The Heresy of Scripture
Luke 19:1-10 November 3, 2019
Today’s account of Zacchaeus is told in the form of a miracle story, as indeed it is.
Let’s begin by imagining Jericho as an oasis of palms and fragrant balsam groves.
As a matter of fact, it gets its name from the Arabic word for fragrant, and the Old Testament refers to Jericho as The City of Palm Trees.
Surrounded by harsh desert, this city has sat at the crossroads of great caravan routes for 11,000 years, making it one of the oldest, continuously occupied cities in the world.
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector for the Romans in this prospering city, meaning that he oversaw a staff of collectors who could enter people’s houses at will to appraise their belongings, or stop merchants on the street to assess nearly everything in their possession.
Someone driving a cart through town might be taxed for the animal that pulled it as well as for the merchandise it carried.
Luke 19:2 delivers the statement, he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy as an indictment.
Chances are that Zacchaeus was crooked and a bit of a tyrant who was feared and despised by nearly everyone.
Remember, Matthew 19:24 “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
We’re familiar with the storyline:
After encountering Jesus, this wealthy and corrupt man was inspired to repent of his evil ways, and in response to Jesus’ forgiveness promised to give back his ill-gotten gains.
Luke 19: 8 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.”
We are familiar and comfortable with the theological formula of confrontation, contrition, confession, forgiveness.
It feels right, it feels just – so much so that editors of the Bible deliberately mistranslated some of the Greek to make this episode read that way.
We are not told why Zacchaeus was so anxious to see Jesus … maybe it was because he had been told that Jesus was a friend to tax collectors and sinners.
Maybe he had all the wealth he could imagine but his life was falling apart … isolated from his neighbors, living off the misery of others, dressed in finery but impoverished inside …who knows?
What we do know is that in his urgency to see Jesus he did several extremely unlikely things for a man in his position.
First, when he couldn’t get through the crowd to see Jesus, he ran ahead – and running was something that was considered highly undignified for a man.
Then, he climbed a tree which also was unthinkable for a person of high social status.
Maybe up there, peeking through the thick leaves at the people cheering Jesus, he was wondering how it had come to this.
Maybe at some point, Zacchaeus looked around and thought to himself, “I am lost.”
But just then Jesus’ voice called, “Zacchaeus!” and somehow, he realized he’d been found.
Jesus’ popularity was very high at this point, and in the passage right before this, he had amazed the people of Jericho by healing a blind man.
So, anyone having this celebrity rabbi grace his table would be honored, and so Jesus now exalts a known Roman collaborator who had stooped to running and scurrying up a tree.
Luke 19:5b “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus sides with those on the margins of life.
Because Zacchaeus’ wealth comes from his collaboration with Rome and his exploitation of his neighbors, he is ostracized from his community.
So, Jesus is at it again: breaking down another social barrier and offering the miracle of the changed life – but this time not to a poor widow, leper, or prostitute but to one who had arrogantly and shamelessly preyed on his neighbors.
Is there no one beyond the love of Jesus?
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, salvation is associated with healing and freedom from anything that would possess us – social prejudice, clinging to money, fear, self-loathing.
God loves you just as you are, but too much to leave you this way.
Albert Einstein wrote, “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.”
But change is hard, even change that could lead to a blessed life free of past hurts and sins, even free from a life burdened by shame.
We Christians have a formula for how to move toward a new, blessed life.
First, we realize the errors of our way, we feel remorse, we confess our sins.
And having come clean, God forgives us – and then we feel lighter, stronger, cleaner and we change our ways.
That is exactly how today’s narrative has always been taught.
Many Bible translations, including the respected NIV and NRSV are worded in a way that supports this theological formula.
But it turns out that even Bible translators were so wedded to this comfortable interpretation of this passage that they tweaked the Greek to English translations to read that way.
Actually, in the original Greek, Zacchaeus does not pledge, if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” and so on in a moment of repentance after meeting Jesus.
Rather, Zacchaeus is speaking to Jesus and the grumbling crowd in the present tense, “Look, half of my possessions I (already) give to the poor…[and] (already) pay back four times”.
He’s boasting to the crowd or maybe self-justifying himself by saying he already exceeds the requirements of the Law that requires a person to pay back twice the amount they’ve stolen, for example.
This flies in the face of the repentance, forgiveness, salvation formula that feels right, just and comfortable to us.
We don’t like it when Felicity Huffman looks down her surgically sculpted nose at us and keeps her wealth and celebrity status without a sincere repentance.
Anyway, doesn’t God love the snobbish 1%-ers just a little less than He loves the rest of us?
But Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus’ repentance before he pronounced (vs. 9, 10) “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 the lost”.
So, what did the translators do?
Well, in order to express Zacchaeus’ words as a response to Jesus, (I will give all my possessions to the poor and so forth), translators used a verb form they call the present-future tense.
They explain that the present-future tense can legitimately either be translated as present tense I give or as future tense I will give.
The only problem is the translators made-up this verb tense.
To justify wording this passage to fit what we “know” Luke meant to say, they simply made up a new, grammatical category that occurs once and only once anywhere – just here, in Luke 19:8.
This means that our most trusted Bible translations rewrote Luke into a misrepresentation of our Lord’s grace – they wrote a heresy.
By the way, some other translations like the King James and The Message got it right and did not tweak the verb tense here.
Like it or not, Jesus seems to say, contrary to all expectations, that this chief tax collector is equally one of God’s own.
We all resist leaving what feels right and comfortable – even if it is the actual message of Jesus.
As I was reflecting on this new way of hearing this passage, I realized that it was my experience, too.
In recent months I’ve found myself replaying many things in my past where I did foolish, negligent even hurtful things to my family and others.
I keep replaying ways I was irresponsible, self-aggrandizing, and self-centered.
There are so many things I feel embarrassed and ashamed of – and I did not confess a single one when God burst into my life three decades ago.
As a matter of fact, for a long time, I continued to rationalize them rather than confront, come clean and confess them.
But God didn’t wait for me – God just kept forgiving and calling me forward.
I’ve spent a lot of time through introspection and counseling trying to understand what in my upbringing or DNA left me so prone to depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and a fragile self-image that in turn led me to those behaviors.
I still don’t understand, but I’ve concluded that it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that God changed me and now I have the miraculous opportunity to live differently?
Now, I am far from a perfect man, but at least I’m not the man I used to be.
Now my choice each day is to not be emotionally stuck in the wrongs I did but to be grateful for the grace God showed, and from that to live with more awareness, integrity and compassion.
NASA engineer David Saucier underwent what felt like a miracle to him, as he was an early recipient of a heart transplant – only the fourth such surgery at Houston’s Methodist Hospital.
This transplant not only saved his life, it transformed everything about his life.
On the 10th anniversary of his surgery he wrote,
“Ten years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, God performed a miracle in me.
“It was not the first miracle God had performed in my life, nor was it to be the last, but it was perhaps the most dramatic.
“Many people have asked me if I feel any different, or if I act any different, if the transplant has changed my life in any way.
“I can answer that in three ways:
“First, he says:
“There’s urgency. I live with a renewed sense of urgency, and that has changed my priorities because I realize that if I’m to stop and smell the roses, I had best do it now.
“Second, he says:
“There is gratitude. I don’t understand this miracle that has happened within me with my new heart. All I can do is accept and feel grateful for each additional day I live.
“A third change is that I now walk a little closer to God because when you’ve been through a harrowing experience with someone you form a special bond with them.
“Recovering from the transplant was at times a harrowing experience, and I guarantee you I clung to God for dear life during those times.
“He was the good friend who saw me through, sometimes the only one who thoroughly understood. I’m grateful that He was there for me.”
David’s original intervention was an artificial heart, and using his engineering knowledge and the resources of NASA, he helped develop smaller and vastly improved artificial hearts that could sustain people while they awaited a donated human heart.
After his transplant, David Saucier adds these powerful words:
“Deep down inside I know that God will always take care of me. I also know that no one lives forever and that someday God will decide He can better care for me on the other side of the Jordan, but until that time, (I am) still alive and enjoying every minute of it.”