Room for surprise

Zacchaeus – we know him well, right? He is the chief tax collector, short of stature, wealthy, looked down upon by Romans and Jews alike. His fellow countrymen considered him a sinner – says so right there in verse 7. They know him. We know him. If you go to Jericho today, they will show you the sycamore tree in which Zacchaeus climbed just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. We know the story, right? Another sinner that Jesus has come to rescue from perdition. Says so right there in verse 10 “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.

St. Luke is a pretty good story teller. Luke chapter 15 is a wonderful collection of parables about things lost and found: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Different kinds of lost, but one kind of found. While those are parables, isn’t the story of Zacchaeus just the Luke 15 teaching moment come to life? Zacchaeus is a bit lost. He is not part of the Roman world. He is shunned by the Jewish world. He is betwixt and between. He is lost. And now he is found! He meets Jesus, he repents, makes promises, has dinner with Jesus. End of story. Right?

We all know people who are like Zacchaeus, right? So, go and be Jesus for them. Reach out to them, love them, and help them unmake choices so as to return to the path of righteousness. Just as the Father has sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us. End of homily. Lesson learned. And we can all breathe a collective sigh. Thankful that Jesus has saved Zacchaeus and grateful Jesus did not make us like him!

Wait a minute…. wasn’t that last week’s gospel of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Did we just become the Pharisee who while striving for righteousness assumes too much and thinks he knows the tax collector? Does he know the heart and life of the other man? For the first century listener of Jesus’ parable, there is a surprise ending – the tax collector goes home justified before God. We 21st century listeners are not surprised, but maybe we should be.

Maybe we should leave some room for surprise in our listening to today’s gospel. Maybe we should even go in search of surprise. Luke has already given us a surprise or two in his gospel, mentioning several unlikely models of faith. Saints if you like: a Roman soldier, a “good” Samaritan, a shrewd manager who was commended for his dishonesty, a Samaritan leper who was the only person to give thanks for his healing, and yet another tax collector who was commended as more righteous than a sanctimonious Pharisee.

Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector, short of stature, wealthy, looked down upon by Romans and Jews alike. Where is there any surprise in this story? “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” He repented and promised to do better in the future. Right?

Would you be surprised to know there is no future tense in that verse. The literal translation is “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor…” 

Why would some translators put it in a future tense? It is not a translation question, it is one of interpretation, so they say. But maybe it’s just a matter of assuming this is a conversion story whose last line about coming to seek and save the lost is a commentary on Zacchaeus. Given it is a conversion story, you can’t have Zacchaeus stand there and inform people that he already gives half his wealth to the poor and if he has unknowingly extorted someone, he already repays them even more than the Law of God demands. But what if it is not a conversion story?

What if it is a story about a hidden saint? Then Jesus has come to seek and save all the people who think they know Zacchaeus – and the present tense makes sense in what Luke is trying to convey to us. Rather than a story about a sinner who repents, this is a story about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like, all the while thinking they know Zacchaeus. The crowd did not know of Zacchaeus’ generosity or righteousness. Their own assumptions and prejudices blinded them as they thought to themselves, “Thank God I am not like Zacchaeus.”

Would you be surprised to know that the name Zacchaeus means “righteous one?” Jesus knew all along.  Our encounters with Jesus are meant to surprise us even when we think we already know the story. The Zacchaeus episode confronts us and makes us wonder about our assumptions of who is a sinner and who is a saint.

Halloween and All Saints Day is upon us. On Tuesday we will honor the lives of the Saints of God. Today’s gospel should give us metaphorical pause to wonder how many saints were already at our door the night before. Today’s gospel should give us pause to wonder how many hidden saints there are in our lives already.

On this day, when you come to receive Holy Communion, be last week’s tax collector and pray, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Pray, “Lord, let me widen the circle of my life to include my own Zacchaeus.” Pray, “Lord, give me eyes to see the saints around me.”  And pray, “Lord, surprise me.”


Image credit: “Zacchaeus” by Niels Larsen Stevns (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen) (Randers Museum of Art, Randers, Denmark), Public Domain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.