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Jesus: The Seeker of the Lost

July 22, 2009

zaccheusBelow is an assignment from my New Testament class in school.  The goal of the assignment is to do a close, interpretive reading of a particular text, in order to gain a deeper understanding.  It could be used as a precursor to a research project, to hash out questions or observations, a way to interact in a community of interpreters–bouncing off ideas and thoughts off of each other, or even as a way to prepare for a sermon.  This assignment is done without the use of commentaries or other outside sources, so it’s more about what stands out in the text to the reader.  That way, when commentaries and outside sources are used, an interpretive aim has been established.

This is lengthy, so feel free to skip it.  However, you are invited to share your insights into this passage, as we become part of an interpretive community together. 🙂

A Close Reading of Luke 19:1-10

Before I begin with the close reading, I would like to go ahead and ask some guiding questions.  Some of these will help me with my close reading; some of these are just questions of curiosity.

Why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus so badly?  Had he heard of Jesus’s table fellowship with other tax collectors?  Did he just want to see what a famous prophet/healer?  The text says that he wanted to see “who Jesus was,” but does that really account for his diligence?

How does Jesus know Zacchaeus?  He comes up and addresses him by name—was this simply because Zaachaeus is a “chief” tax collector, or is this part of Jesus’ prophetic ministry?

When the people begin to complain, are they doing so in the presence of Zacchaeus?  Does he hear their harsh words about him, when he responds, “Look, half my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor” (19:8).

These are questions that help me place myself within the narrative.  When I do so, this story becomes highly emotive, especially when I think about the personal encounter of “salvation” that Zacchaeus has with Jesus in the face of the “complainers.”

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In any case, Jesus is passing through Jericho, as he does in many other towns, and of course he is surrounded by crowds of people.  Interestingly enough, in this account, one among the crowd is specified by name—Zacchaeus—as he tries to see Jesus passing through.  We know some details about him, mainly that he is a “chief” tax collector (the main one in Jericho?), he’s rich, and he’s not very tall—a man “short in stature.”  We would know the reason why he is rich:  he taxes his own people for the Roman authorities.  In all likelihood, his wealth has come by his taking advantage of his fellow Israelites.

Zacchaeus, because he cannot see, “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree,” because he knows that Jesus is coming by (19:4).  From the text, we can assume that Zacchaeus has never met Jesus before, and desires to see who this man is, from the words, “He was trying to see who Jesus was” (19:3).  However, it seems there may be more than just a casual desire to see a person, as he runs and climbs the tree.  It would be like if President Obama (or Bush if you prefer) was coming into my town; I would do whatever I needed to do to catch a glimpse!  Zacchaeus is desperate to see this famous healer/prophet/teacher.

Based on this understanding of their relationship, what happens next is most surprising!  Jesus comes to the tree, “looked up and said to him, Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, I must stay at your house today” (19:5).  From the text, we assumed that they did not know each other, and now we have Jesus calling him by name.  Jesus has “sought” Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector out.  Of course, Zacchaeus hurries down and “welcomes him.”  In Luke, we find this happening a good bit—tax collectors and sinners seem to flock to Jesus and are happy to have him around.  In Luke 15, “all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”  And of course, it’s the Pharisees who are unhappy that Jesus is congregating with sinners.  In any case, there’s a level of comfort that sinners seem to have in the presence of Jesus.

Jesus says to Z (I will abbreviate at this point if that’s okay), “I must stay at your house today.”  Jesus is initiating a table fellowship with Z, and Z is all too happy to oblige.  Of course, an unspecified group of complainers, do not like that fact that  Jesus “has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (19:7).  It seems that this is the consensus of the entire crowd based on the words, “all who saw it.”  The question that remains is:  are these people complaining in the presence of Jesus and Z?  It’s almost as if in the narrative, they have shrunk to the background, and the narrative zooms in on the conversation between Jesus and Z, like they’re the only ones around.

Z must be aware of the crowds, because he offers to give half of his possession to the poor and restore to anyone he had defrauded.  This, to me, is the crucial part of the narrative, because it follows the story of the rich ruler in Luke 18!  In this passage, the ruler wants to know what he must do to be saved, and Jesus asks him to give “all that you own,” give it to the poor and follow him.  Two things are of great interest here.  First, it is Zacchaeus who offers to give his money.  He seems quite willing to “make things right.”  He seems to know what it will take to follow Jesus, and he’s on board.  The rich young ruler on the other hand, seems to think that he’s already in good shape, and so Jesus’ demand is virtually “impossible” to fulfill.  Second, Zacchaeus only offers “half” his possessions, and this is enough for Jesus, because Jesus responds by saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”  Yet, for the rich young ruler, Jesus requires that he sell “all” his possessions.

What is the difference here?  I would assume that it is in the differences of approach.  The rich young ruler approaches Jesus with the assumption that he’s done what he needs to do, so Jesus demands that he give “all.”  Z knows that he’s a sinner (he’s a tax-collector for goodness sake), and he approaches Jesus with that stigma attached.  I can imagine that great humility was involved.  Money is not the issue here, and so Jesus doesn’t require that Z give all.  Forgiveness and reconciliation is the issue here, and so Jesus is quick to respond with “salvation.”

Perhaps the second motif (maybe this is the most important) is the fact that Z is “too a son of Abraham.”  The theme that Jesus has come to “seek out and save the lost” is once again evident.  I like the words used here, “seek out” because that is certainly what Jesus did.  Upon entering Jericho, he chose to “seek out” a main object of disdain for the other children of Abraham—the tax collector.  This episode is the parable of the lost sheep, coin, and son in action.  Jesus embodies his teaching here!!

Let me end by again stressing the emotive element of this narrative as we place ourselves in the story.  Can you see it happening in your mind?  Can you see the crowds complaining as Jesus and Z have this life changing conversation?  Who knows why Z became a tax-collector in the first place.  But we do know that he was  an outsider to his society (the children of Abraham) because of it.  And as Jesus singles him out of the crowd, addresses him by name, and speaks “salvation” to him, the crowd and the accusation of sinner, shrinks into the background, and Z responds to the “seeking” of Jesus with genuine repentance.

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