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All the Saints From A to Z(acchaeus)
November 3, 2013
On my library shelf is a delightful book by Frederick Buechner, titled Peculiar Treasures. It’s a collection of short essays about biblical saints. Arranged alphabetically, it begins with Aaron and ends with Zacchaeus. Each of these saints, Buechner contends, is quite peculiar, original in his or her own way. He describes Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned. He tells about Jacob conning everybody, including his own father. Then there’s Jael, who drove a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest. Buechner writes about Saul the paranoid, David the Adulterer, and so on until he gets to the last entry in the book, which is, of course, Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus,” Buechner concludes, “makes a good one to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others, too.”
Now I’m aware that many of you have heard the story of Zacchaeus so many times that the story, though charming, may have grown stale and predictable. If fact, you may not have learned anything new about Zacchaeus since you sat on the floor in Vacation Bible School singing, Zacchaeus was a wee little man… (Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing the song.) But I am going to share something new about this story this morning. At least it was new to me during my recent re-examination of the text. In fact, I learned this week that I have based my understanding of the Zacchaeus story on what is almost surely a flawed interpretation. So let’s listen with fresh ears to the story of this man who, alphabetically speaking, is the last of all the biblical saints.
Some aspects of this story are firmly established and universally accepted. For example, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. We all know that tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews. In Luke, tax collectors are synonymous with sinners, because they were viewed as collaborators with the Roman occupiers. Fraud was built into the tax system of that day, and people deeply resented the taxes as well as the tax collectors who profited from the system.
Much is made of the fact that Zacchaeus was small of stature, which we assume is why he had to climb a tree to catch so much as a glimpse of Jesus. But the mention of his size may refer to more than his physical stature. It also signals his status in the community. He is small in the eyes of his neighbors. He’s ignorable, and easy to dismiss. Thus his difficulty in seeing Jesus may be due not only to his physical height, but also to the barriers erected by the community. That is, his neighbors may have shunned or barricaded him because his occupation was held in such low regard. Yes, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and as such he was a sinner in the eyes of his peers. This much is beyond dispute.
Further, Zacchaeus was a person of considerable wealth. That he was rich is another given of the story. Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, wealth has been depicted with suspicion, at best, and, at worst, with outright condemnation. In story after story, Jesus warned people against the dangers of wealth. “Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus said, “for you have received your consolation.” He illustrated the dangers of wealth with a number of parables. And just a few verses before the story of Zacchaeus, we read about the young ruler who came to Jesus, but went away sad, for he was very rich, which led Jesus to say: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.” Thus when we get to the story of Zacchaeus, who is also a rich man, we are prepared to hear yet another warning about riches, or about someone whose wealth disqualifies him from God’s kingdom. It’s clear to everyone that Zacchaeus has at least two strikes against him: he is both rich and a tax collector.
And most interpreters of this story, myself included, have taken the story of Zacchaeus as a classic, maybe the classic, repentance story. You know how it goes: Jesus comes to Zacchaeus embodying the acceptance and forgiveness of God. In response, Zacchaeus repents by promising to give half his money to the poor and restore four-fold any person he has defrauded. Whereupon Jesus announces that salvation has come to Zacchaeus. This sequence of events has been turned into a set theological formula for how salvation in Christ works. First forgiveness, followed by repentance and–te dum–salvation.
But wait. Just when we think we have this story all fixed in our minds, it breaks free of our neat categories and set formulas. Contrary to most contemporary translations, including the NRSV that I read from this morning, the verbs in Zacchaeus’ declaration are actually present, rather than future, tense. In other words, even before meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus is already giving half his goods to the poor, and he’s already paying restitution. The old RSV, by contrast, gets it right. It translates Zacchaeus as saying to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, I give to the poor. And if I defraud anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” By explaining his current practice of generosity, Zacchaeus was defending himself against the grumblings of the crowd. Zacchaeus may have been a tax collector, but he was exceedingly generous with his wealth and he far exceeded what the law required for restitution.
Previously in Luke’s gospel, we’ve heard only negative statements about riches and wealth. But here we meet Zacchaeus, a rich man who was using his wealth as God intended wealth to be used—to help those who need it. When Jesus heard how generous Zacchaeus had been with his wealth, he silenced the disapproving crowd and announced that Zacchaeus was indeed a child of Abraham, one of the covenantal people, a beloved child of God. Even though he was rejected and despised by his community, Jesus named this outsider as one of God’s saints, and, even more, one who lived like it!
The beauty of scripture is that, just when we think we have a passage figured out, we can be surprised by a fresh insight. I no longer believe that the story of Zacchaeus is a simple conversion story of forgiveness and repentance. Instead, it’s yet another story about Jesus welcoming into God’s favor a person others have rejected. The good people of Jericho thought they had Zacchaeus pegged as a sinner, an outsider, a lost soul. Then Jesus came along and named him one of God’s saints.
Friends, on this All-Saints Sunday, the story of Zacchaeus serves as a reminder that saints don’t conform to any pre-determined pattern or simple definition. To use Buechner’s expression, God has many peculiar treasures, people who span the alphabet from A to Z. Rest assured that somewhere within that span of God’s embrace your name and mine have been included.