October 30, 2022

Zacchaeus: Saint or Sinner?

The Reverand Ann Conti
tax collector in a tree

When I was teaching, sometimes, because I was certified in math and science, I would be given a science class to teach. One year, before the middle school was built, my principal had me teach 8th-grade science.

This was the year that the show Dawson’s Creek premiered, and the kids were crazy for it. They hid magazines about it to read during class, they passed notes, wondering what poor adorable Dawson would do next. It drove me crazy. Add to that, I didn’t have a science lab to teach in; I was using a language classroom where flags from various Hispanic countries were hanging from the ceiling.

So I would bring in demos.

Big quilts to pad the floor as I stood on a desk, dropping a big rock and a stone to show that minus air resistance, they land at the same time because acceleration due to gravity is constant.
I thought it was great;

Isn’t this amazing?!! I’d say.

Are you wondering how this could be??

They continued to weep silently over Dawson’s Creek.

However, one assignment I gave them they actually liked. I called it Friction: Friend or Foe? The lesson to understand was friction is sometimes a help and sometimes a problem.

We wouldn’t be able to stop our cars without friction. Or make fire. But friction also wears down machinery and the heat that comes along with it has to be dissipated. The kids would look at pictures or items in the classroom and talk about the force of friction at work. I think they liked it because it related to their bikes and four-wheelers.

We could do something like this with Zacchaeus in today’s lesson Zacchaeus: Saint or Sinner?

The story of Zacchaeus is found only in Luke but even coming around every three years; I’m sure we’re familiar with it. It’s a great story for Sunday School. Drawing the tree, people looking up and laughing at Zacchaeus, his robe flapping around his ankles, holding onto a branch…

This lesson is a sister lesson to last week and, in general, is part of Luke’s travel narrative, which began in chapter 9 when Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. As he makes his way to Jerusalem, Jesus’ teachings take on new and deeper meanings as if he were presenting them knowing he was getting closer and closer to his death; he had things he wanted to leave with us, and time was growing short, lessons to be explained, sometimes more than once.

Saint or sinner all depends on the translation of the verb.

Either Zacchaeus is struck by Jesus’ divinity and has a transformation, like the tax collector from last week, and he comes down and is so moved that Jesus is coming to his house that he makes a confession on the spot, I will give half of what I make away, and I’ll return four times what I’ve embezzled. It’s a beautiful lesson. It shows us Jesus’ effect on those who are open to him and teaches by example that we should present ourselves to God just as we are.

Another interpretation puts the verb in the present tense.

Zacchaeus could be saying; I have yearned to see you, Jesus, I know tax collectors are hated, I know they steal and are cruel and get rich by hurting others. But I don’t do that. Yeah I’m a tax collector, but somebody has to do it, and I’m honest. I give away half of what I earn, and if I do see that I’ve cheated someone, I pay them back fourfold.

This new interpretation reminds us that sometimes Jesus’s lesson has a surprise in it, like the Good Samaritan or the one grateful leper who was a foreigner.

And it reminds us of a mistake we might be making: misjudging the person who is really the example of who we should be or what we should be doing.

Is it a foreshadowing of what’s to come at Jesus’ trial, where he’s falsely demonized for political reasons?

The name Zacchaeus means “righteous” Is it irony or a good description of the man? Is it the straightforward story of a man short in stature and spirituality that grows in understanding and love like the Grinch’s heart, or is bigger than that, giving us a hint of how Jesus’ divine mind works?

I can’t imagine Jesus not having other things in his mind as he taught. Particularly as he gets closer to Jerusalem. I hope he can remember all the hugs the hosts of heaven gave him before he left for his Incarnation. Maybe he’s remembering how foolish Adam and Eve were. They were told not to do just one thing, don’t eat from that tree. It’s not like they were asked to put together something from Ikea. But they couldn’t do it. Maybe he is already praying for strength. Maybe he’s seeing the pain in his mom’s eyes. And all of the infinite and divine ideas and memories that Jesus might have can spill into his lessons and turns things upside down. To give us a foretaste of God’s kingdom, free of competition and greed and pettiness and want.

So which do we choose? It doesn’t matter. It’s up to you. Choose the one that speaks truth to you. Or choose both or neither.

Each, in its own way, drives home once again a big theme of Luke’s: that Jesus welcomes sinners and forgives the truly repentant.

Maybe the big takeaway is we don’t know what Jesus intended. That’s what I wonder about. Perhaps everything I’m doing that I’m sure is good isn’t, and I’ve missed something.

I know God will give us an A for effort and intent, but we should always be open to seeing a new truth, taking a new perspective, and greeting a person in a new light. That’s living and growing and learning and loving like Jesus.