“Saint Zacchaeus?” Luke 19:1-10


ZacchaeusThe
church often treats the story of Zacchaeus as a children’s story.  If you grew up going to Sunday Church School,
you may have learned this song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee
little man was he.  He climbed up in a
Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.”
I learned the story in second grade, and the main lesson was that Jesus
did not overlook Zacchaeus because of his “disability” of being so short and
unable to see.  I was a tall child, so I
understood the message that I would need to stand in the back row every time
the Children’s Choir sang.   I accepted
the basic fairness of this lesson, that Jesus loved us even though we were
still little people, and would still love us even if we didn’t grow up to be
big and tall.

 

So
the most important characteristic of Zacchaeus in a children’s story is that he
was short.  Now here is something that
blows my mind.  The scriptures say that Zacchaeus
could not see Jesus because of the crowd, and he was short of
stature.  Does this last he
refer to Zacchaeus or Jesus?   Which man
is the short man?  Or how about this.  Does “short of stature” refer to height, or
was Zacchaeus short on social stature, therefore unable to
penetrate the crowd?

 

Since
this insight was rearranging my entire childhood self-understanding, I decided
to probe a little further into so translation issues and found another
stunning, Greek Geek insight.  Here in
the NRSV that we read, there is a tense moment when people are murmuring that
Jesus is going to eat at a house of a sinner, and a wealthy sinner at
that.  “There goes Jesus, all high and
mighty now, our food isn’t good enough for him.
I guess he has his price, some messiah he turned out to be.”  Now Zacchaeus may be short, (or not) but he
is not hard of hearing.  So he turns and
addresses the crowd, “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.”  Note that it is future tense.  (We learned how important verb tense is this
week from White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“We are not and will not listen to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s
cell phone.”). http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2013/10/28/carney_we_do_not_and_will_not_monitor_angela_merkels_communications.html   Let the past be the past.  Zacchaeus will give.  That is quite a gesture.  I’m so glad he is being generous-with tax
payer money.

 

Let’s
turn this into a grown up and perhaps modern story.  For grownups, the most important detail about
Zacchaeus is not his height, but the fact that he is a tax collector.  We talked about tax collectors last week,
hated because they were collaborators with Roman Imperialism and rampantly
corrupt, almost like mob bosses.  And he
is the chief tax collector.  So
who would be up in the tree now, with say, the new Pope Francis, a lover of the
poor, coming to New York City?  How about
Jamie Dimon, head of JP Morgan bank, just fined $13 billion for the bank’s role
in the financial crisis.  Pocket change
really. And only one of many investigation with commodities manipulation, and
not reporting Bernie Madoff still to come.
Imagine if he had just gone straight to the Pope and come clean.

 

Or
imagine if the Pope saw John Thain, former head of Merrill Lynch, climbing the
tree in Central Park to get a better view.
You may remember Thain spent over $1 million redecorating his office at
the height of the financial crisis in 2008.
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/01/22/john-thains-87000-rug.html  Pope Francis is going to John Thain’s house
for dinner?  What will Cardinal Dolan
think?  Eat your heart out Elizabeth
Warren.  (That is who I want Pope Francis
to eat dinner with.)  Oh wait, John Thain
is giving his $68,000 oriental rug, and his 19th century Credenza
and George IV desk to auction off for AIDs orphans in Africa.  In fact, half his future dividends will go to
Head Start programs, and if he ever finds any fraud on his books, he will repay
it four times (which might bail out the US economy in one move.)  Truly salvation has come today!

 

Would such a bold move by Zacchaeus have
similarly stunned the crowd around Jesus?
That is truly a repentant sinner.
Was Jesus just that powerful of a presence?  Did he have some great insight into the soul
of Zacchaeus?  So many questions fill my
mind at this profound turnaround.  Here
is another possibility, based on a translation issue.  Remember the “I will give…” phrase in the
NRSV?  But let’s look at the RSV and KJV,
where the verb is translated in the progressive present tense. “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.”   The
Greek verb tense could infer that Zacchaeus always does this-gives to
the poor and if he makes an accounting error he actually restores it fourfold
just to be fair.  In this reading, he is
not the repentant sinner coming home, he is not the mob boss or imperial
collaborator or scheming banker changing sides to do good rather than evil.  He is actually more like Oskar Schindler, who
people thought was a Nazi business man, later revealed to have saved 1200 Jews
from the Holocaust.  He is banker George
Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  He is
a man reviled, who turns out to be a hidden saint.

 

That would fit Luke’s Gospel, where it is the
Roman centurion who has great faith, the Good Samaritan who is the true
neighbor, the woman wiping Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair who understands
his mission, and the Samaritan leper who has gratitude.  The saints are hidden and unexpected, because
they are usually scorned and at the margins of organized religion.  Perhaps Zacchaeus is one too.

 

I plan to finish this sermon with examples of
hidden saints, people who we write off or see as the “other” who may just be
bringing the Kingdom.  Your thoughts?

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