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Unmasked?

November 3, 2019 Luke 19:1019

Thursday evening, while Todd and I headed to a football game three hours away where we sat in the dreary cold and watched Jonathan play the final game of the Moundridge season, I’m guessing many of you were sitting in your nice warm homes, answering the door every few minutes as cute children dressed in costumes paraded and tripped up to your front door with requests for candy. Likely many of them were wearing masks that may have partially or even completely concealed their identity and you were left scratching your head a little as you shut the door, wondering who that “cute” ghost or monster might have been. That’s how it works, right? If you live in town, you know the faces of your neighborhood children, are maybe even fond of them. The masks, however, can be unfamiliar, unsettling, confusing even.

I was kind of in a Halloween frame of mind when I spent time studying this gospel text from Luke and learned that our familiar and beloved Zacchaeus story may come to us dressed in a mask as well.  However, if that’s the case, then it may well be that it’s the mask we know and love while the true story beneath the mask is unfamiliar, unsettling, confusing even. 

Jesus is passing through Jericho, home to a wealthy chief tax collector named, Zacchaeus. Somewhat inexplicably, Zacchaeus has a burning desire to see Jesus, but he’s short and can’t clap eyes on Jesus from the back of the crowd. So he thinks outside of the box and climbs a nearby sycamore-fig tree. It would appear there weren’t many people in the trees, because not only is Zacchaeus able to secure Jesus in his sights, Jesus is also taken aback when he draws near and sees Zacchaeus perched in the branches. He stops at the foot of the tree, looks up, and somehow just knows the man’s name. Jesus hollers up at the short man sitting high and says, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus, likely overwhelmed by Jesus’ invitation, scrambles down and welcomes Jesus gladly. They head off to Zacchaeus’ house. Meanwhile the crowd follows, a little ticked off at this turn of events. Even gathered around Zacchaeus’ house they continue to complain loudly. Surprise, surprise, they don’t like Zacchaeus. He’s a tax collector, a sinner. Finally, Zacchaeus, so embarrassed by what the crowd is saying outside the open doors, stands up and declares from that point on he’s going to give half of all his possessions away and if he accidentally cheats someone, he will pay them back fourfold. Jesus, moving to affirm and lift up this sinner now redeemed says loudly for all to hear, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

In order to understand the story presented in this way we also need to understand how despised Zacchaeus would have been. This illustration perhaps overstates the point a bit, but you’ll get the idea. In the concentration camps of World War II, perhaps the most detested people were the Jews who did the bidding of the Nazi’s. In an attempt to save their own lives or prolong them anyway, a small percentage of Jews would take their orders from the SS guards and do whatever needed to be done in order to ensure order and efficiency. Of course, these Jews were seen as traitors in the worst possible way and were reviled.

Zacchaeus hasn’t reached this same level of treachery, but he would have also been perceived as a traitor. He worked for the Roman government in order to exact taxes or tolls from his own people. And tax collectors didn’t have a great reputation. They were known for exploiting the poor and embezzling funds. They were seen as ruthless and many had the wealth and power needed to do great harm. It’s very clear in this story that the crowd accompanying Jesus through Jericho despised Zacchaeus.

Everything I’ve said to this point likely presents no new information to most of you. This is the version of the story we’ve known ever since we were old enough to sing “Zacchaeus was a wee little man”. But there’s a twist here, an unmasking that has the potential to totally upend our traditional understanding of this gospel tale.

Let’s look at verse 8. In the NIV verse 8 reads, “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” The NRSV says something very similar. And what’s surprising here is that both translations intentionally translated this incorrectly. What’s even more surprising is that pretty much all scholars will acknowledge this is not a literal or true translation of verse 8. The issue concerns the verb tense. The original Greek is written in the present tense. What we find in this NIV translation, however, are the verbs rendered in the future present.

I’m going to read this same verse in the King James version. See if you can hear the difference. Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”

This reading of the text changes everything. And can I just say that over the last year or so I’ve been developing a renewed appreciation for the King James translation of scripture. What Zacchaeus is saying here is not that he is going to start doing something new. What he is saying is that all along he has been giving away half of all he owned to the poor and restoring fourfold whenever he makes a mistake. That he has been unfairly painted with the same brush used against all tax collectors whether it fits or not.

I really enjoy the TV series MASH. I think I’ve seen most all the episodes multiple times. In one Christmas episode we find the crew of the 4077 pooling their Christmas gifts from home to give to the nearby orphanage, with one notable exception. Charles has been receiving copious packages from home and is greedily hoarding all his goods. He grudgingly hands over one can of oysters for the cause, but that’s all. His colleagues are vocally disgusted by his behavior. What they don’t know is that Charles has been secretly collecting food delicacies from home in order to donate anonymously to the children so they can have a Merry Christmas. This secret Santa tradition is revered in his family and he’s seeking to honor it even in Korea. And the viewer comes to understand how the ridicule he receives from his colleagues deeply wounds him. Despite that, he remains committed to his secret. Only at the end of the episode does Klinger learn the truth and he honors Charles’ secret as he delivers a plate of food to Charles alone in his tent on Christmas evening.

As Klinger enters the tent Charles says,

“And what, pray tell, is the catch of the day?”    

Klinger:  “Oh, just one catch, Major.”    

Charles:  “Uh-huh.”       

Klinger: “The source of this Christmas dinner

must remain anonymous. It’s an old family

tradition.”

Charles: “Thank you, Max.”

Klinger: “Merry Christmas, Charles.”

Who is Zaccheaus? Is he the Jew working for the Nazi’s or is he a misunderstood Charles in this episode of MASH? How you see Zacchaeus totally transforms how you understand this story.

Now, while most all New Testament scholars would agree that a literal translation of Luke 8 would be rendered in present tense, I should also add they are fairly equally divided about whether or not it should be. You see, the story has such a nice, logical flow if the future tense is employed. Jesus sees a sinner, goes to his house and Zacchaeus, prompted by the grace of God, is moved to repent. Jesus then offers forgiveness. The theology is predictable and sound too. It’s a feel-good story that follows along the lines of what we have come to expect.

But here are my issues – verse 8 isn’t written in the future tense.  And one of the things my faith journey with Jesus, with God, has taught me is to expect the unexpected.  I side with the half of scholars who put forth the idea that we’ve masked this story and done ourselves a disservice in the process. 

Did you notice Zacchaeus actually never repents or confesses here? No matter how you read this story, the confession is missing. He never asks for forgiveness.

Names are important in the Bible.  What a name means often adds another layer of interpretation to a text.  Interestingly, the name Zacchaeus means clean, righteous, pure, innocent.  

Because this unmasked interpretation of the text may present a character and a story we’re really not familiar with, I want to just present some “what if” statements for us to reflect on as we take this story with us into the days ahead and see if perhaps a new look at Zacchaeus offers insights we can carry into our own lives…

– The text is very clear, Zacchaeus was a wealthy man. What if this story is a message of Good News to those of us with wealth? If we are willing to live generously, with Kingdom priorities in place, maybe we’ll make it through the eye of the needle after all?

– What if this story is simply a continuation of Luke’s focus on unlikely heroes? Theologian Daniel Clendenin and founder of the webzine, “Journey with Jesus” writes, “Luke has already mentioned several unlikely heroes – the faith of 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 a tax collector who was commended as more righteous than a sanctimonious Pharisee. So maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions.”

– What if this is in part a story about prejudice and our tendency to see life in black and white and judge when we don’t know all the facts? What if Zacchaeus was the righteous one and the crowd – sinful?

– What if salvation had more to do with Zacchaeus’ burning desire to see Jesus? Zacchaeus wasn’t stupid. He knew how disliked he was. Despite that, he humiliates himself when he climbs a tree because he so badly wants to see Jesus, he’s willing to do about anything to better his perspective. Jesus saw Zacchaeus’ deep hunger for fulfillment, for meaning and maybe honored that with a pronouncement of salvation.

– Or maybe salvation meant something else in this context. Jesus was concerned not only with our spiritual health, but with our physical and emotional health as well. Jesus wanted to remove all barriers, all brokenness. What if Jesus sought out a lost Zacchaeus not because he was rife with sin but because he saw a social outcast and wanted to restore him, wanted others to see him as he saw Zacchaeus? What if the announcement about salvation was a reference to the healing that will now take place as Zacchaeus is embraced and understood not as a traitor, but as a flawed and faithful person doing his best to follow God?

No matter your interpretation, bottom line, this is a story full of gospel truth. No mask can obscure the light of good news shining forth in the life of Zacchaeus, transformed by his encounter with God. No mask can dim the radiance of salvation – not then, not now, not ever.

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