(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.
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.