A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost (October 30, 2016): Luke 19:1-10

Luke 19:1-10
19:1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it.

19:2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.

19:3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

19:4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

19:5 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.”

19:6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

19:7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

19:8 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.”

19:9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.

19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

A Question or Two:

  • So, who is short, Zacchaeus or Jesus?  The syntax of the sentence COULD allow either option.
  • Why do translators insist on translating the verbs in 19:8 as if they were in the future tense?  They are not.


Some Longer Reflections:

This will be quick.  The reading I suggest is owed to a long-time dear friend, Steve Martens, who is a fine preacher and a gifted theologian.  He patiently and persistently argued this point with me.  It took a long time.  He is right.

Pr. Martens point?

Zacchaeus is ALREADY observant.  He ALREADY gives half of his possession to the poor.  He ALREADY repays anyone whom he inadvertently defrauds.

The evidence?

The verbs δίδωμι and ἀποδίδωμι are in the present tense.  It is that straightforward.

Why are these verbs translated as if they were future tense verbs in the standard translations?

Good question.

Yes, we could fall back on the idea that there is “futuristic present” tense.  Some translators explain themselves that way.  But if there were such a tense, invoking it would require some textual impetus, something in the text that required such a translation.

There is nothing in the text that requires such a translation.

The only thing in the text that could even MAYBE suggest relying on a “futuristic present” would be the grumblers who identify Zacchaeus as a sinner.  So, if he is a sinner, then he must not be carrying out (even exceeding) the requirements of observant Jewish practice.  So these acts of kindness and justice MUST be somewhere in the future.

Except that they are not.

And adopting this interpretive line requires the interpreter to side with the grumblers, who are the only ones who call Zacchaeus a sinner.

It can be risky to agree with grumblers in the gospel of Luke.

Certainly tax collectors are not sympathetic characters in any of the gospels.  They collaborate with Rome.  And they are rich.

But in Luke’s story everywhere Jesus turns he sees potential allies, and this is not the first time such allies have been found among tax collectors.  John the Baptist found allies there, too.  And at the end of Jesus’ life he even finds an observant Jew, an ally, crucified next to him.  Only Luke has this scene.  Only Luke creates the expectation that the world is filled with actual allies.  Against all expectations, against all experience, even though there is Roman danger on every hand, Luke’s narrative world is crawling with observant Jews, actual allies and supporters.

Religion regularly divides the world into groups of Us and groups of Them, and there is something in fervent religion that enjoys imagining that there are MANY of Them, and few of Us.  People use religion to find enemies everywhere.  People use religion to reveal how few truly religious people there are.

But not in the gospel of Luke.

And not at the table in Zacchaeus’s house.

Notice that Jesus also speaks in the present tense.  Zacchaeus IS a child of Abraham, according to Jesus.  It is not as if he suddenly became one, or might earn this status sometime in the future.  Of course, that is the way it is with family membership.  If you are a child of Abraham, then you are a child of Abraham.  You just are.

But this is not simply a matter of family membership.  Zacchaeus actually is observant.  And he is also Jewish.  And he works for Rome.

The storyteller expects us to be able to deal with a world that is actually complicated.

It isn’t always clear that we are up to that task.

It took me a few years of hearing the arguments of a patient friend before I could see Zacchaeus as an ally.

As I watch (with growing concern) the ways that we are choosing up sides against each other (and not just in this political season), I wonder if we are losing the ability to find allies.  We surely seem to lack the ability to see them across lines of difference.  It is time to reverse that trend.

I’m not at all sure that I can find allies among the supporters of Donald Trump who chant offensive slogans at rallies.  I’m not sure I can find allies among the posturing politicians who have made the slogan “Never Compromise!” into a political principle.

But perhaps it is time to consider those on my side of the divide who will also never compromise.

There are real complications in the real world, and Luke’s storyteller really insists that we take them seriously.

Perhaps that point is that we are going to need allies in the coming days, and even a rich Roman collaborator like Zacchaeus might be an ally that we need.

This will be awkward.

One thought on “A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost (October 30, 2016): Luke 19:1-10

  1. Why didn’t any one ever tell me about the verb tense? I am stunned by Luke this time around. The bad guys can be good guys – the good guys bad — nothing says static – and then there is the communal aspect vs individuality. Can there be room in my heart for the story of The Good Tax Collector?


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