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Zacchaeus in the Present Tense

Chapter 6
Luke 19:1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
The Gospel of Luke 19:1-10
One of my favorite bible stories is the story of Zaccheaus which is found in Luke 19. If you don’t know the story, begin in the preceding chapter where the main heroes of each story consist of a persistent widow, a pharisee and tax collector, children, a rich young ruler, and a blind beggar. Truly a winning line-up! All of them, minus the rich young ruler, “get it,” and welcome the kingdom of God. It’s the rich person who is unable to receive Jesus’ teachings and *sell all he has and give to the poor* as Jesus instructed him.
This sets the stage for Zacchaeus, because he is a “sinner” and “tax collector.” He has been labelled someone of low honor and status in his community. He’s considered unclean, rejected by his religious community for choices he’s made. His inclusion in this winning list shows us that he is an obvious candidate for Jesus’ community. Jesus favors the misfits and those on the margins of society for one reason or another.
Even better, there’s a twist to this story.
Zacchaeus is also rich. Ironically, rich in the Gospel accounts pretty much always means, not a candidate for Jesus’ community. In Jesus’ poor people’s campaign, the rich are often the ones who corroborate with the empire, and who have power to change the circumstances of the poor, but instead sell them off at a profit.
Sound familiar?
Zacchaeus’ story is meant to keep us from giving too easily into the temptation of assigning him a single-story, where we say, “Okay, now we have this guy figure out.” Maybe he's a little like the Quaker friend I met at the coffee shop that day.
Zacchaeus is someone caught in a tension between two communities.
What’s more, the story of Zacchaeus has been often mistranslated to maintain the single-story: Zacchaeus is a bad, rich, tax collector. Typically, once Jesus shows up at Zacchaeus’ house, he is translated as having said this:
“Lord, I will give to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8 NRSV)
This gives us a picture of a repentant sinner, a way-ward tax collector, and a wall-street tycoon who has finally seen the light! Zacchaeus in this reading is a kind of counter-example to the rich young ruler.
The English translation of this text reinforces the perspective that “salvation” comes only after repentance.
Luke 19:9 "Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
However, the story is far more interesting than this mundane and expected outcome!
Jesus does not find someone with a repentant heart; rather he finds someone who has already oriented his life around the kinds of practices Jesus was calling for.
A more accurate translation of this text is to take the verb being mistranslated as the future tense “I will” and render it in the present participle “I am already doing.” Here it is again:
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”
Do you see how this completely changes the story?
Do you see the difference it makes if we read Zacchaeus in the present tense?
Jesus doesn’t find a repentant sinner, who fits a classic single storyline, Jesus discovers Zacchaeus is actually already subverting the storyline.
Zacchaeus already gives his money to those in need.
Now when we read this story up against Luke 18′s “Rich Young Ruler” we see that the single-story “rich=bad” no longer holds water as a simple stereotype in the Gospel.
When Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house, because he is a son of Abraham,” what I think he is saying is that Zacchaeus and everyone who lived under his roof were being welcomed back into the community of God’s people of which they’d been excluded because of the single-story ascribed him. (see also #5)
And that’s how I see the work of translation, spiritual community, and Convergent Quakers everywhere: to welcome back those who have been excluded from the larger community, which means we are going to be welcoming back one another. Because no matter where you find yourself within community someone, somewhere is getting left out, missed, or worse actively excluded. There are people who may already be in our community who need to be brought in closer or there may be those who are looking in from the outside and want to join, but something holds them back. Healing work, social justice work, the work of people of faith is to welcome back those who have been cast aside. It could be because they identify as LGBTQ+, it could be because they are someone who is Christian or reads the bible, it could be because they are both!, it could be because they have served in the military, or that they are an atheist, or poor, or a person of color, or have disabilities that make the community and its meeting spaces inaccessible. Either we reject the single-stories we tell about each of these and welcome the rich complexities of others lives, or we continue to live in our illusions of pristine bubble-wrapped community of uniformity. The responsibility lies first on those already in the community to do the work of welcoming others.

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