognizable literary conventions in the story that would have led listeners to conclude that Zacchaeus was in fact a dwarf.

First, Zacchaeus is portrayed as a comic figure in the story. He runs ahead and climbs a tree. Zacchaeus doesn’t embody the self-control and measured gait of an honorable man in the ancient world. He more closely resembles the “running slave,” a stock figure in Roman comedy. Such a character was stereotyped as infantile and unable to manage even simple tasks. Of course, we might note that another character in the Lukan account who runs in this way is the Forgiving Father in Luke 15.

“Zacchaeus’s behavior goes against cultural expectations of how a man was supposed to behave,” Solevag writes, “but at the same time it aligns with the performative role of dwarfs, where dwarfs often were represented as comic figures” (page 14). He is marginalized because of his “non-normative body” and his slavish, comic actions.

Second, Zacchaeus is portrayed as a sinner. In the ancient world, Solevag notes, body size and type was thought to reflect the mind and moral character of a person. “Read physiognomically, Zacchaeus’s short body would indicate greed and corroborate the suspicion already tied to his profession as a tax-collector,” Solevag writes, “When Jesus invites himself to come to Zacchaeus’ house, the onlookers grumble and say that Zacchaeus is a sinner (Luke 19.7). This judgment from the people could thus be a physiognomic assessment of Zacchaeus” (page 14).

Third, the story portrays Zacchaeus “as host and included ‘other’.” Jesus chooses to dine with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus proves his moral character by vowing to (or by already engaging in) his charitable donations and reparations. Zacchaeus is not the punchline of a joke or a social pretender and fraud. Instead, he is a son of Abraham. This idea is used elsewhere in the Lukan account (Luke 13:16) to include an ‘other’ (page 15).

In addition, if Zacchaeus is portrayed as a dwarf, there is another Great Reversal in this text. Dwarfs in ancient literature and practice were usually the entertainment and/or enslaved waiters at such banquets. Entertainers and enslaved persons were lowest in the social hierarchy since control of their bodies was in varying senses taken from them. Jesus honors Zacchaeus as host and benefactor and puts him at the top of the social scale. Zacchaeus fits the ancient literary category (both in Scripture and secular writing) of the unexpected host (page 16).

How does this story function in the Lukan narrative, given the above considerations? “The narrative fits the profile Luke has as a writer of a gospel for outcasts,” Solevag argues, “Throughout the gospel, Luke has a particular focus on how Jesus includes those formerly excluded in Judean society” (page 16).

Interestingly, Solevag argues against this story as a healing account. In fact, Zacchaeus’ lack of physical stature, if that exists, is not remedied but rather embraced. “In other words, this parable grants a different place to the social experience of disability than the healing narratives,” she concludes, “As a biblical scholar interpreting the Bible from a disability perspective, I think it is important to map this variety, not only in representations of disability, but also in the literary and theological uses of disability” (page 18).

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.

Solevåg, Anna Rebecca. “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke: Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included” Other”.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 225-240.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Three)

How shall I preach on a text that I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten “wrong” for the past four decades? And, as far I can tell, I’m not alone in getting that text “wrong.” The consensus view of the Zacchaeus story, as represented by the NRSV translation of those verbs in question, has steered largely in the wrong direction. I’d love to explain that to folks in a Bible text study like this. But I’ll be doing a sermon on Sunday, not a Bible study.

Oh, well, it’s still early in the week. I’m sure the Spirit will work out something useful for me to say.

The Lukan connection between the Zacchaeus story and the Parable of the Pounds is rhetorically rock solid. “But while they were hearing these things [that the Son of Man came to seek out and to rescue the perishing], he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was close to Jerusalem and it seemed to them that the Kingdom of God was about to appear immediately” (Luke 19:11, my translation).

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Some commentators suggest that the location and timing of the telling of the parable is in some doubt. I’m not sure how they get that. The text itself couldn’t make the connection any clearer. Jesus tells this parable, at least in the Lukan account, at dinner in the house of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. Jesus tells this parable in response to the events and pronouncements at that dinner. The parable connects the events in Jericho to the coming Palm Sunday protest parade in Jerusalem.

“Jesus sets the Parable of the Pounds in the context of the chief tax collector’s affirmation of his actions,” Levine and Witherington write. “Luke presents Zacchaeus as using his resources honestly and generously,” they continue, “and thus as an appropriate steward” (page 513). Jesus’ followers (and therefore, the Lukan audience) expect the end of the age to arrive shortly – perhaps on the following day! But they are mistaken.

Even though the Kingdom of God is among them, as Jesus has previously said, it is not yet coming in its fullness. The resistance by (or conversion of) a ruler among the tax collectors – the worst sort of collaborator — is very good evidence of the presence of that Kingdom. But it is not a sign that the Kingdom is ready to come in its fullness right here and right now.

Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house on that day, but it has not yet come to all of Creation. “For Luke,” Levine and Witherington write, “the eschaton is far off, coming only after the world has been evangelized. The disciples are the stewards who must do what Zacchaeus does,” they argue, “use their talents wisely in growing the mission” (page 513).

I think that Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus as a resistor rather than a collaborator. The village sees him as a hated traitor who uses his position both to fund the Roman imperial machine and to line his pockets in the process. His actual practice, however – whether it is current or prospective – is to use his ill-gotten gains in order to give to the poor and make reparations when his actions end up defrauding others.

I think Zacchaeus, at least as a Lukan character, is working the system against itself in order to do justice. He’s a concrete example of one who has made friends with unrighteous Mammon. He is using that friendship to subvert the system in the ways he can. As Holmer Szesnat argues in his study, the Parable of the Pounds is about “refusing to participate in practices of exploitation” (page 21). The solid connection between the Zacchaeus story and the Parable shows that these texts should be used to interpret one another.

The Parable of the Pounds never shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary. We get the Parable of the Talents in Year A, and we allow the Matthean version to dictate how we remember the Lukan version (if we remember it at all). The parables may or may not have the same origin, a common source, or at least arise from the same stream of memory. But as they exist in their respective accounts now, they are not the same parable.

One feature of the Lukan parable is the use of the Rule of Three. We know from previous study that when we get a Rule of Three, we should expect the third character to be different from the first two. In the Lukan account, the third character tends to be the one in the story who gets it right. The parade example of this literary practice, of course, is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. It is the third character who is neighbor to the man left in the ditch to die.

Thus, the third character in the Parable of the Pounds is the one who gives us the guidance we should take from the parable. The first two slaves do business with the aristocrat’s wealth and produce unimaginable profit margins – one thousand percent in one case and five hundred percent in the other. Szesnat notes that a thirty percent margin would have been an exceptionally good annual return in a reputable business. The huge returns on investment create “the first point in this story where the first-century listeners are given a signal that something unusual is going on here” (page 23).

No “legal” business produces that sort of return. The slaves are loan sharks of some kind. They get promoted as a reward for their actions. The third slave won’t play the game. As a result, the rich man punishes the slave who has done the “right” thing. He takes what the third slave has and gives it to the one who has the ten pounds. That’s what happens in a corrupt and abusive system when the resistors are exposed.

That resistance is not limited to the third slave (who sounds a lot like Zacchaeus). There’s that delegation from the home country that protests to the high king that this rich guy should not have any more power. That protest falls on deaf ears, and the opposition is liquidated. “The king cleans up in more than one way,” Szesnat writes, “he has confirmed which of his slaves are going to make more money for him in the future, in whatever ruthless and brutal way they can, and he has taken care of his political enemies” (page 25).

Numerous commentators have noted that this parable sounds a lot like the behavior of one or more of the Herods in first-century Palestine. Herod the Great made such a trip to Rome to get his reign over Judah, Samaria, and Galilee. Herod Archelaus made a similar trip to get himself declared a king like his father. He had to settle for being an ethnarch and was exiled just a few years later. But the stories would have rung all sorts of historical and political bells for both Jesus’ listeners and the Lukan audience.

So, what’s the point of the story in Luke, Szesnat asks. How we answer that question can make a great deal of difference in our interpretation of the Zacchaeus story. This section of the Lukan account says a lot about rulers and being ruled. A rich ruler wants to know how to have “eternal life.” Jesus says that for him what’s necessary is to resign from the system altogether. But he’s just too deeply entangled. Because of that, the rich ruler goes away grieving. He can’t give it up.

When we meet the blind man on the Jericho road, the political stakes get higher. The blind man addresses Jesus as “son of David.” That may be a lovely honorific, but it’s also a political title. The only Kingdom of God that people have really known so far, at least in their ideology, is the Kingdom of David. “In other words,” Szesnat writes, “it is the poor, the marginalized, who see who Jesus is, and they are received in God’s kingdom” (page 26). Who Jesus is, in this story, is described in explicitly political terms.

Then we get Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus should be like the first two slaves in the Parable of the Pounds. He should be the ruler of the loan sharks, the regional mob boss for the Roman imperial machine. Instead, he is either a current resistor (my view) or he is converted to resistance when Jesus comes to his house (Szesnat’s view). In either case, this is an astonishing revelation. The Kingdom of God is present, at least in part, in the everyday acts of resistance taken by Jesus’ followers.

“The story of entrusted money is a story of what happens when we act the way God wants us to,” Szesnat concludes. “The point of the story is simply this,” he argues, “Be warned – if you refuse to participate in systems of oppression and exploitation, which is what the righteous are supposed to be doing, you should still expect to be persecuted. The reign of God has not fully broken into the world yet. The wicked will still punish and sometimes kill the righteous, just as they get rid of any other enemy” (page 27).

If Zacchaeus is covertly resisting already (as I think is the case) he is outed by the end of his story. If he repents and makes a public declaration of his intentions, he is no less at risk. There’s no going back for Zacchaeus at this point. There’s no eschatological escape hatch opening up for him in the next day or two.

That fullness of God’s reign will arrive in the end, but first comes the cross. “Telling the truth to the powerful, refusing to do what they want us to do: all that can and probably will get us into serious trouble,” Szesnat writes, “in some contexts, it can even get us killed. But it must be done” (page 27).

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.

Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Two)

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.

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

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.

Text Study for Luke 19 1 to 10 (Part One)

21 Pentecost C/Reformation Sunday

October 30, 2022

In the congregation I serve, we will observe Reformation Sunday on October 30, 2022. However, I am unwilling to use the traditionally appointed gospel text for that day, John 8:31-36. I don’t think we Lutherans need anything else to enhance our Reformation triumphalism on that day. Singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with gusto and an edge of self-satisfied Protestant superiority is more than sufficient in that regard.

The John text, like so many Johannine readings, has significant anti-Jewish potential, especially when paired with the Romans text. In a time when “Truth” is a weapon rather than an aspiration, I’m inclined to avoid that reading. Others could certainly argue that this is precisely the time to take “Truth” back from those who would see such truth as univocal and univalent. That’s a fair argument. I look forward to reading the sermons of those of you who take such an approach.

Photo by Arndt-Peter Bergfeld on Pexels.com

I will not, this year. In addition, the Reformation observance has a bad habit of cheating us out of the Zacchaeus story in our worship life. This is the climax of the Lukan travel narrative and one of the rhetorical high points in the Lukan account. We’ve been pointing toward this text for weeks now. I’m just not willing to miss out on the big payoff here. And I’m hard-pressed to think of a text that really gets at the heart of Luther’s Reformation theology any better than this one. Zacchaeus is, indeed, justified by grace through faith.

The lectionary takes us from the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to this enacted parable on the road heading out of Jericho. Of course, there’s a fair bit of stuff in between. I need to re-anchor myself in the Lukan rhetorical arc for a bit before moving more deeply into the text itself.

This last part of the travel narrative has a clear eschatological edge to it. In Luke 17:20-37, we get the Lukan take on Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. It’s obvious that the Lukan author is managing the eschatological expectations of the community of faith. People may point to the Kin(g)dom and say, “Oh, there it is!” But they will be wrong. The final days are coming, Jesus says, but any number of things must happen first. In particular, what must happen in the presence of the disciples is the crucifixion.

People will be divided by their responses to that event. Most people will be oblivious to what is happening. They will go about their normal business until the moment the final cataclysm arrives. If we seek to secure our lives on our own terms, Jesus says, we will lose them. It is only in losing one’s life in the Kin(g)dom that our lives will be kept. This will happen most obviously in the crucifixion, the place where the vultures, both literal and metaphorical, will gather (Luke 17:37).

It’s important to keep this eschatological framing in mind, I think, as we read through to the Lukan Palm Sunday story in chapter 19. In the meantime, disciples need to pray always and not lose heart. All those disciples who exalt themselves will be humbled. Faithful Jesus followers will stand toward Jesus and not toward themselves. They will receive the Kin(g)dom of God as a little child – that is, they will be brought like infants to receive Jesus’ tender touch. And they will welcome that transforming contact, or they will remain on the outside looking in.

Losing one’s life may be a literal experience for disciples. However, it is more likely to involve losing things we think sustain life. That’s what we get in the story of the Rich Ruler (Luke 19:18-27). The punch line for that story comes as a question from the crowd. As the sad rich man stands before Jesus, grieving his relationship with his gold, Jesus declares how difficult it is for someone who is rich to enter the Kin(g)dom of God. Clearly, we are still in eschatological territory here.

“Who, then, is able to be saved?” the anxious questioners ask. Keep in mind the conclusions of the Zacchaeus story at this point. I think it’s fairly clear that Luke is pairing the stories of the Rich Ruler and Zacchaeus. “Salvation” is a significant notion in both stories. Jesus tells his listeners in Luke 19:10 that the Son of Man came to seek out and to save those who are perishing. One rich man is challenged to give it all away and follow Jesus. He declines. Another rich man is welcomed into the kingdom as a child (after all, who climbs trees?), and makes restitution. “Salvation” (Greek = soteria) comes to his house.

Luke 18:31-35 provides an interlude focused on the disciples. Therefore, we move from Lukan proclamation to the crowds and to instruction for the faith community. Peter rightly points out that the disciples have done precisely what the Rich Ruler refused to do. Good for you! Jesus replies. In fact, those who leave behind what we think secures our life in this world will get it all back and more “in this age”! And in the coming age, they can expect “eternal life.”

Between now and then, however, there is that pesky notion of crucifixion – followed by resurrection. The resurrection prediction is a new note in the narrative. But it’s lost on the disciples (and probably often on us as well). They couldn’t grasp any of what Jesus was saying. Indeed, the meaning of the words was hidden from them. They couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying.

The disciples may not get it. But two others, outsides, will get it. I find it helpful to pair the stories of the blind man in Luke 18:35-43) and Zacchaeus. It’s too bad that we get a chapter break between the two stories. We tend to read those editorial insertions as part of the text when we should often ignore them. Both of these stories are connected to Jericho – one as Jesus enters the village and another as he is leaving it. I think there’s no question that we should use these stories to interpret one another.

Jesus tells the blind man, “Have your sight back! Your trust has saved (Greek = sesoken) you” (Luke 18:42, my translation). Sometimes, the NRSV translates “saved” as “healed.” I’m glad that doesn’t happen here. The man gets his sight back. But the most important part of the story is that he gets up and follows Jesus, glorifying God. The blind man answers the call to become one of Jesus’ disciples – in fact, the last one so called in the Lukan story.

The blind man can’t see due to obvious physical infirmity. Zacchaeus is also trying to “see” Jesus. He is unable to see Jesus, not because he’s blind but because he’s short. Lia Valle-Ruiz offers an intriguing idea in this regard – that perhaps Zacchaeus suffers from dwarfism. There’s no reason to embrace or reject this suggestion. It’s possible, of course, but it’s not really suggested in the text. Nonetheless, Zacchaeus can’t see until he climbs the tree.

The blind man calls out repeatedly until Jesus responds. He’s not put off by the orders of the disciples or the crowd or his handlers. In a sense, he “prays always and does not lose heart.” Zacchaeus can’t see, and he climbs a tree. He also “prays always and does not lose heart.” Each of the characters in some way humbles himself in order to be exalted. The “up and down” metaphors are especially prominent in the Zacchaeus story. That will be worth some additional comment downstream, I think.

Zacchaeus is a small man – a “child” in some sense, perhaps. When Jesus calls to him, he clambers down the tree. He is happy to “welcome” Jesus. The verb here is an enhanced form of the verb used in Luke 18:17. Zacchaeus is an image of one who welcomes the Kin(g)dom of God like a little child. He does so with joy. Those who watch the scene are like those who want to keep the infants away from Jesus in the previous chapter. And they echo the words we heard way back in Luke 15:2 – “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

It would be great if we could go directly from the Zacchaeus story to the Palm Sunday parade in the Lukan account. However, we still have some work to do. And it’s worth wondering how the Parable of the Pounds fits with the overall rhetorical arc of the Lukan account. For the Lukan author, this parable does some work in dealing with the delay of Christ’s return (see Luke 19:11). I think this parable serves as an allegory, for the Lukan author, to describe the resistance to Jesus that results in his crucifixion. And there’s a dark reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in Luke 19:27.

One of the reasons I love the Zacchaeus story for Reformation Sunday is the way it allows me to talk about being “saved.” Most of the emphasis for our traditional Lutheran folks in the pew will be on what we’re saved “from.” Jesus dies and rises so we can be saved “from” the powers of sin, death, and the Devil. Indeed, I believe that as well.

But we are also saved “for” forgiveness, life, and salvation. That salvation is not merely pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. For Zacchaeus, it is restitution and reparations. It is repentance and renewal. It is receiving and rejoicing. It’s what we do after we come down from our sycamore trees.