The Story of the Holy Tax Collector

Week of Sunday November 3 - Pentecost 24  See also 2019 - Hypocrites or Assholes?
Gospel: Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.5When 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.’6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8Zacchaeus 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.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

The irony of this story is the name of the chief protagonist: Zacchaeus means "pure or holy one." Most folk would have thought the chief tax collector was chief among sinners. He may even have been a regular at synagogue, but his undoubted cheating and rorting the system, like all tax collectors, put him among the worst of sinners— not to mention his collaboration with the Romans.

He is short in stature, which some commentators say should be understood as a comment on his perceived moral status. He has not "grown up." What do such "short" people do," asks Vitor Westhelle in a striking article at Online Religion.

To compensate for their low character… They climb… They will do whatever it takes to get above the common folk who they know have greater character and integrity. They climb political ladders or corporate ladders. Zacchaeus, we know, climbed a nearby sycamore tree. But the symbolism is the same.

I'd always seen Jesus' call to Zacchaeus as friendly, and as charitable and healing and inclusive, despite the crowd's disdain for Zacchaeus. Westhelle says

… The usual translations fail to convey the sharpness of Jesus remark… [It] is not self-invitation, a gesture of etiquette; it as an imperative, a demand, even a threat.

'Today' (in Luke) is the moment of salvation, says Stoffregen, listing five verses where 'today' signifies a pivotal moment in God is gracing of us in Luke. (2:11, 4:21, 19:5, 19:9, 23:43) Zacchaeus is sharply called to attention. "Stop putting yourself above people and above the law of justice and compassion. Stand with your people and your God." And because of Zacchaeus' response then, today, salvation comes to his house. He shows he is a son of Abraham.

The lesson was not only for Zacchaeus, of course. People complained. So it is a teachable moment for Jesus who is "on the way to Jerusalem," only passing through Jericho. What counts is doing the law, the whole law. Zacchaeus, truly holy and pure, stands in abrupt contrast to the other rich man who treasured his wealth over following Jesus, and walked away even though he was not a sinning tax collector, but had kept the Commandments since his youth. (Luke 18:21)

There is a catch. I will give half my possessions… I will pay back four times as much… say the translations. But the Greek is present tense: I give

That changes everything; the story is no longer about Zacchaeus, but about his townsfolk. Yet "if it had been Zacchaeus's habit to give and payback, why is there so much grumbling about Jesus going to the house of a sinner?" The clear sense of the story is that Zacchaeus undergoes massive repentance. The present tense must only be a way of speaking we conclude. That's how I have always interpreted the text.

But one Year C, my wife played with the variant reading. She asked,

What if… What would it mean if the variant reading were correct? Let's imagine for a few minutes what the reading would be saying if Zacchaeus is not the one with the problem...

What followed was one of those services you never forget; the ones where outraged parishioners shout down the preacher. The minister had unwittingly trodden upon the painful problem which plagued that congregation; the sense of its worthiness above the sinners of the community. Dylan Breuer baldly states the implications of taking the present tense seriously.

... the NRSV has Zaccheas saying, "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." It's an OK translation in every way but this: the verbs Zaccheas using are not in the future tense, but are in the present. The crowd presumes that Zaccheas hoards his possessions and not only cheats the people, but fails to pay the penalty, and so when Jesus invites himself to Zaccheas' house, Jesus joins their set of THOSE people, the sinners. But Zaccheas is not a cheat, nor does he hoard his wealth; as he says, "I give half of my wealth to the poor, and if I find I have defrauded anyone, I pay back four times as much." These are things he is already doing, even before meeting Jesus. This chief tax collector, who receives only disdain from his neighbors, is actually far more generous and intentional about doing justice than is the respectable ruler of Luke 18:18-25.

As in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, this story in Luke has Jesus on the wrong side! He has made the same assumptions about Zacchaeus as everyone else. So, of course, the interpretation must be wrong, for he was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) Yet I've always thought Jesus sinlessness was evidenced in his immediate repentance of his prejudice in the case of the Caananite woman— most of us defend ourselves when we're caught out— "I'm not racist… " He does the same here. Immediately he says, "Today salvation has come to this house..."

Luke is writing to his own community 50 years after Jesus' death. His Jesus is not talking to the people of Jericho; those people living on the last stop to Jerusalem; he is talking to Luke's folk, and now to us, at our last stop. And however we read it, the problem in this story is not Zacchaeus; it is us. Are our eyes opened (18:35-43) or are we grumbling?

Are we learning, like Jesus, shedding our wealth, giving our lives, or do we think we know what people are like, and what God thinks of them?

Do we restrict God's grace to the nice people like us? If we do then Zacchaeus is an honourable man, but we are like the rich young ruler, holding on to the riches of our prejudices and preconceptions, walking away sadly, stuck in our trees, locking our doors. We are settling down in Jericho and going no further.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Online resources I found helpful for this study are:
Vitor Westhelle  - Exposing Zacchaeus  
Brian Stoffregen  - Luke 19.1-10  Proper 26 - Year C
Dylan Breur  -
Proper 26, Year C

I have previously covered this text in  The Mystery of Grace.  Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!



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