I didn’t start wearing glasses until I was in my mid-teens. Not that I was able to see well before then. I remember my grade 9 English teacher making me stand up right in front of the screen to read some text because I couldn’t see it from my desk. Still, it was not until grade 12 that I actually got glasses. I was not completely convinced that I really needed glasses. Sure I had to sit fairly close to the TV, but in general, I had done quite fine without glasses for a decade and a half.
Then I put glasses on for the very first time. My first thought was, “Are you kidding me?” Is this what things really looked like? Everything was so crisp and clear. It was a joy to look at anything, as I was in many ways seeing these things for the first time. I had no idea what I was missing.
Even if you have never had such and experience, there is a basic principle of we don’t know what we don’t know. We all live with a certain amount of ignorance that is just waiting to be unveiled. We had a friend who was convinced that apple pie and vanilla ice cream would be disgusting. After finally convincing her to try it, she was ready to eat every day after that.
We make judgments based on the information that we have. Even though that information is often less than complete, we fill in the blanks and make our best guesses. That is fine as long as we are prepared to change our conclusions as new information comes in.
The story of Zacchaeus is one that illustrates this principle very nicely. For many people, it seemed clear the type of person he was based on his occupation. But Jesus could see something deeper. Let’s take a look at the story.
A Traditional Reading
For those who have been raised in the church, especially Sunday school, there is a danger to reading this story. We might think we know the story so well that it has nothing fresh to speak into our lives. Often the lesson we see from this story is based on a very shallow reading. What does the story say? That God loves short people? That Jesus will see us even if we climb in a tree? There is so much more to the story than that.
We need to read this story in the context of what came immediately before it. Just before this story, we have Jesus’ encounter with the blind beggar. Then we come to this encounter with a rich tax collector. Two people on opposite sides of the financial spectrum but both meeting Jesus in a powerful way. The mention of Jericho in both stories is a clue that we are to read the stories together. Jesus is not just for poor people, nor is he just for rich people. Jesus is for people.
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. Not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. This meant that he had extra responsibility and likely extra wealth. What was a tax collector? The Romans had taken over the Jewish lands. The main concern for the Romans was that there be a steady stream of tax revenue. Instead of sending in Roman tax collectors who didn’t know the culture, they would hire local people. A tax collector was told by the Romans how much they were required to collect and anything over and above that they were able to keep for themselves. This made them unpopular in two ways, one that they were collecting for the Romans but also the system encouraged corruption. Tax collectors were not popular.
Zacchaeus had heard that Jesus was passing by and wanted to see him. No one needed to convince him to consider Jesus. The problem was that he was unable to see past the crowd. But necessity is the mother of invention and climbed a sycamore tree to see better. His goal was likely to just catch a better glimpse of Jesus. I doubt he considered that Jesus might use this as an opportunity to invite himself over for dinner. But that is what he did. Jesus saw Zacchaeus and didn’t ask but rather informed Zacchaeus that he was coming over for dinner.
It is easy for us to miss out the significance of this. Meals were not just ways to provide nutritional requirements to the body. Meals were about who and what you thought was important. Jesus, by eating with Zacchaeus, was saying that he a person who was valued and who he wanted to be in community with. This was a slap in the face to everyone who valued the importance of being with “the right kind of people.” Some complained that Jesus would eat with such a man.
In our traditional reading, this is what happened. Zacchaeus heard the complaints, felt convicted in the presence of Jesus and he repented. Right there he determined that he would give away half of his possessions and would repay those who he extorted from. Perhaps because of his time in the tree, Zacchaeus decided to turn over a new life.
This is an inspiring story. We have heard similar stories over the generations of people who experienced sudden conviction and repented of their sins and became followers of Jesus. There is a reason why people are drawn to Zacchaeus and why we teach our children about him. We want people to repent and believe and that is a good thing.
A Fresh Reading
The story works with that traditional reading. But what if there was something else going on? We assume that this story is about a sudden conversion based on how Zacchaeus’s words are translated. “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.” It looks like Zacchaeus will give away half of his possessions at that moment and will in the future repay what he has cheated. That makes sense but unfortunately, that is not what the Greek says.
This is what it literally says, “Behold, Lord, half of my wealth I give to the poor, and if I have ever cheated anyone I pay back four-fold.” What is actually stated is not a new intention for Zacchaeus but rather a statement of what he is already doing. Zacchaeus was already in the habit of giving half of his possessions and was already paying people back. These were not future actions. Could this be true? Perhaps this was why Zacchaeus was so eager to see Jesus. He was not looking for relief from his sinful ways but was already seeking to be a faithful man of God.
If this is true, what does this fresh reading of this passage mean for us? If this is the case, then the focus is not the sudden conversion of Zacchaeus but rather the inaccurate judgment by the crowds. Zacchaeus had the label of tax collector and that told the crowd everything they needed to know about him. The label was enough for them to dismiss him as a sinner. Judgment was to be quick, harsh and not necessarily based on the facts. This dinner party gave Zacchaeus the opportunity to correct their judgment. Zacchaeus wasn’t like the other tax collectors who would cheat their fellow Jews in order to line their pockets. And collecting taxes for the Romans was not necessarily sinful. It was those taxes that prevented the Romans from attacking and destroying the Jews. Zacchaeus was doing a good thing and he was doing it without cheating people and he was using his wealth to help people in need.
Who are the people in our culture that we dismiss? Are there people who are “the wrong kind of people”? Are there people that we dismiss based on their label? Do we believe that a label can tell us everything that we need to know about them?
I have been misjudged many times in my life. People thought they knew who I was based on how I looked or what label I used. I wish I could say that I never misjudged someone but that is not the case. Those labels are so convenient. Instead of spending the time to get to know someone, you can embrace or reject someone based on their label. But it is not the Jesus way.
So if what we have said is true, why is that Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house”? Salvation is not just a personal experience between an individual and God. There is a community aspect. What took place that day was the people for the first time recognized that this hated tax collector was also a child of Abraham.
The worst thing for any relationship, inside or outside the church, is lazy thinking. Instead of taking the time to get to know people, examining our own bias and thinking hard, we make quick judgments. Zacchaeus was a man who wanted to see Jesus but he got more than he bargained for. Not only did he see Jesus, Jesus saw him. Jesus invited himself to dinner and the crowd was challenged concerning their prejudice. It was easy for them to dismiss a tax collector. But Jesus revealed that there was more to Zacchaeus than meets the eye, there was more than a label. There was a person who was just as much a child of Abraham as they were.
We must be so careful when it comes to judging. Not that there is no place for judgment, but quick and thoughtless judgments based on labels will not do. Get the facts straight and seek to see people the way Jesus does.