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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Some Wee Little Thoughts on that Famous Short Guy

I'm reading today about Zacchaeus in preparation for preaching on Sunday.  Coming at a story like this one is difficult because of all the baggage that we bring to story, even before we’ve begun to read it.  We’re infected by the Sunday School chorus about a “wee little man” who  goes home to have tea with Jesus, and with countless sermons and devotional writings about his conversion.

But I try to come to it as naively as I can… purposefully looking for ways to shake up my preconceptions.  And I’ve found a couple -not that I’m claiming to have found anything original- but I’ve found new ways to read the story that have provoked me a little.

The story begins (Luke 19: 1 – 10) as Jesus has entered and is passing through Jericho - or in some translations, already passed through Jericho – either way.  It doesn’t seem like he’s planning to spend very long there.  This is a little strange in that Jesus is taking forever with this trip.  He started way back in chapter 9 (9:51).  Now that he’s almost arrived he seems to be in a little bit of hurry. Perhaps he’s realized that he’s just about out of time.

Zacchaeus (whose name means “pure” or “clean” or even “righteous”) was a “chief tax collector” – the Greek word for this position architelones  is not used anywhere else in the bible, neither does it seem to have been used elsewhere in Greek writing up to that time.  Many scholars suggest that it might be better to think of Zacchaeus as a “toll collector.” Stationed in Jericho he was in place to collect the tolls on goods and merchandise being transported along a major trade route.  Merchants transporting goods from Arabia and from East of the Jordan River, as well as those exporting expensive balsams from Jericho to other parts of the world would have to pay a toll before the goods could move past his booth.

And he was rich.  Neither the rich nor the tax (or toll) collectors have fared well under Luke’s pen – but look back to chapter 18 for some immediate context that should influence our understanding of Zacchaeus.  In the parable related in 18: 9 – 14 it is the tax (or toll) collector who is vindicated by God (but perhaps that’s because the only people worse than tax collectors, in Luke’s view, were the Pharisees…).  The rich also don’t get a lot of good press from Luke.  In 18: 18 – 30 the “rich young ruler” comes to Jesus for advice, but goes away dejected because “he was very rich,” prompting the disciples to ask “who then can be saved?” Both of these should be held in mind as we think about Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector.

And he was short.  Maybe.  According to the story we all know, Zacchaeus was short, “wee” even, so short that he couldn’t see Jesus through the crowd.  But some[i] have pointed out that the Greek “he was short” is a little ambiguous.  The “he” could be applied just as easily to Jesus as to Zacchaeus.  I don’t know Greek well enough to make comment here.  But I like the idea of Jesus being “short of stature.”  We’re accustomed to seeing portrayals of Jesus with clear skin, perfect teeth, clean hair, and tall.  But why?  Why do all our visual representations of Jesus make him handsome and attractive?  Do we disregard the gospel writers’ application of Isaiah 53: 2 to Jesus? He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

So let’s go with the short Jesus.  And while we’re at it – short, fat, Jesus with bad teeth (missing teeth!)[ii]

So Zacchaeus climbs the tree, Jesus calls him out, and then says “I must stay at your house.”  I love this. Jesus , who at the beginning of this story seemed in a bit of a hurry, proceeding right through Jericho without lingering (he’s already lingered enough in this 10 chapter trip to Jerusalem), now changes his plans.  “I must stay at your place.”  Must.  This is the providential, serendipitous will of God; Jesus alters his plans to do what must be done.  And Zacchaeus received him joyfully.

But not everyone was so happy.  “They” saw it, and “they all” complained.  Who are “they” and why are “they” always so persnickety? “They” complained that Jesus was going off to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.

Then Zacchaeus said to Jesus, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by fraud I restore it four fold.”  We’ve been used to reading this as evidence of his conversion.  But notice:  he hasn’t said, “I will give.”  He uses the present tense. “I give…”  It sounds like he is defending himself against the accusations of “They.” Maybe he was as clean as his name suggests... The evidence of his salvation isn’t in his sudden willingness to give away his money (though that is good) but in his willingness to see Jesus – and to be seen by Jesus.

There is a lot of “seeing” in this short story. Notice the repeated use of “Behold” “Look” “See” “Saw.”

These are a few wee little thoughts about that famous short man (or the other one) that may help us to see this story in a new way.

[i] WhoWill Be Saved? By William H. Willimon
or Who Then Can Be Saved? This Guy!  - Mark Davis

[ii] Even if the “he” of this verse does belong to Zacchaeus (and it probably does), Jesus was, in all probability, not much taller than 5’, short by today’s standards… 

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