I’ve spent some time this week studying and doing a ‘close reading’ of the story of Zacchaeus. You know, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he…”? The story only shows up in the gospel of Luke, which means it’s significant. Why, you ask? So, if we look at what are typically called the ‘synoptic Gospels’, which means basically the gospels that generally tell the same stories with different twists and details, the stories that are unique to them are often there to tell us something more. Something that Matthew and Mark ignored served a purpose to Luke in the story of Zacchaeus (heretofore referred to as ‘Z’). I’ve arrived at some conclusions that I think are pretty interesting, and as I wrote an “Interpretive” paper on Luke 19:1-10 today, it’s fresh in my mind.
First, a brief summary of the story: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will face his ultimate death. He passes through Jericho, where we meet Z, who is the chief tax collector and a rich man, who also happens to be short. He wants to see Jesus, for who knows what reason, and on account of his height, he decides to run ahead to climb a (sycamore) fig tree (fig trees have low hanging branches, so this makes sense for a short person to do). When Jesus passes him, he says, “Z! Hurry down! I am going to stay at your place today.” Z hurries down and gladly welcomes Jesus, while the rest of the people grumble about how Jesus is going to stay at a sinner’s house. Z stops in his tracks, and publicly promises Jesus that he will give half of his possessions to the poor, and pay four times as much as he has defrauded anyone (presumably on taxes). Jesus says that salvation has come to the house of Z, as he is a child of Abraham, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”.
Why this story? Why here?
If you look at the gospel of Luke, in the previous chapter he relays the story of the ‘rich young ruler’. If you recall, this guy asks Jesus what he must do to inherit ‘eternal life’. Jesus ultimately tells him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, and the rich young ruler walks away sad, because he has a lot of possessions. Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The people (disciples?) ask, “Who can be saved then?” Jesus says that with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
If you look again at the story of Z, you see that we are told he is a rich man. Coincidence? In this story, Z, the rich man, commits to give his possessions to the poor, and Jesus responds by telling everyone that salvation has come to Z and his household. This is a literary reversal, in which Luke shows us that what we thought previously was indeed impossible (for a rich person to enter the Kingdom) is not so impossible after all.
But that’s not all.
I decided to look at the significance of Jericho as the setting of this little unique story in Luke. Why is Jericho important? What do we know about Jericho? If you recall, “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down”. God wiped out the entire city of Jericho in the book of Joshua. But, there’s a particular character that Luke’s story echoes – Rahab the prostitute. Not only is she a ‘sinner’, but she and her entire household is saved by the Israelite army because she hid two spies from the Jericho-ean(?) authorities on account of the fact that she ‘feared’ the God of Israel. And then, the book of Hebrews says that she is counted faithful because she ‘gladly welcomed’ the Israelite spies. A sinner, whose household is saved, because she gladly welcomed some guys. Sound familiar?
But that’s not all.
As a tax collector, Z represents all that is wrong in Israel – he takes Jewish money from Jews and gives it to the Roman Empire. He is a collaborator with Israel’s oppressors, the very regime that Israel is crying out to God for deliverance from. He’s not just a ‘sinner’, he’s a traitor. And everyone knows it. He’s gotten rich off of the hard work of his fellow Jews, all while giving money to the enemy. He was about as lost as one could be as an Israelite. But we see in Luke 15 that God is all about lost things. He’s all about finding the lost, and saving the lost. And Z’s story exemplifies this too. Z also reminds us that God’s concern is ultimately for the poor, even as a rich man. Salvation is found by Z through his participation in God’s plan to take care of and vindicate the poor.
So, there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye, right? Z’s story is not just a cute song for kids to sing in church. It’s a story that reminds us that no one is as ‘lost’ as we think they might be. All it takes is a dynamic encounter with Jesus. Take the time sometime to read and ask questions of the Bible – you might be surprised at how many layers of meaning there are in any given story. And, that might make the Bible become Scripture for you, just a little bit.