Zacchaeus in the Present Tense

Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie
“He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10 NRSV)

Zacchaeus Breaks The Mold

Zacchaeus is a pretty well-known story from the bible. There is a song written about him. He has some colorful traits that make him somewhat easy to identify, like being short and climbing a tree.

But the familiarity with his story in this instance might actually work against us.

The way that Luke tells the story we are supposed to pick up on certain characteristics that Zacchaeus represents.

  • While he is Jewish, he is also considered a sinner by his fellow Jews.
  • He is a chief tax collector
  • He is rich

The story tells us that he was short in stature and that “on account of the crowd, he was blocked from seeing Jesus.”

Before we move on, let’s review where Luke has brought us recently:

It’s important to remember who has been the main characters in the Gospel of Luke even in just the preceding chapter: A persistent widow, a pharisee and tax collector, children, a rich young ruler and a blind beggar.

Zacchaeus, because he is a “sinner” and “tax collector,” is someone of low honor and status in his community. He’s considered unclean, rejected by his religious community for choices he’s made.

And yet the story is meant to keep us from the temptation of easily classifying people, or assigning them a “single story” and saying, okay now we have them figured it out.

And here’s why Zaccheaus breaks the mold. We have often heard his story then you’ve probably heard it told that when Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house, he finally sees the light and repents, and Jesus then says “Salvation has come to this house.”

And that’s how it gets translated in some versions of the bible: Zacchaeus says

“Lord, I will give to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8 NRSV)

However, the story is far more interesting than this!

Jesus does not find someone with a repentant heart, but rather someone who has already oriented his life around the practices of the kingdom of God.

A better translation of this text is to take the verb being mistranslated as the future tense “I will” and render it in the present:

“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.

Jesus discovers Zacchaeus is actually one of the good guys.

Zacchaeus actually already gives his money to those in need. Reading this story up against Luke 18’s “rich Young ruler” we see that rich=bad no longer holds water as a stereotype in the Gospel.

When Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house, because he is a son of Abraham,” what he was really 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 (Joel Green 673).

The Danger of a Single Story

Can you see why I think this is a stunning and beautiful story?

One of the challenges this story offers us is that it calls into question what we might call a “single-story” approach to one another.

A single-story is a story we tell about someone or a group of people that collapses that person’s experience, history, feelings, his or her uniqueness down into a flat stereotype. It allows us to “understand” them without knowing them, and often works as a justification for mistreating of other human beings.

Zacchaeus is a victim of a single-story, he is someone for whom a lot of people already have made their pre-judgements and are not interested in knowing him or anything else about him.

And as we see, both in this story and in our own times:

A single-story telling about people leads to a lot of good people being rejected, pushed out, harmed and finally uninvited to God’s community.

I came across a TED Talk this week that was on Rachel Held Evans blog by a Nigerian woman named Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie. The title of her talk is “The Danger of a Single Story.

The main point of her talk is that because we are so “impressionable in the face of a story” we need to be ever aware of the fact that:

Single stories create stereotypes. The problem isn’t that stereotypes are not true, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

And so we have a bad experience with a poor person and every poor person after that is subjected to that one story we tell ourselves. Our country has a negative encounter with Muslims, and so all Muslims are like this one instance. And what about immigrants? Or black people? People who are gay? Rich folks? “Non-believers?” Maybe it’s “The people in my church” or “the pastor.”

Single-stories are compelling and they sell – this is why the media, politics and religion often get caught up in them. But they do not open us up to more mercy and grace, and they do not help us to see with the eyes of Jesus.

The Jesus I believe in is one who deconstructs the lies of the single-story, and revealed the goodness and humanity in the least expected places.

And so the Zacchaeus story defies a single-story telling.

Yes, he was a tax collector, yes he was rich, yes he was a sinner, and yes — he was short — and all of this is a part of his story and make him who he was. But that’s not all, as Adichie says,

“to insist on only the negative stories is to flatten my experience and overlook the many other stories that have formed me.”

The point is that God sees our whole selves. God’s sight is not blinded by the stories we have been told about ourselves by our parents, churches, culture or media.

Jesus welcomes you to believe a bigger, richer story about yourself as well. In Zacchaeus, we learn that one way the mercy of God works is by using stories to repair a person’s broken dignity. Salvation is about being restored into the community of the people of God.