This coming Sunday is the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Yesterday we considered Zacchaeus’ quest and the ongoing Lucan question: who can be saved. Today, the story continues.
Zacchaeus, in spite of his reputation, is an attractive person. In our brief meeting, qualities akin to those of Peter emerge. Zacchaeus is spontaneous and impetuous, given to extravagant statements. But there is a deep genuineness. Though he is a person of some importance, his position does not prevent him from climbing the sycamore tree nor from publicly admitting his guilt and professing his repentance. Jesus says this is a son of Abraham, even if he is a tax collector. He should not be ostracized because of his failings but helped to find his way back to the flock.
In the previous paragraph there is an assertion that Zacchaeus has repented. While this is the majority understanding, Green (Gospel of Luke, 672) notes that the verbs in Zacchaeus’s speech are present tense: “I give … I pay back” and interprets them as “present progressives: “My customary practice is to give half of what I have to the poor, etc.” Green states:
Luke’s narrative mentions nothing of Zacchaeus’s need for repentance, act of repentance, or faith; nor of Jesus’ summons to repentance; nor does he in any other way structure this episode as a “story of conversion.” According to this reading, Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus evaluation his current behaviors regarding money. He even joins the narrator in referring to Jesus as “Lord.” Jesus’ reference to “salvation” (v. 9), then, signifies Zacchaeus’s vindication and restoration to the community of God’s people; he is not an outsider, after all, but has evidenced through his economic practices his kinship with Abraham (cf. 3:7-14). Zacchaeus thus joins the growing roll of persons whose “repentance” lies outside the narrative, who appear on the margins of the people of God, and yet who possess insight into and a commitment to the values of Jesus’ mission that are exemplary.
However, if it had been Zacchaeus’s habit to give and pay back, why is there so much grumbling about Jesus going to the house of a sinner? Is it that the people can not see Zacchaeus’ righteousness because of their own presuppositions of the nature of a tax collector? Or is it simply that, as most translators understand, that Zacchaeus has had a moment of conversion and is responding appropriately.
Culpepper (Luke, 358)
The interpretive crux of this story appears is Zacchaeus’s declaration in v.8. The pronouncement is introduced by the report that Zacchaeus “stood up: (isttemi; cf. 18:40). Traditionally, this verse has been read as an indication of the genuineness of Zacchaeus’s repentance.
Culpepper notes scholarly speculation similar to Green’s comments above and acknowledges that there is a basic interpretive choice between Green’s position (Zacchaeus’ customary actions) and a statement that indicates Zacchaeus’ resolve henceforth to rectify his past injustices. Culpepper continues
Nevertheless, the latter part of v.8 tips the interpreter’s scales in favor of the traditional reading. Zacchaeus is not protesting his customary actions to the disbelieving crowd. Instead, he is freely declaring his resolve to make amends for his part wrongs as a result to the honor Jesus has bestowed on him.
There is the usual murmuring. It is not uncommon in Luke for people to complain about Jesus – and usually about the same thing – his mercy towards sinners!
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were at table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus said to them in reply, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. 32 I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 5:29-32).
1The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, 2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Verse 7 in our text is one of those grumbling verses: When they [Pharisees] all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” One of the definitions of “grumble” [diagogguzo] is to “complain because of disappointed hopes.” Admittedly this is a secondary meaning, still, one wonders about the root of the Pharisees. Did they take it that the Messiah would not be gracious to sinners? Maybe they could just not accept that Zecchaeus could obtain forgiveness so easily. Three Sundays ago Naaman the Syrian could not believe that he would be cured of leprosy by simply dipping in the Jordan River – he wanted some mysterious and elaborate ceremony. Perhaps that is what the Pharisees are expecting – any would-be Messiah should castigate the sinner and provide a list of offenses and only after the sinner has rend their garments and heaped ashes upon their own head – only then would forgiveness be dispensed. Otherwise, isn’t it a cheap grace?
Image credit: “Zacchaeus” by Niels Larsen Stevns (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen) (Randers Museum of Art, Randers, Denmark), Public Domain