Hypocrites or Assholes?
Gospel: Luke 19: 1-9
35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37They told him, ‘Jesus the Nazorean is passing by.’ 38Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 39Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 40Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ 42Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved [σέσωκέν] you.’ 43Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
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 sycomore 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, [καὶ ἰδόντες πάντες διεγόγγυζον λέγοντες] ‘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 (present active) 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, [τῷ οἴκῳ τούτῳ] because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately....
Note: Hebrew Zakkay means "clean, innocent," a term often used in parallelism to saddiq, "righteous, upright." (The Gospel According to Luke, Joseph Fitzmyer pp 1223)
Hypocrites and Assholes
I want to put Zacchaeus into our life story. What happens when Jesus comes to us and suddenly, there up a tree, we see a Zacchaeus? Will we pull him down, or follow him to Jesus
We need some context from Luke.
One: we are on the way to Jerusalem; we are called to follow Jesus and risk our own deaths. Jericho was a not uncommon stopping point for Jews coming down from the north... (although this clashes with the sense that Jesus did not avoid Samaria in Luke 17:11!)
Two: this story is linked to the story of the blind man by the side of the road (Luke 18:35-43) by the mention of Jericho in both stories.
Following on the episode of the blind man who sought compassion from Jesus that he might see again (18:41) this episode presents a wealthy inhabitant of Jericho taking unwonted [dictionary: rare, unusual] steps "to catch sight" of Jesus as he passes. (Fitzmyer p1222)
I find it hard to think this seeking to see Jesus is about Zacchaeus merely wondering "who is that they're making a fuss over?" any more than one would think the giving of sight to the blind man was meant to signify merely a biomedical cure.
Three: we have just heard that "Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Luke 18:25)
Four: We have seen a man who neither fears God nor has regard for people (18:2,4) immediately before the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the temple.
Five: Luke turns people and expectations upside down. He shows Jesus' actions in the world being quite at odds with the normal cultural judgements. Samaritans are shown as good and god-fearing, (17:11-19) and a tax collector is justified rather than a Pharisee. (18:9-14)
Which makes it odd that Luke is translated with Zacchaeus saying he will give half of his possessions to the poor and will make a fourfold reparation to anyone he has defrauded (eg NRSV) when the tense of the Greek verbs is "present active"; that is, I give, not I will give. It is the same tense as that used by the Pharisee in the temple: I give a tenth of all my income. It is plainly not meant to be I will give.
Yet this turning upside down of things by Luke is translated out of the text.
There is a sixth point to observe: In Luke 5:30 the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples about Jesus eating with tax-collectors; the word is egongyzon. (ἐγόγγυζον) In Luke 15:2 the Pharisees and Scribes were complaining again about him being with tax collectors and sinners; this time it's diegongyzon, essentially the same word. And now in Luke 19 it says all seeing were complaining (diegongyzon again) about him going to the house of a chief tax collector who is a sinner.
This word has a history. In the LXX or Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament used by many people in Jesus' time it is the word used "for the people of Israel murmuring against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness." (Davis) In Exodus 16:2 it says διεγόγγυζε πᾶσα συναγωγὴ lit: complained the-whole gathering (συναγωγὴ is the word the NT uses for synagogue, btw.)
So this complaining and "murmuring" might not simply be of the soup is cold variety. This is rather a murmuring against God's way of leading out of slavery and into freedom.
After this introduction, how do we read the story of Zacchaeus? Traditionally, he is called down from his tree by Jesus who goes to his place to eat, he repents and promises to give money to the poor and to make reparation, and so it is that salvation comes to his house.
What about those present tense verbs then? Well, they must be balanced against the context which is of a plain and obvious sinner who is deeply embedded in the Roman system of Empire and extortion. This means the text can only mean will give and will repay; how else could salvation come to this house? Such a reading fits beautifully into our modern individualistic fetish of personal salvation and conversion. And for those of us who consider ourselves more socially aware, Craddock says (pp218 ) "no one can be privately righteous while participating in and profiting from a program that robs and crushes other people." Indeed, I've read the text and wondered what Zacchaeus did next, for he could hardly continue as a tax collector, could he? It would be like a Christian running a gun shop or a liquor store. Are such people 'real' Christians?
Joseph Fitzmyer, hardly a raving radical, says
Part of the problem is the modern reader's reluctance to admit that the Lucan Jesus could declare the vindication of a rich person who was concerned for the poor and even for his own customary conduct. (pp1221)
We are right there with those who condemn Zacchaeus. And when we mutter and complain about sinners,
Zaccheus bristles; he may be a "sinner," but he gives half of his possessions to the poor and makes reparation in generous fashion for any extortion in which he may have been involved. Zaccheus is not self-effacing, but he is not boasting either [compare] the protestation of the self-asserting Pharisee in 18:11-12 with the deferential defense that the toll collector makes here.
Fitzmyer goes on to say
Jesus' pronouncement of salvation (v9) is not made to reveal his own power in forgiving sin or to imply that former sins of extortion are remitted (recall the conditions in Zacchaeus' statement, "if," not "when"). His words are addressed to the grumbling crowd; they vindicate Zacchaeus and make it clear that even such a person can find salvation: He too is a son of Abraham. This does not mean that Zacchaeus has become a child of Abraham in some spiritual sense (as in Pauline usage, Gal 3:7,29; Rom 4:16-17); Jesus seeks lodging from him because he is really an offspring of Abraham, a Jew, with as much claim to the salvation which Jesus brings as any other Israelite (cf. 13:16).... In particular, Zacchaeus is seen as a foil to the ... rich magistrate [18:18-23] who was called in a special challenge ... to sell all that he had but who could not bring himself to do so. Now worthy Zacchaeus divests himself of half of all his possessions. He is presented in this episode as an exemplary rich person who has understood something of Jesus' ministry and message and concern for the poor and the cheated. Lastly, following on the episode of the blind man who sought compassion from Jesus that he might "see again" (18:41), this episode presents a wealthy and habitat of Jerusalem taking unwonted steps "to catch sight of Jesus" as he passes. (1221-2)
Fitzmyer also asks
Is it clear that Zacchaeus is a "sinner" in the episode who repents (cp 7:37-48; 5:20-21), despite the estimate of him attributed to "all" who were accompanying Jesus? He does not beg Jesus for mercy (cp.17:13: 18:38) or express any sorrow (cp. 15:21; 18:31). Jesus makes no reference to Zacchaeus' faith (cp. 7:50; 8:48), repentance or conversion (cp. 17:7,10), or discipleship. (1220)
I've quoted Fitzmyer at length because I wonder why, given that the translation of the tense of the verbs in the story has been subject to much discussion among scholars, I never heard of it despite 7 years in theological college, until my wife preached on it during my second placement. And that led to outrage. I've been going to church since I was four.
Why does one translation seem so "right" and the other one seem so unintuitive? Why is one of them buried? Especially since it's what we might expect, given that Jesus in Luke turns things upside down?
It's because we'd like our common reading to be true. We need someone to blame. Our common reading of Jesus' and Luke's attitude to tax collectors is this: I know there is something dodgy going on with the climate, but I read that Greta Thunberg drank water out of a plastic bottle once, so I don't need to listen to her; I'm not the problem.
Jonathon Pie (a British comedian) recently said "When it comes to the climate crisis you are either a hypocrite or an asshole. The time has come to decide which you'd rather be..." The hypocrite is concerned— perhaps deeply concerned about the brewing catastrophe— and yet compromised by all they do, for we are all complicit in the despoliation of the planet. The asshole simply doesn't care what is happening to the world.
In Luke we have an asshole: It is the judge in Luke 18 who neither fears God nor has regard for people; the word is vulgar, but it describes a way of being. And we have a hypocrite in Luke. Do I mean the Pharisee in the temple: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector." No. The hypocrite is the tax-collector in the temple who repents but goes home to be a tax collector. He is the one who knows he is complicit, like Zacchaeus, in the machinations of Empire, who is a bit like me, really: Someone writing on a computer in a nice house while the world is being brought to its knees because of our injustice and exploitation of people and planet so we can have a computer— and a smart phone.
The Pharisee in the temple has gone down to Jericho for the weekend, and is among those criticising Zacchaeus— who likely also went to temple and was repentant. But we, all those with Jesus, forget that. We judge Zacchaeus. We ignore Jesus' statement that even tax collectors repent. We take the side of the Pharisee and stand much much closer to the asshole judge than we do to the hypocritical tax collector. We murmur and complain about the one who is doing something that walks the road to freedom, however imperfectly. And who, for all their faults, may even be doing it better than us, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And we do it because we are afraid. We are rich. We know how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. We know the rich are bringing the world to its knees. So we need someone we can point at, someone we can say is worse than us. We all do it. We all blame someone. We all rationalise our own position.
Yet all we can do is be a Zacchaeus. All we can do is respond out of our riches, knowing that our response is too little, knowing we hold back in our compassion because we are afraid, and because our trust of Jesus (aka our faith in Jesus) is too weak. We will do well if we get near Zacchaeus' generosity and compassion! But if we pretend to be other than a Zacchaeus, and as soon as we condemn another as being only "a tax collector and sinner," we begin to walk away from the Christ to join the Pharisee in the temple, and thus to join the unjust judge.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 19:1-10 - The Mystery of Grace (2010)
Luke 19:1-9 - The Story of the Holy Tax Collector (2013
Worth the Read
A Repentant Sinner or a Hidden Saint?" Daniel B. Clendenin
"Contemporary and Awful and Faithful," Stan Duncan
"Exposing Zacchaeus" Vitor Westhelle