Sunday, October 31, 2010

Zaccheus and the Verb Tense of Doom!

I got challenged to look at an old story a new way.

I highly recommend it.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Do you remember the children’s song, “Zaccheus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…”? I was going to start out this morning’s sermon by singing the whole thing, but that’s all I remember.

But if you’ve been going to church as long as I have (nine months before I was born), you’ve heard the story of this man, Zaccheus. He was, indeed, a wee little man, both short in stature, physically, short in moral stature, because he is a tax collector, and as a result, short in stature in his community.

We talked last week about tax collectors, and how they were, to the people of first-century Palestine, on a level with prostitutes and Samaritans. Zaccheus’ name means “clean” or “innocent,” is clearly neither one – not only is he a tax collector, he is the chief tax collector! And rich to boot, probably by taxing his fellow Jews into poverty.

In the Roman provinces there were three main kinds of taxes: a produce tax on all the crops and goods produced, a universal poll tax assessed every resident, and a toll or customs tax to be paid as goods were transported from one province to another. To collect this last tax, custom booths were located at the border between provinces on all the major highways and trade routes. The tax collectors would often overstate, and thus overtax, the value of goods. Furthermore, Roman law allowed the tax collectors to confiscate and keep goods not declared by the merchant. Here too, the system was ripe for abuse as many tax collectors would improperly seize goods.

You would think that, upon hearing that Jesus was passing through on his way to Jerusalem, Zaccheus wouldn’t have been interested, or would have been intimidated, even fearful. At the very least, we’d expect him to approach Jesus in the same way the tax collector in last week’s reading approached prayer: penitently, on his knees, begging forgiveness and mercy.

Besides, honestly, climbing a tree? Zaccheus is a grown man, for crying out loud! And men in those days didn’t even wear pants!

But things almost never go the way we expect them to when it comes to Jesus. Not only is Zaccheus curious enough about this itinerant Rabbi to climb a tree so he can get a glimpse as the teacher passes by, Jesus notices him – calls him by name – and invites himself to Zaccheus’ home!

And far from being fearful, or contrite, or even embarrassed, Zaccheus is overjoyed! Excited to have Jesus come and visit! It’s almost as if Monty Python had written the scene!

One thing in this story goes exactly the way you’d expect, though, doesn’t it? The crowd is scandalized, shocked, disgusted, angry! Why, this so-called prophet can’t even tell, or worse, doesn’t even care, what kind of man he’s talking to! The nerve – staying at the house of such an evil, vile, sinful… tax collector!

But who’s this story about – Jesus, or Zaccheus? If it’s about Jesus, then we are reminded that Jesus is all about finding the lost, and if you want to find the most lost person in a Judean town, you’re not going to get much more lost than a chief tax collector! And a hyperactive, tree-climbing chief tax collector at that!

If it’s about Jesus, then Zaccheus’ joy at being called down, at being honored by the presence of the Lord of Life in his very own house, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? It’s the perfect picture of God’s prevenient grace – calling us from wherever we are, drawing us to Christ, inviting us into fellowship with the Triune God. And Zaccheus’ words of instant repentance fit right in! “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” And as a response to Zaccheus’ sincere words, Jesus pronounces salvation not only for Zaccheus, but for his entire household.

And of course I posed a ridiculous question to begin with: Certainly, the story is about Jesus! It’s the Gospel of Luke, right? We are walking with Jesus down this road toward Jerusalem, this road that leads to arrest, to torture, to death… and to resurrection, and to the destruction of the barrier between ourselves and our loving Creator. How could any account, and periscope, any Gospel story ever be about anything but Jesus?

So the story isn’t about Zaccheus, but it’s possible we don’t see everything there is to see about this chief tax collector.

Remember that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. And ancient Greek has as much to do with modern Greek as early English has to do with modern English – and if you ever get a chance to look at a page from a manuscript of Beowulf, you’ll see that early English is a wildly different, dead language. For this reason, when it comes to translating the manuscripts of the New Testament into English, sometimes there are words or phrases, even verb tenses, whose meanings are, quite honestly, debated among scholars. And smack-dab in the middle of this periscope is a hotly contested disagreement.

When Zaccheus speaks to Jesus about giving half of his possessions to the poor, and paying back fourfold anything defrauded, he uses the present verb tense. Now, if this were English it would be cut-and-dried, but the fact is that scholars don’t know if the meaning of the verb is as in an action to be taken from that point forward, like it is in our reading from the New Revised Standard Version: "…half of my possessions… I will give to the poor…if I have defrauded anyone… I will pay back..." or if it is a statement of present, ongoing activity, as it is translated in the King James Version:

"…the half of my goods I give to the poor,” it says, then “…if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

If it is the latter, and Zaccheus is responding to the accusations of the townspeople by stating the facts as they are, then he is no longer the man lacking moral stature. Rather, he is someone of exemplary morals, who does the right thing. Zaccheus fulfils far more than what is merely his obligation under the Law of Moses. You see, according to Old Testament law, if a person cheats someone he must make restitution in full and add twenty percent to it. If a person steals from his neighbor he must pay back double as restitution. Further, according to Roman law, a tax collector who wrongfully confiscated goods had to restore double the value. And, if force was used, a threefold restitution had to be made. Zacchaeus’ statement went far beyond the demands of both Old Testament and Roman law; he offered “four times the amount!”

And Zaccheus does this not just when no one around him pays attention, but when everyone around him, even the very people he gives to, the very people who benefit from his generosity, openly hate him!

I don’t know if they still make these, but there used to be plastic, hand-held label makers, where you’d spin a dial to select a letter, press a handle, and as you pressed out letters and words a thin strip of stiff plastic would stick out the end. Squeeze another handle and the plastic was cut off. You’d pull the backing off of the adhesive, and presto! You could label just about anything! You know, every one of us has a kind of label maker. And it’s funny, even with this story of Zaccheus, we humans have our label machines going. We read the story through and label Zaccheus a sinner, a bad man, a thief and a liar who, confronted by the joy and forgiveness of the living Christ, repents, makes restitution, and gets a fresh new “saint” label. After all, that’s the way it’s always told to us.

Yet if we reinterpret Zaccheus’ words to read in the present tense, where he is already acting in a faithful and generous manner with his money and his life, we’re unfairly labeling him, treating him in exactly the same way every resident of Jericho had treated him all his life.

Looking at it from this direction, Zaccheus teaches us more about ourselves than we may want to learn: we are label-makers, and even on the rare occasions where a label is earned, that label does not serve to define. Rather, labels limit, exclude, deny, marginalize. People diappear behind the labels we give them, and behind the ones they give themselves. Lives collapse under the weight of the labels.

But Jesus seeks those who are lost.

And in the face of Zaccheus’ stubborn faithfulness, Jesus does not save Zaccheus from his own actions; rather, Jesus seeks Zaccheus as one lost to those around him. One lost in the labels people have put on him. By seeing him, calling him, staying with him, and blessing him, Jesus declares for all to hear that this Zaccheus, even this chief tax collector, is a child of Abraham...and child of God.

Isn’t it amazing that, any way you look at it, Jesus is seeking and saving the lost. Either way we approach it, Jesus is restoring humankind to God. Either way, when Jesus passes by, nothing is ever the same again.

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