Modern Parables 9: The Good ______

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A preacher stood up to test Jesus: “Level with us, Rabbi: Who gets into heaven?” Jesus said: “A man was beaten and bloody on the side of the road. A Southern Baptist preacher passed him by. An non-denominational pastor passed him by. Finally, a Muslim stopped to help him. She bandaged his wounds and took him to the hospital. When they asked about insurance, his doctor, an agnostic Jew, paid for his care in cash. Which of these demonstrated their desire for heaven?” The preacher mumbled, “The ones who helped him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Then the religious leaders went out and plotted how to destroy him.

Modern Parables 8: Late to Work

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

To what shall I compare the reign of God? It is like a maid who apologizes to the lady of the house for arriving late to work. “And why were you late?” the wealthy woman demanded. “Please, ma’am,” said the maid, “my old junker wouldn’t start, so I had to take the bus. That is why I did not arrive until after noon.” The wealthy woman gave the maid the keys to her own car and said, “You may have my car. And come, marry into my family. Take my oldest child’s hand in marriage, and live with us, so that you will not be late again.” The gardener overheard this exchange, and grumbled about it. “This new girl has the easiest job of all the staff. I have worked for you for years in the heat and the snow. Why should this irresponsible girl be given an expensive car, and your daughter’s hand in marriage, when I’ve given you years of faithful service?” The woman replied, “Friend, you never asked. You are welcome to sleep in the shed any time you like. But now, get to work: I need flowers for a wedding.”

 

Modern Parables 7: Beach-Front Property

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

Climate change and rising sea levels began destroying a wealthy industrialist’s beach-front property. So she sold that house and bought a mountain cabin. “I feel closer to God up here,” she said. “And one day, this will be beach-front property, too.”

 

Modern Parables 6: Round Up

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The kingdom of God is like dandelions spreading across your lawn. You can spray with herbicide, but it kills the grass, and the dandelions spread even more.

 

Modern Parables 5: The Escape

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A Wall Street banker encountered an angry mob, so he invited them into his home. “Take whatever you want,” he told them. While they ransacked his house, he and his family fled to France. “But we don’t even speak the language!” said his wife. “At least we’ll have decent health care and will eat well,” he replied.

 


Modern Parables 4: Genes

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a tiny mutation on a single gene, and that mutation is spread to the whole human race. Overnight, we woke up with the ability to fly.

 

Modern Parables 3: The Revival

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few. (This one is inspired by David Buttrick):

A hedge-fund manager and a pastor both attended a revival. The pastor knew all the lyrics to all of the songs, raised his hands in worship, and gave his personal testimony. The hedge-fund manager stood at the door, too ashamed to sit among the congregation. “God, I shouldn’t even be here. I’m no damned good,” he prayed. At the altar call, he turned around and left. Truly I tell you, of the two, the hedge-fund manager went home justified.

 

Zacchaeus: Honest and Tall

(This post originally appeared at Ministry Matters.)

In Jewish tradition, Scripture is not merely read and applied: it is debated and examined from multiple angles. Like a gem, the sages say, “The Torah has seventy faces.” We turn it around and examine each angle carefully. I think we should do the same with the New Testament, because its compilers clearly intended that we have multiple angles: That’s why we have four Gospels, right? That’s why I love the story of Zacchaeus.

A tax collector was a greedy combination of embezzler and extortionist, a traitor to his people and a sinner of the worst sort—or so I’ve been told in countless sermons. This is why they are lumped together with prostitutes and other sinners. Jesus himself uses tax collectors in parables designed to shock his hearers (Luke 18:10). Although Jesus counted a tax collector among his disciples (Luke 5:27), the most notorious tax collector in the Bible is Zacchaeus (Luke 19), that tiny weasel of a man who was loathed by his neighbors.

Tax farming was an ingenious tool used by the Roman Empire to both collect income and turn indigenous populations against each other. It was a essentially a series of contractors and sub-contractors who bid to collect money from an area they knew well. A tax collector had his finger on the pulse of business in the neighborhood. He knew what you did for a living, who your relatives were, and for how much you could be squeezed. As a “chief tax collector,” Zacchaeus supervised his own sub-contractors for his area. Tax farming was not easy. You had to be rich and bid high, but not more than you could reasonably collect—otherwise you would make up the difference out of your own personal fortune.

The Zacchaeus story is usually told with the assumption that what the crowd believes about Zacchaeus is true: He is a crook. But what if he isn’t? When Zacchaeus learns that Jesus wants to dine at his house, he is happy to welcome him, but the crowd murmurs against him. He stops, turns to Jesus, and says: “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

The Common English Bible and King James Version (in contrast to the NIV and NRSV) accurately render these Greek verbs in the present tense, which leaves open the possibility that Zacchaeus isn’t actually admitting any guilt. In fact, he may be vindicating himself to Jesus against the grumbling of the crowd. It’s possible to read Zacchaeus’ statement this way: “Jesus, you hear the nasty things these people say about me, but look—I already give away half of everything I have to the poor. And if anyone can show me that I’ve cheated them, I return four times as much. I’m an honest man, Lord, in spite of what they say.”

Do the math: Zacchaeus couldn’t give away half of his possessions to the poor if he felt he had earned more than 1/8 of his fortune dishonestly.

There are other clues that support this reading of the story. Luke doesn’t include any of the usual language common to his other repentance stories (5:20, 7:47, 15:21, 18:13). Could it be possible that Zacchaeus is one of the reformed tax collectors who heard John the Baptist’s instructions to take no more than his fair share (Luke 3:12-13)? Luke also gives us his name: Zacchaeus, which means “pure.”

Read from this direction, Jesus’ statement that “Today, salvation has come to this household,” sounds very different. Zacchaeus, like Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:42), is an outsider who becomes a disciple, welcomed in from the margins. Like the blind man in the previous story (Luke 18:35-43) and Levi (5:27), he becomes part of Jesus’ entourage. Perhaps this is less a story of conversion than of inclusion.

Not everyone enjoys “reading against the grain” this way, but for me, it makes the Bible far more interesting and engaging. Too often we read and interpret through a lens of platitudes and conventional church wisdom, even though there is plenty of scholarship that backs alternative readings (see below). When we read uncritically, we unintentionally take the role of the crowd in this very story: judging by presumption instead of evidence. While I’m open to the conventional interpretation, the alternative needs to be heard.

There’s one more alternative reading that upsets the conventional reading of this story. The Bible says Zacchaeus climbed the tree because “he was short.” But the text does not say to whom “he” refers. What if he climbed the tree because Jesus was short?

Would you love Jesus any less if he were short? What if he were bald and beardless? While it’s easy to dismiss these details as irrelevant, acknowledging them shows how biased we are in our reading of Scripture, and why we need to examine this multifaceted gem from every angle.


See also

Corbin-Reuschling, Wyndy. “Zacchaeus’s conversion: to be or not to be a tax collector.” Ex auditu. 25 (2009): 67-88.

White, Richard. “A good word for Zacchaeus: exegetical comment on Luke 19:1-10.” Lexington Theological Quarterly. 14:4 (1979): 89-96.

Modern Parables 2: The Brothel

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a prostitute in a brothel who owed a huge debt to her madam. One night her favorite client, a wealthy politician, had a heart-attack. So she forged a wedding certificate, inherited the senator’s money, and took over the brothel. The madam commended the prostitute and told her, “You will go far in this business.”